WASHINGTON — Decisions on the way forward for one of the U.S. Army’s top long-range fires priorities — the Extended Range Cannon Artillery program — won’t come until a new conventional fires strategy is complete, the service’s acquisition chief said.
“It really becomes a fiscal year 2025 budget decision, if we were to go in a different direction,” Doug Bush confirmed to Defense News in a recent interview. “I think, though, that the requirement is still there. We still need longer range in a more affordable way, which is an important caveat.”
Of the 24 new Army systems slated to make it into the hands of soldiers by the end of 2023, only the Extended Range Cannon Artillery program might miss that goal, Bush said when the Army unveiled its fiscal 2024 budget request this year.
The ERCA system uses a service-developed, 58-caliber gun tube mounted on the chassis of a BAE Systems-made Paladin Integrated Management howitzer.
The Army was building 20 prototypes of the ERCA system: two for destructive testing, and the remaining 18 for a battalion. The Long Range Precision Fires Cross-Functional Team declined an interview request ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference, and did not respond to questions submitted in writing by press time.
The operational evaluation of ERCA revealed “engineering challenges,” Bush said this year. Observations in early testing of prototypes showed excessive wear on the gun tube after firing a relatively low number of rounds.
Army Futures Command leader Gen. James Rainey told Defense News this summer the service is working on a new conventional fires strategy expected by the end of the calendar year. The strategy will determine both capability and capacity of what exists and what the Army may need, Rainey said.
The strategy will also consider new technology to enhance conventional fires on the battlefield, such as advances in propellant that make it possible for midrange cannons to shoot as far as longer-range systems.
Depending on the artillery strategy’s conclusions, there are a variety of options the service could consider to fulfill the Army’s requirement for an extended-range cannon, Bush said.
“We’ve got Excalibur [munitions], we’ve got systems that can shoot that far,” Bush said. “I think an important goal for the ERCA program was to do it at scale and cost that’s lower than exquisite precision munitions.”
Another option, Bush said, could involve a shorter, 52-caliber gun tube — versus the 58-caliber one used in ERCA. The Army could, however, choose to continue the ERCA program with a 58-caliber gun tube but shift it into longer-term research and development instead of fielding it according to the previous plan.
Different munitions in various stages of development within the science and technology community as well as research and development organizations could also extend the range of current cannon systems, according to Bush.
Additionally, the service could reconsider how conventional fires capabilities are fielded to formations, such as giving wheeled or towed artillery to different units for different capabilities, he added.
Several years ago, the service assessed readily available 155mm mobile howitzers in search of ones that might offer an improvement in range, rate of fire and mobility over the artillery systems used within Stryker brigade combat teams. The Army evaluated at least four foreign companies’ offerings in a shoot-off, but did not move forward with a new capability.
The strategy was looking at various wheeled howitzers, Bush said, “but I don’t want to prejudge their conclusions. From an acquisition standpoint, if I get a requirement, we’ve got some options to go pretty fast — if it’s acceptable, for example, to take a foreign system rather than building a new one from scratch.”
The Army is also looking at a variety of auto-loading technologies. “It’s a big menu,” Bush said.
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.