Since the GPS-guided Excalibur artillery round first made it to Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly 200 rounds have been fired. In the last week or so, use of that round has pulsed. Army artillerymen have fired 20 rounds or 10 percent of the total in Afghanistan, according to James Riley, Raytheon Missile System's vice president for land systems. We don't have similar numbers for the Marines, who have been using the shell as well.
Excalibur has been at the center of debate in the Army as the service grapples with the tradeoffs of cost, capability and logistics. Army Vice Chief of Staff Chiarelli has singled out Excalibur as an example of a weapon that would be nice to have lots of if only it didn't cost so much compared to alternatives such as PGK (Precision Guidance Kit), a GPS setup that can be put on a $600 shell.
There are significant differences in accuracy between Excalibur and the PGK. Excalibur's circular error of probability (CEP) is 2.86 meters at 40 kilometers, Riley said. PGK's CEP requirement is better than 50 meters at that range, according to a briefing on the system. Excalibur's greater accuracy has several effects beyond the obvious one of destroying the target with greater certainty. It allows artillerymen to operate a much lighter logistics tail. More accurate shells means far fewer shells are needed and fewer artillery pieces. Given the enormous costs of moving materiel to Afghanistan Excalibur could have a significant cost effect on the Army and Marine's resupply efforts.
The services have changed the tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) governing Excalibur use. When it was first deployed, artillerymen were required to use two rounds for each target, Riley said. That has been changed to one shell, clear testament to the system's accuracy.
The Army apparently plans to cut the number of Excalibur shells it buys from 30,000 to 6,264. That, of course, will drive up the politically sensitive unit cost. The unit cost ranges roughly from $47,000 to $99,000 per shell, depending on how many are bought. A Raytheon program official said the Army could save 30 percent of the unit cost if it buys the shells at full production rates of roughly 1,500 per year.
What does the enemy think of the weapon? As our own Christian Lowe reported from Afghanistan this summer, the Excalibur is fondly known by the Taliban as the Finger of Death.