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Army zeroes in on rapid artillery raids in new era of ‘great power’ competition

An M109A6 Paladin crew with Battery B, 3rd Battalion, 29th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, fires a high-explosive round during live-fire training at Combined Resolve IX at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Aug. 22, 2017. (U.S. Army/Released)

In comparing land-based capabilities, the U.S. Army found that its artillery was falling short of Russian and Chinese weaponry, following a decade of American focus on low-grade threats in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Advances by the “great power” competitors meant the United States was being out-ranged.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call of sorts, with Russia using advanced artillery and drones as spotters to create devastating long-range effects.

The Army now is racing to increase the range of its artillery — and have the ability to move it in a hurry so that enemy systems can’t hit back.

For the first time, the 25th Infantry Division last week practiced moving two M777 howitzers — which each weigh nearly 10,000 pounds — by air using a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, setting up the big guns as fast as possible and firing at a target during the rapid artillery raid, officials said. The artillery also was flown out by air.

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A team on the ground identified the target; soldiers in two Black Hawks scouted a spot to place the howitzers and dropped off ammo; and the Chinook, dangling an M777 beneath it, made two runs from Dillingham Airfield to deliver soldiers and the guns, which shoot 155-mm rounds that are several feet long.

Two AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, also from the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, swung overhead providing air cover to the crews on the ground.

Two Chinooks would typically be used at the same time, but with a shortage due to a training rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., only one was available.

The exercise “was definitely a successful mission,” Capt. Zak Oliver, commander of Charlie Battery, 2nd Battalion, 11th Field Artillery, said afterward, adding that it was “valuable training that we will continue in the future.”

The raid dovetails with an Army desire to make all of its artillery more capable and mobile — whether towed or vehicle-mounted — at a time of rapidly changing dynamics in the Pacific and Europe.

China, for example, has developed sophisticated long-range missiles to try to keep the United States at bay in what’s known as “anti-access, area denial.”

But Gen. Robert Brown, former head of U.S. Army Pacific at Fort Shafter, liked to point out that some 25,000 islands dot the Western Pacific. The Army is developing a land-based role to sink ships at sea in choke points in the East and South China Seas.

“Especially in the Pacific with peer competitors (who have) systems that are similar to ours that can have the same effective range, or greater effective range than us, (the ability to move artillery by air) is a great advantage,” Oliver said. “Because what it allows us to do is hop between islands individually.”

Moving artillery in a hurry is important because the enemy has counterfire radar, and “when we fire they are able to track where that round came from — so we have to exfill from the area rapidly,” Oliver said.

The 2-11 Field Artillery soldiers practiced the drill as if it were in hostile territory, with troops fanning out from the choppers to secure the grassy area area where the guns were fired on the back side of Schofield.

After the big guns were lowered to the ground by the hovering Chinook, crews swarmed over them to dig large spades into the ground to prevent the howitzers from moving backward when fired, and to sight them in on the grid coordinates.

“Let’s go, gunners! I don’t want to hear excuses, I want to see results!” shouted Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Waldo as crews raced around the gun with the name “Copperhead” on its barrel.

A computer on the gun can pinpoint where to shoot, but deflection and quadrant points were called out from a group of soldiers and relayed to the guns in a test of a “degraded” environment in which the computer system failed.

Waldo kept up the sense of urgency: “C’mon, let’s go!” he shouted to the gun crew.

Several of the approximately 100-pound rounds with a very small amount of explosive were fired from each gun about 2 miles into an impact area at the base of the Waianae Range.

The first howitzer was on the ground at 7:20 a.m., and the second arrived at 7:50. By about 8:15 the guns were firing. It was not within the time that Oliver wanted, but the need for the Chinook to make two trips from Dillingham added to the overall exercise time.

Long-range firepower is the Army’s No. 1 modernization priority. About a year ago Army testers announced they had fired a prototype M777 38 miles — double its previous range. The service is working on a modified M777 with a beefed-up barrel using a rocket-assisted projectile.

In announcing the extended-range milestone, the Army said the effort was “in direct response to operational needs in the Pacific and Europe.” Vehicle-­mounted artillery systems also are being redesigned to shoot much farther.

Schofield has 12 of the big guns. The plan is to practice the rapid air mobility drill once a quarter, Oliver said.

Spc. Phat Dinh, 22, a “round runner” who was hoisting the 95- to 105-pound shells onto the second howitzer, named “Chupacabra,” said the exercise was “pretty amazing.”

“This is the fastest I’ve ever seen it done,” the North Carolina man said. “I put 110%, all my battle buddies put 110% to this. We’re all shooting like we’re about to deploy tomorrow.”

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