26.03.2024 Author: Brian Berletic

The Growing Weakness of Western Artillery Capabilities

The Growing Weakness of Western Artillery Capabilities

After decades of waging war against impoverished nations with destitute armies, or no standing armies at all, the US has suddenly found itself in a rapidly changing world where peer and near-peer competitors are outpacing it in military capabilities. Many of these capabilities are showing up on the battlefield in places the US has until recently enjoyed relative military superiority.

One area the US has found itself particularly weak in is artillery. The conflict in Ukraine has revealed a variety of shortcomings regarding not only US artillery capabilities, but those of the collective West.

The recent cancellation of the US Army’s “Extended Range Cannon Artillery” (ERCA) prototype was just the most recent event among several reflecting Washington’s realization that it is falling far behind.

Defense News in a March 12, 2024 article titled, “US Army scraps Extended Range Cannon Artillery prototype effort,” would note:

The U.S. Army is changing its approach to acquiring a long-range artillery capability and scrapping its 58-caliber Extended Range Cannon Artillery prototyping effort, according to the service’s acquisition chief. 

“We concluded the prototyping activity last fall,” Doug Bush told reporters at a March 8 briefing on the fiscal 2025 budget request. “Unfortunately, [it was] not successful enough to go straight into production.” 

The new plan — following an “exhaustive” tactical fires study meant to revalidate elements of the extended-range cannon requirement led by Army Futures Command — is to evaluate existing options from industry this summer “to get a sense of the maturity of those systems.”

The prototypes began suffering from many of the problems Western artillery systems transferred to Ukraine have suffered from, “excessive wear on the gun tube after firing a relatively low number of rounds.” 

Until relatively recently, Western artillery systems were only required to fire relatively low numbers of rounds as part of fire missions targeting irregular militant forces in support of infantry. These missions would take place from static fire bases, well, out of reach of the small arms used by militants. These fire bases existed at the end of well-developed logistical networks capable of supporting artillery crews, both in terms of ammunition and maintenance requirements.

This is in stark contrast to the intense positional fighting seen in Ukraine along the line of contact where guns fire continuously day after day until barrels begin to deform, lose accuracy, and in some cases, fail during firing which includes explosions that can maim or kill gun crews. The intensity of counter-battery operations means that artillery crews cannot easily perform repairs near the line of contact without becoming targets.

Modern Western artillery pieces are simply not designed to meet this rate of fire or perform well in this type of combat environment, especially where well-protected logistical lines no longer exist.

Searching for Flawed Solutions… 

Another Defense News article, “US Army readies new artillery strategy spurred by war in Ukraine,” would indicate the direction the US will attempt to move to address apparent deficiencies of Western artillery systems.

The article noted in particular advances in “propellant” to enable midrange guns to shoot as far as long-range guns. The article also discussed “robotics” in the form of autoloaders for munitions.

Both approaches, however, seem to be continuing in the same misguided direction the US and its NATO allies have moved since the Cold War, over-engineered systems attempting to leverage a technological edge over the quantities of Russian and Chinese arms and ammunition. The problem with this approach is that there no longer is a vast disparity between Western military technology and that of Russia or China.

Both nations are capable of producing high-quality weapon systems in large quantities.

Additionally, as seen in Ukraine, Russia has created long-range counter-battery capabilities like the Lancet kamikaze drone able to find and strike Western artillery systems far beyond the range of Russia’s own artillery systems. Having accurate, longer-range guns does not give the United States the advantage it thinks it will in any potential conflict with Russia or China.

It should be noted that both Russia and China are increasingly transferring these weapons to other nations around the globe, limiting the number of potential targets of Western military aggression.

America’s Fundamentally Flawed Mindset 

Washington’s problems continue to stem from its private industry-dominated military industrial base, which favors profits over purpose and performance, preferring small numbers of expensive weapon systems over large volumes of simple but effective equipment.

After abandoning the US Army’s own ERCA prototype, it is now investigating existing systems like Israel’s Elbit Systems Autonomous Truck Mounted Ordnance System (ATMOS) Iron Sabre, as well as systems produced by the UK’s BAE, France’s Nexter, and others.

Israel’s ATMOS self-propelled artillery system, for example, is operated by nations around the globe, but in single and double-digit numbers.

The problem all of these systems share is the same dependence on over-engineered technology produced by a small supporting industrial capacity incapable of large-scale production. There is a similar deficiency in supplying the large quantities of ammunition required to meet the demands exhibited on the battlefield in Ukraine. CNN, for example, in a March 11, 2024 article would note that Russia alone is producing at least 3 times more artillery ammunition than the US and Europe combined.

No matter how capable any of these systems may be, including additional improvements made as part of the US Army’s ongoing program, if respective military industrial bases are incapable of replacing them faster than they are removed from a future battlefield as they are in Ukraine today, their capabilities will make little difference in any potential conflict’s ultimate outcome.

Modern warfare is shifting as technological disparity closes, meaning that a handful of highly-capable but high-maintenance systems will no longer offer the US and its allies an advantage on the battlefield. Even in the Middle East, local militants are using drones and precision-guided rockets to attrite US military hardware faster than the US can replace it. So far, these incidents have been few and far between. If a large-scale conflict broke out between the US and Iran and Iran’s many allies, US capabilities would quickly suffer attrition and create an operational crisis for US forces.

Despite this reality taking clear shape, US planners still cling to the myth of superior American innovation and the role private industry plays in lending the US this supposed advantage.

A recent US National Defense Industrial Strategy (NDIS) report noted the many shortcomings of the current US military industrial base, many of which the report admitted stemmed from private industry, but insisted that private industry was part of the solution rather than the source of the problem.

Because the US military industrial base is dominated by private industry whom Washington serves, industry profits, not actual capabilities, remains the top priority. As long as this equation persists, the US will continue attempting to solve emerging problems by applying the same flawed mindset that is creating these problems in the first place.


Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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