WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is preparing to select an existing field artillery battalion to receive the first Extended Range Cannon Artillery system, according to Brig. Gen. John Rafferty, who is in charge of the service’s long-range precision fires modernization efforts.

Fielding will take place in 2023, but the Army will have to announce the unit with enough time to carry out a yearlong operational assessment, he said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Global Force Next virtual event on March 16. The assessment will be critical for working through “the operational concept for how we fight with general support artillery fires and a division,” he said.

At the same time, the Army is synchronizing the delivery of ammunition to include propellant and course-correcting fuses for the operational assessment, he added.

The service plans to deliver real-time soldier feedback to the engineers who are working on the next battalion set of ERCA systems.

The Army will also evaluate concepts of sustainment during the assessment because “this really will impact a division’s ability to sustain and especially the fires war-fighting function, which we have already put a lot of pressure on our sustainment and logistics partners,” Rafferty noted.

The ERCA cannon hit a target 43 miles away — or 70 kilometers — on the nose at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, in December 2020 using an Excalibur extended-range guided artillery shell.

The Army is racing to extend artillery ranges on the battlefield to take away advantages of high-end adversaries like Russia and China. The ERCA weapon, when fielded, should be able to fire at and destroy targets from a position out of the range of enemy systems.

The ERCA system takes an M109A7 Paladin Integrated Management howitzer chassis and replaces the 39-caliber gun tube with a 58-caliber, 30-foot one. Combined with Raytheon-made Excalibur munitions and an XM1113 using supercharged propellant, the Army has been able to dramatically boost artillery ranges.

The path to fielding ERCA at this point, Rafferty said, is “not without risk.”

“But our team — we work together every single day to knock these problems down. Things like the rotating band — the copper rotating band on our traditional artillery projectiles — works great for a 20-foot gun tube, but when you add 10 feet to that gun tube, we found that that was causing excessive wear and getting some engraving on the side of the projectiles,” he said.

The Army team acknowledged the issue, according to Rafferty, and developed a new rotating band “in pretty short order.”

Rafferty said he anticipates the road ahead will still feature these types of hurdles but that the team is prepared to work through them.

Following the big shot in December, Rafferty said the coming year will be full of decisions, during which the Army needs to start “snapping the chalk line on a few things. We will snap the chalk line on the propellant, we will snap the chalk line on the projectile design and begin to look towards manufacturability, towards production.”

The Army will continue its soldier-centered design effort to ensure the configurations for the propellant and charge are things the soldiers can handle and that they don’t affect the rate of fire, he added. The configuration of projectiles and propellant also has to be optimally stowed in a howitzer to maximize the number of kills onboard.

As the ERCA program transitions to a fielded system, Rafferty said, the Army will move the system from Army Combat Capabilities Development Command at the Armament Center to the program manager for self-propelled howitzers.

“As I told the chief of staff of the Army recently, it’s kind of symbolic, right? But it’s an important step to transition it, but really we go to that supportive, supporting relationship,” Rafferty said.

The Armament Center and industry partners will continue the process of testing and fixing all the way to delivering the ERCA cannon in 2023.

The Army is also working on a government-designed autoloader for ERCA and plans to host a live-fire test for that at Yuma Proving Ground at the end of March.