WASHINGTON — After two decades of counterinsurgency warfare, the Army is beefing up its investments in artillery, once a core part of America’s ground force. The move is part of the Pentagon’s strategic focus on near-peer adversaries Russia and China.

The Association of the U.S. Army’s annual meeting this week takes place as America’s land force is engaged in a multipronged effort that includes an upgrade to the armored and fully tracked M109A6 Paladin 155mm howitzer and the development of a “strategic long-range cannon” that shoots 1,000 nautical miles (or 1,852 kilometers), Army officials say.

The powerful Senate Armed Senate Armed Services Committee chairman — Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., whose state is home to the Army’s artillery school at Fort Sill — is watching.

“I’m concerned that we’re currently behind China and Russia, both in terms of range and rate of fire. During the eight years of [President Barack] Obama, we fell behind. We delayed maintenance and deferred modernization — all while China and Russia were improving their conventional forces and artillery,” Inhofe told Defense News on Oct. 3. “We don’t have the best of everything right now, and I want to make sure we can get the best equipment for our war fighters so they don’t face a situation where they are out-ranged or outgunned.”

Still, the Army “is taking the right steps,” Inhofe said, praising Army Secretary Mark Esper’s testimony last month that artillery is a No. 1 priority; a cross-functional team is being dedicated to long-range precision fires — which provides a focus on the Paladin Integrated Management, or PIM, program.

“We’re helping, too — Congress delivered adequate, on-time funding for fiscal year 2019, the first time in 10 years, so the Pentagon has the ability to invest in modernization,” Inhofe said. “I’m encouraged by the steps I’ve seen so far, but look forward to frequent, regular updates from the Army on this and all aspects of modernization.”

Some of the Army’s artillery modernization efforts have, well, misfires: The $11 billion Crusader self-propelled artillery system was canceled in 2002 largely due to its excessive weight and cost; and the Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon was part of the canceled Future Combat System program.

A 2015 study by the think tank Rand praised the Paladin’s digitized fire control system, but said it lags the market. German weaponry has a higher level of automation (for faster firing), other weapons in Paladin’s class out-range it, and closing the range gap requires the more expensive precision-guided round Excalibur.

The Army’s Multiple Launch Rocket System and the similar High Mobility Artillery Rocket System — which is mostly used for counter-fires against enemy artillery — lack the range of some of the heavy, foreign, large-caliber artillery rocket systems, particularly some that have been developed by China, the study found.

“Therefore, the rocket systems are falling behind the increasing range of similar Russian and Chinese rocket systems,” the study said. “The trend of foreign, heavy MLRS being able to fire well over 100 km has implications for the U.S. Army’s fires system, including counter fire and target acquisition. Although the Guided MLRS (GMLRS) rocket has exceptional accuracy compared with any fielded foreign system, the suite of munitions available to MLRS and HIMARS is very limited compared with foreign rocket launchers.”

Hoping to turn the page, the Army has prioritized artillery as part of its modernization reset under the new Army Futures Command. It’s commander, Gen. John Murray, recently told Congress that Army leaders are “looking very hard” at hypersonics and a strategic, long-range cannon, which could have a range of 1,000 nautical miles — among other efforts.

Its nascent 499-kilometer Precision Strike Missile, or PrSM, is meant to replace the Tactical Missile System while providing increased standoff range. Congress, however, slowed the program in 2019 appropriations — and the concept butts up against limits in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Still, the Army awarded contracts last year to Raytheon and Lockheed Martin for a three-year period of performance to design and build missile prototypes in the technology-maturation and risk-reduction phase. Army officials said earlier this year they plan to have companies demonstrate prototypes in 2019.

“If you want to shoot farther, its armament and its ammunition,” Army Col. John Rafferty, the director of a cross-functional team developing new equipment and concepts for long-range precision fires, told Defense News. “You gotta have a better cannon, better propellant and a better projectile.”

The Army plans to demonstrate projectiles that use ramjet technology, which rely on an internal propellant that ignites in flight, fueling further acceleration. (The Norwegian company Nammo, which hopes to break into the U.S. market, is working with the U.S. Army to provide the relevant base bleed technology and rocket-assist projectiles.)

On Capitol Hill, recently enacted 2019 Pentagon spending appropriations included an added $20 million to pursue Extended Range Cannon Artillery program efforts, and another $67 million to enhance the lethality of an extended-range artillery system — among other plus-ups.

On the testing range, the Army recently doubled a M777 howitzer’s range using a rocket-boosted shell called an XM1113, bringing it a step closer to delivering a prototype long-range cannon capability, according to an Army release.

The Army’s Rapid Capabilities Office had redesigned the M777’s internal chamber to generate more pressure and add a longer 155mm barrel for more muzzle velocity. However, the problem is that a standard round isn’t designed to handle large increases in pressure and muzzle velocity without blowing up mid-flight.

The XM1113 is part of the Insensitive Munition High Explosive Rocket Assisted Projectile program, which takes a 155mm artillery round and extends the cannon range to more than 40 kilometers.

After years of planning, the PIM program aims to upgrade the Paladin howitzer with an M109A7 chassis. From there, the Extended Range Cannon Artillery program will upgrade PIM’s turret, growing the tube length from 20 to 29 feet, while retaining the 155mm bore diameter.

“At the end of it, from the muzzle break all the way to the track pad, you’ve got basically a new self-propelled howitzer,” Rafferty said. “That’s a significant growth in the bore length, and that’s why we’re going to prototype them.”

The Extended Range Cannon Artillery prototyping program will see a mobility study and a formal analysis by Training and Doctrine Command at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The analysis will look at deployable and tactical mobility, and determine the capability needed, and at what echelons.

“We know we need the range; in order to maintain overmatch, we need 70 to 80 kilometers because that’s the start, and then we will be able to get father,” Rafferty said. “Right now we are on a path to 70 kilometers with ERCA, the propellant and the XM113 projectile.”

That effort is due to begin in the next six weeks, with the first prototype due in a year, Rafferty said.

What’s next? Rafferty said the team will explore auto-loading technology to “roboticize” the ERCA’s internal mechanisms — ostensibly a means to increase the rate of fires.

“I think the technology is there to shoot that far,” Rafferty said, “and now it’s how do we optimize the system.”

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

More In AUSA