Cannons to the left, cannons to the right, cannons above
Bill Sweetman describes at Aviation Week how the Army, having acquired a robot air force in the shape of UAVs, is roiling the waters with the mother of all artillery concepts. And the problem with an artillery weapon that powerful is that no one wants it to be mistaken for one of the Air Force's or the Navy's toys. After all, those are real weapons.
If the USAF is upset about the Army getting its own force of armed UAVs, what about the Army's bid for the long-range strike mission?
In the May issue of DTI I take a look at the Pentagon-wide Prompt Global Strike (PGS) mission, which calls for the ability to hit a target anywhere in the world within an hour of the decision to attack.
A problem is that one of the few ways to do this is with a rocket; but a long-range rocket launch looks the same whether the payload is a J-class guided bomb or what the RAF used to call "a bucket of instant sunshine." Since nobody is anxious to trigger a nuclear exchange, the various PGS concepts are designed to be readily distinguished from an ICBM.
Faced with the need to keep the from using a high trajectory rocket, the Army came up with something even more Buck Rogers: a super-duper Mach 10 hypersonic glider. At least it isn't a ballistic missile.
The Army and its contractors won't talk about it, but AHW is a hypersonic glider launched from the Orbital/ATK booster that's used in the US ground-based missile defense interceptor. Using new high-temperature materials, the vehicle flies through the atmosphere at speeds of more than Mach 10. The system would be forward-based at sites like Diego Garcia and Guam to cover likely targets.
The AHW's big advantage is that its profile can't be mistaken for a ballistic missile. It's launched from a completely different part of the world and reaches much lower altitudes. Because it does not fly in a high ballistic arc, it also gives the target much less warning of its approach.
The reason why the Army wants this system is speed. Attack aircraft, which typically fly at high subsonic speeds, take too long to reach their target. An aircraft sixty miles away can take some time to intervene in a ground battle -- if it is that close. It takes the Army long range guided missile system (GMLRS) about a minute and a half to reach across the same distance.
This video demonstrates the responsiveness of long range rocket artillery. In the scene below, Bradleys and an Abrams tank are engaging the enemy on rooftops. First you see the thudding of the Bradley's 25 mm, followed by the much larger impact of the tanks main gun. Then in the space of a few minutes (there's a time lapse in the video), the building is hit by a 200 pound GMLRS warhead. Long range artillery intervened in a time-critical tactical situation in a way that air support often cannot.
Special operators or their allies operating inside Iran may find themselves trapped by enemy tracker teams. In that kind of tight spot, they may not be able to get manned aircraft to support them inside enemy territory. A missile can be there in minutes. Oops. I mean hypersonic glider.
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