The U.S. Army is developing long-range missiles and artillery to extend its reach for great power competition.
It’s a bold play for relevance at a time when the United States is shifting its focus from the dirty business of counterinsurgency to the looming strategic threats from peer competitors across the Arctic, European, and Indo-Pacific theaters. But, it is the wrong course for a modern joint force facing growing threats in virtually every domain.
The Army has this much right: The ability to launch long-range precision strikes is critical to deter aggression and hold adversaries at risk. They’re right, too, that tightly connected, interoperable systems capable of sharing data in real time will be critical to complicating the threat picture for adversaries and that America’s joint force should work together to develop the ability and capacity to shorten kill chains.
That, after all, is what joint all-domain command and control is all about: leveraging connectedness, computing power, and artificial intelligence to automate and accelerate decision cycles.
But the Army is wrong that these factors point to the need for 1,000-mile surface-to-surface weapons—the Army’s anticipated “mid-range capability”—or long-range hypersonic surface-to-surface missiles that can travel thousands of miles, a throwback to the Army’s Cold War-era strategic force, when it had Pershing II intermediate-range nuclear missiles.
“It’s a strategic weapon,” says Lt. Gen. Neil Thurgood, of the Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon. “It’s not long-range artillery.”
But does it add value to U.S. defense? Or is this really just about seeming relevant and winning the fight for resources rather than deterring and defeating adversaries?
Army leaders cite three reasons why launching long-range missiles from mobile land-based launchers is advantageous:
- Range. They see a need for missiles that can counter the anti-access/area-denial ranges of Chinese and Russian weapons.
- Stealth and mobility. They argue such missiles and launchers can be inexpensively hidden under camouflage or in tunnels.
- Cost. A mobile launcher is more affordable than a ship, submarine, or bomber aircraft.
All three fall well short of the target.
True, mid-range 1,000-mile missiles would extend the Army’s battlespace—but to what end? The Army can’t maneuver over that distance, which is more than twice the range of a Black Hawk helicopter and a week’s drive in typical combat vehicles. To fly that distance would require multiple aerial refuelings by helicopter or a formation of Air Force C-17s.
More to the point, shooting guns and missiles at that range can be done more efficiently and effectively from the air. Worst case, one could use Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles fired from ships or submarines at sea. Operating from international waters, they need no permission and put no forces at risk.
By contrast, the Army’s solution requires the capacity to get that heavy, wheeled launch platform onto land within 1,000 miles of the target. That means prepositioning it on ships or on foreign bases (which may refuse permission to fire from their territory). It means moving those weapons on ships or trains at minimal speed. It means everyone knows what you’re moving, when, and where. True, once in theater, you can hide in a bunker, a warehouse, a tunnel, or under a bridge. You can dart out, fire a few rounds, and then hide again like the Iranians and North Koreans. You’ll have to—you won’t have much ammunition with you for subsequent fires.
That’s not efficient or stealth.
Stealth is flying in, undetected, with a B-2 bomber laden with a bellyful of precision-guided bombs that can obliterate a dozen targets on one run. Talk about efficiency! Need more firepower and can’t risk taking on anti-air defenses? Fly in a four-ship of B-1s or B-2s and launch your standoff weapons from afar. You’ll have more range, more kinetic firepower, less risk, and greater precision. You’ll also have second chances, should initial shots miss. That’s not true in the Army scenario.
Think of it: The closer you can get to the target, especially a mobile one, the more likely you are to hit it; the further away, the more time and chance there is for something to change.
The Army’s cost argument is similarly specious. These weapons don’t exist today; they must be developed, tested, procured, and fielded; doctrine needs to be developed; a logistics chain built; forces need to be diverted and trained to operate and defend it. Then, it needs to be integrated with the other services’ command and control architecture to plan and deconflict the use of those weapons. Those are all real costs that must be calculated into the total. And for what? To field a second-rate solution to a problem the Air Force and Navy have already solved.
Though air defenses have gotten better, so has Air Force stealth. Low-observable aircraft are designed to penetrate and destroy enemy defenses, then pave the way for less costly, more amply armed follow-on forces. They can fly home, reload, and be back on station within hours.
By contrast, a handful of mobile launchers can fire a handful of missiles. Once they do, they’d have to go hide for a while. It’s not like they can dash to a mobile weapons dump to restock them.
Army leaders argue that increasingly sophisticated and long-range defenses hold at risk military bases within that range. Last January’s Iranian missile attacks on two U.S. bases in Iraq demonstrate how dangerous such attacks can be. Ironically, it’s the Army’s mission to defend those air bases. The Army could be investing today in base defense but isn’t. It’s trying instead to replace those bases with its own organic fires.
They miss the point. Mobile launchers can’t provide all the other things an Air Force base does—services like moving ammunition, food, and fuel, delivering close air support, and providing theater-level intelligence—and, of course, delivering a devastating volume of ordnance against an enemy, when and where it’s needed, with speed and precision.
“Look, we welcome good ideas,” notes one Air Force leader at the Pentagon. “The objective needs to be how to most affordably provide fires that hold targets at risk.”
No one achieves that objective better than the Air Force. USAF achieves that objective. The Army’s new missiles will not.