Tag Archives: army

A Brief History of Precision Guided Artillery Munitions in the US Army

In the 1970s, faced with the specter of thousands of Soviet tanks possibly rushing through the Fulda Gap, the Army was looking intently for ways to rapidly kill large numbers of tanks.  The TOW missile, the M1 tank, and host of other weapons were developed to face this threat.*

One development looked at the revolution in accuracy that Laser Guided Bombs had shown in the late stages of the Vietnam war, and concluded that a laser guided artillery shell would be just the thing to plink tanks. Normal artillery can make life difficult for tank formations, but the odds of actually destroying a tank are pretty slim with traditional artillery. But a laser guided 155mm artillery round, especially one with a shaped charge 6.1” diameter warhead, would destroy any tank in the world.

But there’s a big difference in the robustness required of electronics that will fly aboard an airplane, and be dropped, versus those that have to withstand the stupendous accelerations of being fired out of a gun tube.

Still, by the late 1970s, and early 1980s, American industry managed to field the M712 Copperhead laser guided 155mm Cannon Launched Guided Projectile. Copperhead required a forward observer equipped with a laser designator, and a clear line of sight to the target, not to mention reliable communications with the firing battery.

Beyond that, Copperhead actually cost a ton of money more than was originally expected. Because Copperhead was so expensive, tank killing by artillery fell instead to DPICM, or Dual Purpose, Improved Conventional Munitions. DPICM was essentially the clusterbomb of artillery. A shell was merely a carrier for a host of submunitions that would be scattered over a target area. Many of those munitions were small shaped charge warheads that could usually penetrate the thin top armor of Soviet tanks.

But Copperhead did work, and it was useful for certain very high value targets, and so it remained in the inventory, and indeed saw combat use in Desert Storm, and even as late as the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

M712 Copperhead approaches a target tank

For almost 30 years, that’s where the state of the art in precision guided artillery stagnated.

But much as the advent of the Laser Guided Bomb inspired the Copperhead, so to did the advent of the GPS/INS guided JDAM bomb inspire the next stage in precision artillery.

First up with the GPS guided G-MLRS 270mm Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, which replace the DPICM warhead of a conventional MLRS rocket with a unitary warhead of about 250 pounds, and a guidance kit that gave it the ability to strike within just a few meters of its intended target at ranges of up to 70 kilometers.


Not surprisingly, the same technology was applied to a 155mm artillery shell, resulting the in the M982 Excalibur. The Excalibur 155mm guided projectile has been in operational use for over 7 years now. Excalibur is essentially a GPS guided missile launched from a gun tube. It both extends the range of artillery, and increases the accuracy.

XM982 Excalibur inert.jpg

But the Excalibur is fairly expensive. The entire projectile is a precision weapon. What was really wanted was a guidance kit that could be applied to existing stocks of conventional artillery ammunition to provide it was precision capability.

First up was the AMPI, Accelerated Mortar Precision Initiative, also known as the MGK, or Mortar Guidance Kit. By replacing the nose fuse of a conventional 120mm mortar round with an innovative GPS guidance system, the traditionally less than precise mortar system suddenly became capable of dropping the first round within 5-10 meters of the aim point.

It wasn’t a great leap to transform the MGK into a similar guided fuse for 155mm shells.

Unguided, conventional artillery will continue to have a place on the battlefield. But for many applications, both in the current Counter Insurgency fights, and in possible future near peer engagements, precision artillery has better effects, is a lesser logistical burden, reduced collateral damage, and can safely be used closer to friendly troops.




*By the way, the Air Force also spent a lot of time and money developing weapons and sensors for this very same role.


Filed under ARMY TRAINING, Artillery

Hypothetical Exercise- A Modern Mobilization Army

Over on twitter, Nathan Finney, aka The Barefoot Strategist, posed this question:

An interesting one. How would you go about doing so?

For the purposes of this little exercise, let’s posit that this is over and above an activated and federalized Guard and Reserve component.  Wiki tells us there’s just over half a million active duty Soldiers right now, with another slightly more than half a million Guard and Reserve troops, yielding a total force of about 1.1 million right now. Given that the US Army fielded roughly 8 million in World War II with only half the national population, finding another million or two warm bodies would seem to be rather easy.

But would it be?

The current military aged male population (for my purposes here I’ve rather arbitrarily selected 18-30 years) is very roughly around 30 million. Roughly 75% of that population is disqualified under current enlistment standards, either due to weight or other health issues, criminal history, or lack of education. That gives us a current population of qualified males of about 7.5 million to recruit from. Given the struggle to recruit 80,000-100,000 of this population annually, I do not think it realistic to achieve the additional numbers purely through voluntary recruitment. That leaves either conscription, or a gross lowering of the standards for enlistment. It should be noted that the standards for selective service in World War II, particularly in the last 18 months of the war, were far, far lower than today’s standards for enlistment. Many who went on to perform distinguished service in World War II would today be laughed out of the recruiter’s office.

There exists today virtually no real political support for conscription. Of course, there is no political support for such a massive expansion of the Army, either, so for the purposes of our exercise, I posit that the political support for enlarging the Army can also be seen as supporting a draft.

Another obvious pool of manpower reserves is the Individual Ready Reserves- those service members who have completed their initial obligation for active duty, or regular drills with a reserve compenent, but have not yet been completely discharged form the service. Every initial enlistment in the Army is for a term of eight years, with the first three or four typically served on active duty, and the remaining five or four in the IRR. Persons in the IRR don’t perform military duties, nor do they receive pay and allowances. But they are by law subject to recall. While some IRR troops were subjected to recall for Desert Storm, and a handful for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the last major recall of IRR troops was in the early stages of the 1950-1953 Korean War. I’ve mentioned that the Army recruits roughly 80,000-100,000 people a year. That means roughly the same number leave it annually. The greatest number of these are soldiers whose initial obligation is complete, and decline to reenlist. Of this cohort, some will not be suitable for recall. So let’s just go with a working WAG* of 50,000 over the last 5 years available for recall. That gives us a bump of a quarter million, easing the needed numbers via draft or recruiting. Theoretically, these troops have already been trained, but in reality, even after a very short break in service, the training required to again make them effective soldiers is little different than that needed to train a new recruit.

Speaking of training the troops, the existing Army training pipeline would likely prove incapable of surging production throughput to anywhere near the numbers needed. The initial training of Army troops is generally grouped by functional areas. Infantry and Armor go through training at Ft. Benning, Artillery at Ft. Sill, and support and service support soldiers go to basic training at Ft. Jackson or Ft. Leonard Woods, and then on to their specialized training at the branch school responsible for their career field, such as the Transportation Corps school at Ft. Eustis, Virginia. Further, one of the advantages of having high quality recruits with fairly long terms of enlistment (which means a fairly long term of training results in a decent return on investment) is that you need fewer military occupational specialties. You can spend the time and money to train a fire control repair technician to fix the electronics on both an Abrams, and a Bradley. But if you desperately need to raise an Army quickly, you are almost forced to limit the breadth of any one  job’s training. You’d likely have to split that fire control technician into two specialties, one for Abrams, and one for Bradleys. That means the tooth to tail ratio of our expanded army will suffer somewhat. Still, speed is of the essence, and the old rule of fast/good/cheap applies. Pick any two. In this case, it would be fast/good.

Still, the institutional schoolhouses of the Army simply cannot absorb that large an influx of new soldiers. Some skills simply must be taught at the schoolhouse (say, much of the aviation maintenance field) but a greater portion can be taught in other ways.

In World War II, much of the occupational skill training for soldiers was done in the units mobilized for the war. And here our current Army has an advantage over our forebears of 1940-1943.  The Army of 1940 faced an expansion of eventually some 2400%. There simply wasn’t a large enough trained cadre of people. Finney’s proposed expansion, however, is significantly more modest. The obvious way to leverage the existing troop formations is to use them as the cadre, the nucleus of new units. For instance, each current Brigade Combat Team might be tasked to form an entire division, with each subordinate battalion transforming itself into a BCT (or rather, forming an additional two battalions to flesh out other BCTs activated). Essentially, everybody gets bumped a paygrade. This would likely result in some decline in the quality of leadership, but that would be almost inevitable in any expansion on the scale proposed.

Another challenge for our notional expansion is simply equipping the force. As a practical matter, some things cannot be expanded in such a short time. Two years is simply not long enough to ramp up production of things like helicopters, let alone train the aircrew for them. Other major weapon systems would also face shortages. The Army has a goodly number of M1 Abrams and M2/M3 Bradleys in reserve, but not as many as might be needed. Trucks of all types would be in critical supply. That could be augmented with some civilian procurement for many roles, but the authorized equipment for many units would likely have to be changed.

The minutia of equipage, uniforms, boots, packs, and such, should not be an overwhelming obstacle, but ramping up production and maintaining quality will likely be a challenge. Producing enough rifles might be a challenge, at least in the short term.  Equipping the force with modern radios would similarly be a challenge in at least the short term.

Finally, merely finding the space to house and train this notional expanded force would be a great challenge. The US has shed much of the vast amounts of training space it acquired in World War II. Reacquiring it would be next to impossible. For one thing, many of those spaces have become developed. Ironically, even though the proposed expansion is a good deal smaller than the size of the Army in World War II, the battlespace a reasonably equipped force today needs to train is vastly greater. More space is required to effectively train a mechanized battalion today than might be needed for an entire World War II division’s maneuver elements.

So, could the US vastly expand from it’s current Army of half a million soldiers to two million soldiers in the space of two years? Probably. But it would yield a force of greatly diminished quality.** Further, absent an existential, immediate threat to the country, there is simply no political support for such an expansion.


*Wild Assed Guess

**Though quantity has a quality all its own.



The Army’s Nuclear Ship

Wired has a piece on the almost billion dollar cost of a mid life overhaul of a Nimitz class carrier. It’s pretty interesting. Not only does it involve refueling the ship’s two nuclear reactors, but the RCOH pretty much rebuilds everything from the bulkheads in. Think of all the plumbing and wiring in a ship  designed to last 50 years. The RCOH is the one big opportunity to rebuild a lot of that stuff.

Now, you say, XBrad, that’s nice and all, but what does it have to do with the title of this post? Well, bear with me a bit.

The dawning of the age of nuclear power, as exemplified by the sailing of the USS Nautilus led to something of a frenzy in terms of nuclear power.

For a while, it seemed that in the very near future, everything would be nuclear powered. Heck, the Air Force was researching using nuclear reactors to power bomber aircraft, and actually flew a working reactor aboard a B-36.

The Army, which has always had a strong interest in prime power generation, saw nuclear power as an answer to the challenge of providing prime power in remote locations with little or no infrastructure, especially those that would be difficult to supply. And so it began research and experimentation with very small reactors. Most Army reactors were very compact, and designed to use Highly Enriched Uranium. All of the reactors under the Army Nuclear Power Program (ANPP) were one of a kind prototypes. Powerplants were used in Greenland, Wyoming, Alaska and even Antarctica.

As the wiki entry notes, a lot of the ANPP actually seemed more a solution in search of a problem. But there was one plant that actually helped solve a vexing problem.

The only ANPP plant that didn’t use HEU was the topic at hand. The Army often operates close to shores and ports, for obvious logistical reasons. And again, the need for prime power is often on the mind of the logistician. And so, someone had the idea that the Army could utilize a barge mounted reactor, not for propulsion, but for electricity and fresh water generation.

Rather than building a barge from scratch, the Army took possession of a surplus Liberty ship, and removed the steam boiler and engine, and build in its place, via its contractor Martin Marrietta, a 10 Mv Pressurized Water Reactor with Low Enriched Uranium and associated turbines and distillation machinery. The contract was signed in 1961, construction began in 1963, and by early 1967, the vessel, known as Sturgis (MH-1A) went critical while moored near Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.


While the Sturgis was being built and tested, an actual use for it was found, one that was, in fact, somewhat urgent.

The Panama Canal, was, of course, of strategic interest to the US, and at that time under the administration of the US. The locks of the canal are operated by gravity fed water from Lake Gatun, the body of water in the center of the isthmus when the canal was built. It’s normally replenished by the torrential rains there. Fresh water from the lake fills the locks to lift ships, and then is allowed to flow out into the ocean when the locks are lowered.

Electrical power for the Canal Zone was also powered by water from Lake Gatun, via a hydroelectric station.  The combined outflow of water via the locks and the hydro power station meant that during the dry season, the water level in Lake Gatun would fall to unacceptable levels. Power was required just to operate the Canal Zone, and the locks. That meant ship traffic through the canal itself had to be restricted. But if power could be provided without having to use the hydro plant, obviously that water would be available for the locks, increasing throughput of the canal.

And so, after a few months of testing and training at Ft. Belvoir, Sturgis was towed to Panama, and from 1968 to 1975 provided its power to the Canal Zone. It’s estimated that the water savings provided by Sturgis allowed an additional 2500 ship transits per year.

By the mid 1970s, conventional powerplants were built along the eastern and western termini of the canal, and Sturgis’ power was surplus to needs. Furthermore, since she had a one of a kind plant, parts and training were uneconomical. She was returned to the US, defueled, and put into storage in the James River fleet, where today she awaits decommissioning** and disassembly.


*Highly Enriched Uranium is, of course, more “power dense” than Low Enriched Uranium, but it still below weapons grade enriched uranium.

**Decommissioning in this case has a somewhat different meaning than for a warship of the US Navy.


Filed under army, ships

The coming battle over military retirement.

The Army, and the other services, of course, like to say that people are their most valuable asset. Not surprisingly, they’re pretty much the most expensive one as well.

Recently, the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission returned a report on how to modernize the current military retirement system to reduce costs to the government. It’s recommendations are  not especially popular with the military population.

In simplest terms right now, 20 years of service earns you retirement at half of your final basic pay, starting immediately, for life, adjusted for inflation. 30 years earns three-quarters pay. It’s somewhat more complicated than that, actually, but that’s close enough.

The MCRMC has recommended reducing the pension soldiers receive, boosting a 401k style investment program, delaying payment of retirement until 60 years of age, and other changes. Worse still, they want to slough retirees off the TriCare For Life medical program and onto Obamacare.

Jonn at This Ain’t Hell discusses just what a 20-year pension means.

I retired at the age of 38 along with my family. I went to college the month after I left the service. It was a fairly tough transition – I worked a full time job with a security company as a rent-a-cop on a construction site, I also worked as a work/study student in the campus VA office, all while carrying a full load of classes. The pension helped us meet our transition expanses until I graduated.

After college, I went into sales with an investment company, a totally foreign environment. While I struggled to learn the business and how to teach other people what they needed, the Army pension paid the bills. Eventually, I failed at that business because some people are too stupid to help, and I’m no salesman,

When I went to work for the National Archives, most of the people my age had been at the job longer, so I was behind my peers in pay, but living in the District of Columbia, my employer didn’t take that into consideration and I still had to pay rent and bills. My pension gave me parity with my peers in an expensive environment.

Obviously, few people retire at the age of 38 and never work again. On the other hand, outside some very specific career fields, veterans who retire and then enter the work force do suffer from being years behind their peers in the civilian workforce. Their wages at their new jobs reflect their entry level status there, not the 20 years experience in the service.

Furthermore, while most jobs in the military are not terribly physically grueling, many are, and it is a rare retiree who doesn’t have some dents and dings in them. The issue is serious enough that many struggle to complete a second career.

That’s not to say that the retirement system isn’t overdue for an overhaul.

One major problem with the system is that it is somewhat all or nothing. A guy who leaves the service before 20 years essentially gets nothing. Heck, most employers vest a pension*at five years.

The big problem the military faces is that people live much longer today. When the 20 year retirement was instituted, retirees had the decency to die within about 20 years, give or take, of retirement. Today, a service member who retires at 38 years of age still has a life expectancy of another 35-40 years. And who knows just how much longer that number will be in 35-40 years. Worse still, from the government’s point of view, much of that life expectancy comes from great medical care, which is expensive, and which is a cost the government is paying.

From the DoD’s viewpoint, retirees threaten to become a costly retirement program with an armed wing. The costs of service members are somewhat high while they’re on active duty. But they really become expensive after they retire. I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to that argument.

The problem is, touching the military retirement system is fraught with political dangers. It’s extraordinarily unpopular, both with veterans (even those who left long before retirement) and with the public at large.

The other thing that really, really sticks in the craw of retirees is that they provided service to the nation. Their retirement was earned. And yet they see an ever expanding number of programs that provide money and health care, not only to people that are simply poor, but even to those who flaunt the law and come here illegally. It’s not at all surprising that veterans and retirees think cutting costs there is a good first step before touching the earned benefits of our nation’s veterans.

Here’s the commission’s report:



*Those that still have a pension, yes.


Filed under army, Around the web


From requirement to prototype in 38 days, and placed into production with only minor changes throughout the run.

In the very early days of World War II, as the Army grasped that it would be required to conduct major amphibious assaults in virtually every theater it deployed to, it also realized that the real challenge wouldn’t be getting forces ashore, but rather sustaining them with supplies over the assault beaches until port facilities could be captured. The plan was to use the same landing craft that lifted the assault troops to haul supplies. The trouble there was that transferring cargo from beaching craft to trucking ashore was time and manpower intensive. And so, the National Defense Research Council had a flash of brilliance. Why not build an amphibious truck?

The respected yacht designers of Sparkman and Stephens sat down with GMC, and quickly produced a prototype. Taking a variant of the recently introduced CCKW 6×6 2-1/2 ton truck, they added a sealed buoyant hull, a propeller and rudder, and viola! the amphibious truck was born. Under the GMC naming convention of the time, D stood for designed in 1942, U for amphibious, K for all-wheel drive, and W for dual rear axles. Hence, DUKW, which quickly became to the GI tongue, the Duck.


The DUKW was a surprisingly seaworthy truck, and much faster on land than any other boat.  About 21,000 were produced by 1945, and served in the US Army and the Marines in just about every theater after North Africa.

Interesting tidbit. The documentary interviews Marines that operated DUKWs. In the Army, most were operated by African American soldiers in segregated units. The invasion of Iwo Jima is pretty much considered an all Marine Corps show, but Army Amphibian Truck Companies including the 476 ATC supported the operation, with its soldiers earning five Silver Stars and seventeen Bronze Stars, as well as the company being awarded a Navy Unit Commendation. That’s a hell of a record for a transportation company.

Over the years, many DUKWs have found their way through surplus sales into civilian hands, and they popular tour boats in places such as the Wisconsin Dells. That hasn’t been without risk. The sinking of a DUKW in Arkansas in 1999 cost 12 lives due to poor safety measures in place.

Still, the DUKW design was remarkably sound, given the time it took to develop, and was an extremely valuable tool in the amphibious operations of the war.


Filed under army

The Brodie System

We’ve actually written about it before, but the video linked then has been removed, so here’s some more. Via War is Boring, with a tip o’ the hat to Comrade Arthur.

Here’s the short video:


And here’s a longer video showing more detail.

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Filed under army, history, navy

M14 Enhanced Battle Rifle

Someone asked me the difference between a stock M14 rifle and the modified M14 EBR. Well, here’s the supplement to the technical manual that explains the key differences, and covers operator and armorer maintenance as well.


Filed under army