Big gun of the future?

FCS self-propelled artillery demonstrator

I’ve got a post on the Future Combat Systems’ self-propelled artillery over at Defense Tech. Check it out.

nloscfiring.jpgA reader at MO tipped me off to this beast. It’s the NLOS-C (non-line-of-sight cannon) demonstrator, and it’s fired over 1,000 rounds during testing near Yuma, AZ.

Regular Defense Tech readers will know that the FCS program is a plan with great potential but many questions and growing price tags. Not to mention swelling waistlines. Of all the FCS vehicles, though, this one seems to be the farthest along and on the right track. That’s because the manufacturer, United Defense, already had a great deal of groundwork completed due to the canceled Crusader program:

United Defense designed and fielded NLOS-C CTD in just six months following Crusader program cancellation. CTD leverages Crusader technology, the M777 towed howitzer 39-caliber cannon, a fully automated ammunition handling system and a 20-ton highly mobile tracked platform. The current CTD has a magazine capable of holding 24 cannon projectiles and hybrid-electric (diesel electric) propulsion system providing fuel economy.

This particular beast seems to actually fit the concept of taking advantage of “off-the-shelf” components whenever possible that FCS was supposed to embrace. But it’s a demonstrator and not the final product. However, a recent pile of money thrown in the general direction of FCS includes funds to accelerate the NLOS-C development.

There are a number of other big-gun artillery/fire support options out there, as well.

The Stryker Mobile Gun System (MGS) is still having trouble and won’t be fielded until at least 2007.

The Stryker crowd can take heart that there’s also a LAV III-based 105mm mobile howitzer prototype that’s been tested and apparently performed well. It was developed on spec, though, and there’s no spare change available at the moment.

And four left-over M8 AGS (Armored Gun System) prototypes were supposed to be fielded with the 82nd Airborne, but there’s been no news.

The M8 AGS was originally developed for the airborne. The XVIII Airborne Corps has looked at the French-built Ceasar, a 155mm howitzer mounted on a 6×6 truck for some big-barreled punch.

Canada is planning to purchase the troubled Stryker MGS, but some up north wonder if there aren’t better alternatives available.

Some of these are fire support platforms, some are more like traditional self-propelled artillery, and the M8 AGS is really more of a light tank.

But FCS has the money (for now, at least), so the NLOS-C has to be considered the odds-on favorite. Meanwhile, the troops in the field continue to wonder if the big guns will ever be providing some cover and knocking in bunkers for them.

THERE’S MORE: Of course, big guns aren’t the only way to make big holes. Missiles and advanced guidance are changing the way artillery support works.

callinginsomesmite1.jpgAND MORE: A commenter on my site noted that, for all the advanced gear and space-age weaponry, it will still all come down to the soldier. It’s important that we don’t lose sight of this. To underscore the importance of our men and women in uniform, I pointed out the pic on the front page of today’s and wrote

There’s probably very little on earth scarier than a US soldier or Marine with a map and a radio.


  1. M, I don’t understand how this squares with current operations in Iraq. There are HHC/HHB personnel, even gun crews, running infantry-style missions all over the place. You can find mention of this anywhere, from PBS’ ‘Frontline’ to ‘Stars and Stripes’. And it’s not just the gun bunnies. There are plenty of air defense people or USMC ATGM teams running patrols, kicking in doors, etc. I’m beginning to wonder about spiffy new heavy systems like SP arty, when the crews seemingly have a very good chance of being 11Bs in the end.

  2. I happen to agree with the decision to cancel the crusader, and I don’t see why the same reasons wouldn’t apply to this system. Is this just another example of the program that never dies? It sounds like UD just dressed up the crusader and resubmitted it. I’d like to see more stuff like the R2D2 mortar defense system, the LOSAT, and so on. Daniel Starr has an interesting post up, the gist of which is that it makes sense to push gun development for defense – where rapid fire combined with advanced radar/sensor nets can track and target incoming. Missiles for offense, where precision guidance insures that you get the most bang for your buck, and missile ranges are usually much longer than gun ranges.

  3. GL: Yes, you’re absolutely correct that many other MOSs are pulling infantry duty in Iraq. That’s the biggest reason I was so in favor of a combat badge for them. But there are two main reasons we still need new big guns. First, even in Iraq today there is call for the heavies once in a while. Maybe it’s more ‘assault gun’-type duty than pure artillery, but the boots on the ground need the big stuff. Not in the streets of Baghdad so much, but in operations like out in the open near the Syrian border there will always be call for wanton destruction. Secondly, although we will be involved in urban peace-keeping/guerrilla sorts of conflicts for years to come, the possibility of full-scale mechanized conflict remains. And it will probably increase as China grows in strength, though I hope not. So to call big mobile guns unneeded because we don’t need them today in Baghdad is a bit premature. That being said, I’m concerned about the amount of money being thrown at FCS today with guys in harm’s way.

  4. Buckethead: Yeah, this is pretty much ‘Crusader-Lite’. But the ‘heavy factor’ was one of the biggest reasons I, too, favored the Crusader’s cancellation. It was a next-generation M109, which was all well and good. But it was a WW3 weapon in a WW4 world. I happen to agree with most of the concepts of FCS, and this is a solid part of that program. If the Stryker MGS worked or the M8 AGS had been adopted, I’d probably feel quite a bit differently about the need for an NLOS-C. But they are nowhere to be seen and quite possibly never will be. We need a more-transportable biggie and this fits the bill, so I support the effort.

  5. M, I agree that there will be a place for big bullets on future battlefields. At least, until brilliant flocks of autonomous UCAVs can bring pain better than Napoleonic-style, olde school arty can. I think the thrust of my point…the point of my thr…my pointy… … I think what’s really bugging me is the force mix at work in current operations. I recognize that that’s not really what this post was about, but thinking about new, fat gun systems got me thinking about how so many crews are informal infantry these days, and that I don’t like that. But that bitch can be for another post.

  6. I noticed that the dude seemed to be channeling the pure quill buckethead. He linked to my battleship post, which was how I found his post. Saved me the trouble of writing it though, so I thank him. If the FCS NLOS-C is air transportable, I guess that’s all good – I mean, it can’t hurt to have a rapid-firing, mobile gun platform. The more I think about it though, the more it seems that all of this is interim stuff. Adapting old technology to new environments. Sooner rather than later, we’ll start seeing more weapons systems that are native to this new environment. Small UAVs, brilliant munitions, stuff like the R2D2, but smaller and mounted on a robot chassis. Eventually, railguns and lasers and what-have-you. There are two tracks we need to pursue. One is all the hyper-advanced, geeked-out automonomous weaponry that gives me woodies. This is our edge in any future conflict. We want to be the equivalent of British colonial troops with maxim guns going up against the unwashed with spears. We want qualitative superiority, force multipliers out the wazoo. But the other side is troops. All the high tech in the world does not, and will not for the forseeable future, replace boots on the ground. We need more soldiers, more marines. (A few more in the navy, no more airmen, and a space force.) All the networked, semi-autonomous weapons, sensors and defenses will be orbiting around the battlefield. So that when a highly trained infantryman needs the hammer of god, it’s there waiting for him to smite whatever needs smiting. The soldier will be the focal point of all this firepower. He won’t carry it, but he will direct it. We still need soldiers, and we’ll need more of them.

  7. Guns and missiles each have their own role to play. Missile while very adaptable and capable of precision, have the trade off of having high cost. The latest ‘affordable’ missile program involves loitering cruise missile, at a cost of 70K each. (not including the warhead) At 70k, this missile represents a breakthrough in cost management. Shifting to missile, means less live fire training, and a greater vulnerability to technological break throughs. Think EMP effects, for starters. Guns on the other hand are much cheaper then missiles. Guns are easier to store & maintain. With adaquate fire control, guns while not as accurate as the top end missiles, they are still quite accurate. With respect to the FCS. Since the army & congress is under the conception that the Abrams tank will remain the chief land force unit until 2050, I think that the FCS program as a whole is money down a rat hole. At a time when, our troops are in active combat, I find it appalling that the two largest budget items the army has is the FCS and Stryker. Neither of these weapons systems will be able to provide the support the troops need. Billions for the FCS vs 141 million to upgrade 60 M1A2 tanks.(to be done by 2010) That said, I fully agree with the concept of spiril development of viable weapons like the NLOS cannon.

  8. Buckethead, the other thing besides training that still gets overlooked is reconnaissance. For years now, in war after war, American troops have had plenty of firepower, but not near enough targeting information. In Kosovo, Serbian ‘ethnic cleansing’ gangs escaped our bombing by being under foilage or masquerading as civilians. We had plenty of firepower; we needed better reconnaissance. In Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden was able to escape from Tora Bora not because we didn’t have enough bombs to drop on his turbaned head, but because we didn’t have enough human or electronic eyes to spot him as he took the goat tracks over the mountains into sanctuary in Pakistan. Firepower was plentiful over Tora Bora; sensors and reconnaissance were not good enough. In Iraq right now, the thing our soldiers need isn’t better guns or more guns: it’s better information on where the next ambush will be, and more eyes in the sky to target the insurgents as they try to retreat to attack Americans another day. We have plenty of bombs and plenty of bullets in Iraq to take down our enemies. What we lack in Iraq is sensor equipment and intelligence networks good enough to spot the enemy so we can hit them. Better guns are a good thing. Let’s get them. Better missiles are great. Let’s get them too. But if you were setting Army equipment priorities, I’d tell you this: we need better sensors far more than any amount of extra firepower.

  9. D Starr, The lack of HUMINT in this fight has been bothering me since day one. What makes it worse is that after years of combat, we appear no closer to an established intel network in the region. That, in a word, is pathetic. In two words, pathetic and sad. What needs to happen is tactical leaders must be able to collect information that suports their immediate mission. In another era, this attitude could be distilled down to, ‘Where’s the lead BMP?’ Today, it’s more like, ‘Is there an RPG team on the next overpass?’ Without a way to reliably, consistently answer fundamental questions like those, we’re making the fight alot harder than it already is. And no, I don’t have a solution beyond common sense ones. But that’s what I pay all these taxes for, in part: so people alot smarter than me can devise better fixes.

  10. Murdoc agrees 100% with the problems we’ve got with HUMINT, both on the battlefield and in the world at large. 150%, even.

  11. Daniel, I agree completely. New sensor platforms are coming on line rapidly. What isn’t though, is people who know how to operate them. We really drew down too much, I think. I read a online comic, of all things, that descibed a potentially innovative solution to the targeting and intelligence problem. Online communities. Videogame junkies and warbloggers back home get access to the raw intelligence take areas where US troops are not immediately active, and watch what the enemy is doing. (satellites, aerial drones, and fute small ground drones and other technologies. They use AIM, email and journaling systems to share information and deductions about what they’re watching. Slashdot style moderation and user consensus produces intelligence from raw data. Military types monitor the emergent consensus, and pass useful bits to real troops in near real time. What happened to Dan Rather could happen to our enemies, but more so. Interesting thought, anyway. And as far as giving away methods, everyone knows that we can read a matchbook cover from orbit, so its not like we’re exactly giving anything away. What would happen if you pointed the hubble at earth?

  12. Buckethead: On the drawdown issue, you have a good point, but in some respects, a kind of Monday morning quarterbacking issue. In other respects, it represents an ideal that did not exist in practice. When the old Soviet Union was around, the intelligence services had a focus. (yes, if you stuck 6 agents from 6 different American services in a room for an hour, you would have 18 dead men ….but sometimes the services, by mistake worked together) For example, there was a base built in Germany by a unnamed service and on that base were several vans full of electronic equipment. The purpose, to map the location of all the soviet radars in east Germany and a good chunk of the rest of the eastern block. Now once we flattened the earth to get around the old earth as a sphere issue, it worked great. Unfortunately, you could not tell the Air Force where the radars were, because you did not want to reveal operational details or technological capabilities. Unfortunately, you could not tell the Air Force how you did it in the first place. Thus all you could do is answer specific questions on specific sights, provided the person who was asking had a need to know. Naturally the airforce got suspicious about how certain maps were being made and few other things, so the Air Force got to spend a few billion dollars and about 10 years perfecting a technology that was setting 5 klicks away from an airforce base. Ironically that airforce base was tasked to protect the unnamed base in which, the airforce was never allowed to know what it was protecting. So to make a long point short. Yes, with the draw down, a lot of people who know how to find secrets were out of a job. Most ended up, moving to the private sector for real money. I would doubt that if the draw down did not happen, the intelligence services would be any more effective. Until you get an intelligence service that answers to single authority, a service that can recognize the difference between tactical, strategic, policy forms of intel analysis, and be able to convey that knowledge to the end users without being subject to whims of politically correctness. You are never going to have an intelligence service capable of taking the necessary steps to protect this country.

  13. Possibly, the Military could advertise a new type of troop, one who is purely dedicated to the UAV/Videogame type warfare. If the training was reduced for entry (not so much running about), I am sure that many ‘geeks’ would decide to enter, and do tasks that others would find boring. Only problem I can forsee is that I am unsure how you could have a good vetting procedure, as computer gamers are more than often involved in shooting team members in the back when angry. BTW: I am a computer gamer, and while I dont commit friendly fire, I have been on the recieving end.