The Army needs to reevaluate its precision-guided munitions programs, and identify which of its current weapons should continue to receive funding, says Maj. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sorenson.
“In many cases, everything we became enamored of, we can’t play with because we can’t afford it,” Sorenson, the Army’s deputy for acquisition and systems management, told a recent industry conference of the Precision Strike Association.
Precision-guided munitions manufacturers should be perceptive enough to see that the market is heading for a downturn, Sorenson said. Just six years ago, only one of the Army’s top 10 procurement programs, the Javelin antitank missile — was a precision-guided weapon. Today, no precision weapons remain on the list, says Sorenson. “That should give you an indication of the things the Army is struggling to pay for.”
The Defense Department’s decision last year to cancel the Army-Navy “joint common missile” should be seen as a warning sign, he says. “It was a great program that was doing well.” But when Pentagon planners realized the Army still had large inventories of Hellfire and TOW missiles, they concluded that the services could do without the joint common missile.
The Army needs to set priorities based on sound analysis of what the force really needs and what the service can realistically afford, says Sorenson.
“We in the Army are due for a major review of our precision weapons portfolio,” he says. “It needs a complete scrub from top to bottom.”
In his remarks, Sorenson did not make mention of an existing study, known as the “precision munitions mix analysis,” which has been in the works for nearly three years at the Army Training and Doctrine Command. Industry representatives attending the conference speculated that Sorenson’s failure to mention the study is significant, and points to the chronic disconnect between Army requirements analysts and budget planners.
“We have to get really serious about what we want and what we need,” Sorenson says.
Feedback from frontline commanders points to growing needs for precision-guided cannon artillery rounds but weakening demand for missile artillery, he says.
Smart munitions require a different way of thinking and planning missions, Sorenson says. The Excalibur satellite-guided projectile is an example of a weapon that commanders in the field would like to have, but its price tag — estimated at $50,000 or more per shell — means that not too many will be fired in a single engagement. Added to the cost of the weapon is the infrastructure required to operate these high-tech systems.
“If you are going to fire Excalibur, you have to have precision launch and a fairly sophisticated laser designator. We have to think of the entire ensemble … Everybody focuses on the weapon. They forget about the launch system, the target acquisition and the network. The deployment becomes more expensive,” he explains.
The upshot is that the Army will be buying fewer munitions. “As we become more precise, we don’t need as many,” Sorenson says. “You cannot fire precision weapons at everything you want to kill.”
Contractors worried about declining sales should try to find ways to consolidate production lines across all military services, so that they can maintain their workforces and industrial capacity. Even though each service operates different weapons, Sorenson says, they could agree to use common components, such as infrared seekers, laser radars and multipurpose warheads. “I would ask contractors to help advise the services on how to do that,” he adds.
“It’s no longer major production lines with thousands of items,” says Sorenson. Future orders only may be for a couple of hundred. “Industry has to think about this.”
One option being considered is to boost research-and-development funding for smart-weapon subcomponents that could be used to upgrade existing projectiles and missiles. The current stockpile is aging and deteriorating, says Sorenson. The Army needs to figure out soon whether it wants to destroy the old munitions or refit them with modern components. “I think the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps face the same issues.”
As to what, if any, current programs may be cancelled, Sorenson says that remains to be seen. Even if a program already has a logo printed on T-shirts and coffee cups, that does not guarantee survival, he cautions. “There are examples when that hasn’t exactly played out.”
Major programs such as guided multiple-launch rockets (GMLRS) and tactical missiles (ATACMS) are not going to see major changes, says Sorenson.
Costs aside, Army commanders in Iraq view weapons such as the Excalibur and the unitary-warhead version of the GMLRS as valuable alternatives to air-delivered air support, says Maj. Gen. David C. Ralston, commander of the Army Field Artillery Center.
Both of these weapons can be targeted precisely — inside a 10-meter radius — and their warheads are much smaller than the bombs that the Air Force and the Navy drop from fighter jets, so they lessen the risk of civilian casualties, Ralston told the industry conference.
GMLRS has a 200-pound warhead, and Excalibur’s is 50 pounds. The smallest bomb the Navy and the Air Force employ, a 500-pound satellite- or laser-guided weapon, “gives you collateral damage,” Ralston says.
As to what the next generation of Army weapons may hold, officials appear undecided. Directed-energy systems, particularly solid-state lasers, could eventually replace traditional missiles in some applications. The service is investing millions of dollars in the technology, but Army planners have yet to settle on what to do with it.
“Solid-state lasers are new territory,” says Sorenson. “We don’t know exactly where that’s going to go.”
Solid-state high-energy lasers — which could be used to disable enemy vehicles or other assets — fall into the category of “disruptive” technologies that would upset the status quo in the weapon budgets.
Lasers eventually could be employed in lieu of line-of-sight anti-armor missiles such as Javelin and TOW, and also could penetrate buried bunkers. “The Army will look at solid-state lasers very seriously,” says Sorenson. The biggest hurdle is making the devices small enough to mount on trucks or light armored vehicles.
Northrop Grumman and Textron are developing competing solid-state laser designs.
A high-energy laser is like an “endless magazine,” says Mike Bright, director of advanced directed energy at Lockheed Martin Corp. “But you’re not going to necessarily replace all bombs with lasers.”
Concerns about lasers include battlefield conditions, weather and atmospheric turbulence, Bright says. Without a clear line of sight, they would be useless.
Northrop Grumman and Textron expect to deliver a weapons-grade laser in about three years.
Dan Wildt, director of business development at Northrop Grumman, says the company demonstrated a 25-kilowatt, solid-state laser, and expects to move up to 100 kilowatts by 2008. “That’s what’s required for self defense and precision strike missions,” he says.
Bright says one of the problems contractors face is a lack of guidance from their military customers. “We want to make a laser useful to war fighters, so it doesn’t end up as another laboratory experiment. “Overall, the state of laser weapon development is moving rapidly. I believe we need more direction and input from the users on what they’d like,” rather than operate under the “build it and they will come” mentality.