WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is wading into a major science and technology development area to build a strategic, long-range cannon — one that can shoot a projectile 1,000 nautical miles — and plans to put the program through its first test soon, according to Col. John Rafferty, who is in charge of executing modernization efforts for the service’s top priority, long-range precision fires.
The Army is working with the Research and Analysis Center at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, as well as the Center for Army Analysis to confirm the service can accomplish what is expected from such a system, Rafferty told Defense News in an interview ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.
The Army wants to demonstrate a prototype of the long-range cannon in 2023, after which it will make a decision on whether to begin a program of record.
The program is structured to pass through “big technology gates,” Rafferty said. “We’re about to knock down one of those gates with a test at [Naval Support Facility] Dahlgren, [Virginia], here very soon.”
If the program passes through that first gate — which Rafferty described as “early ballistic tests” — a report will go to Army leadership for approval.
But the technology needed to achieve such a capability is so cutting edge that it’s unknown whether that specific distance can be achieved at a cost that won’t break the bank.
For the Army, range will be king in operations against adversaries like China and Russia, who have each invested in defensive technologies. The combination of long-range air defense systems, artillery and coastal defenses with seamless integration of long-range, over-the-horizon radars will be difficult to counter, according to Rafferty.
“That integrated system challenges even our most sophisticated aircraft and challenges our most sophisticated ships to gain access to the area,” he said. “That layered enemy standoff at the strategic level was really the fundamental problem. One of the ways to solve that problem is to deliver surface-to-surface fires that can penetrate this [anti-access, area-denial] complex and disintegrate its network and create windows of opportunity for the joint force to exploit.”
That surface-to-surface capability can be delivered by the Army, he added.
There are two complementary systems that would be designed to penetrate enemy territory. There’s the hypersonic missile, which is technologically exquisite, will be expensive and the force “will probably never have enough of those,” Rafftery said. Then there’s the strategic cannon, which “will be able to deliver a volume of more affordable projectiles,” possibly 12, 16 or 20 in shorter order, to destroy a target, Rafferty said.
Each of the technology gates through which the Army will try to pass serves as a chance to assess if the capability is meeting lethality and cost goals. “This idea of volume and affordability and lethality is first and foremost in our minds,” Rafferty said.
“A lot of that comes down to cost,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told Defense News in a recent interview. “If we are able to develop the strategic, long-range cannon system, the rounds may be only $400,000 or $500,000 compared to multimillion-dollar rounds. Cost does matter, and we are concerned about cost. There are some, definitely, physics challenges in doing these types of things, and that is the trade-off.”
The Army is “trying to be innovative, but what they have to do is demonstrate the capability at each phase along the way. And if that doesn’t happen, we are not doing it,” McConville added.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.