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Does Army Need a New Mobile Howitzer?

As we reported the other day, the Army’s $200 billion Future Combat Systems modernization program looks likely to suffer some big hits when the defense budget is finally wrapped some time later this month. Rumors of FCS doom have its champions in Congress, chief among them being Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., vowing to fight for the perennially troubled program.

Dear to Inhofe’s heart, and his constituents, is the Non-Line Of Sight Cannon, originally part of FCS. It was given its own budget line by Inhofe in an effort to fence it off from possible cuts to the larger program. Why? Well, Oklahoma is home to Ft. Sill, the Army’s artillery center for one thing and NLOS-C builder BAE Systems kindly said it would produce the cannon in Elgin, Okla. Inhofe has included language in past defense bills telling the Army to build a number of prototypes and rapidly move NLOS-C into full-scale production.

The NLOS-C is a continuation of the Army’s Crusader mobile howitzer program that was unceremoniously cancelled by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld; many of the parts used in the NLOS-C were originally designed for Crusader. It is intended to replace the Paladin 155mm self-propelled howitzer, and is optimized for long range counter-battery fire on a conventional battlefield. In a statement released by his office this week, Inhofe said: “To say that FCS and the NLOS-C are designed for a conventional war is narrow-minded and overlooks the reality that the systems that FCS will replace are being used on the battlefields today in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Over the past eight years, battles in Afghanistan’s road-less and mountainous terrain have certainly demonstrated the need for organic fire support to light infantry, but of the mortar variety, or perhaps a lightweight "mountain" cannon, not a large, tracked mobile howitzer. In Iraq, the Army’s Paladins spend their tours of duty parked in the motor pool as the “red legs” go off to patrol as motorized infantry.

The Paladin is more than adequate to give the Army’s maneuver formations mobile fire support if they square off against an enemy mechanized army any time in the near future. To counter insurgent mortar and rocket fire in Iraq, air strikes from fixed wing or attack helicopters have proven more responsive and accurate than artillery fire, if for no other reason than the air space must be cleared before artillery can fire, an often lengthy process.

The Teal Group’s Steven Zaloga, who has studied and written more about armored vehicles and artillery than anybody, told me that putting the massive 155mm howitzer on a lightweight FCS chassis, even with efforts to minimize recoil, is a really bad idea. “The problem with a self-propelled field howitzer is once you put them in the field they get the crap beaten out of them. That’s the nature of artillery. The shock of firing a big caliber weapon beats them up… That little chassis is going to get shot to hell.” (Personal note: I’ve fired a Paladin and they do pack one hell of a wallop). The NLOS-C chassis is too small to carry its own ammunition, so it will have a bunch of ammo carriers following it around, defeating the whole smaller footprint idea, he says.

The NLOS-C does not fit with the major force structure changes underway being pushed by SecDef Gates, his brain trust in OSD, including ASD SOLIC Michael Vickers, and a number of influential commanders, such as Marine Gen. James Mattis at JFCOM. Their vision of future wars includes small, highly skilled teams working either in direct action SOF mode or in Green Beret trainer and advisor mode. They don’t see much of a place for the big World War II style fire and maneuver battle.

As Frank Hoffman, an irregular warfare expert at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va., says, fighting a globally dispersed enemy of small, networked insurgent and terrorist cells is not a job well suited for large conventional ground forces. "There is no mass for our formations to attack." That’s the lesson America’s enemies picked up from watching U.S. military operations in the early 1990s: don’t do what Saddam Hussein did with his army and provide easy targets for American sensors and precision weapons that can kill you. Instead, disperse among crowds of civilians and in the maze of city streets as was done so effectively in Mogadishu.

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