Field artillery is known as the “King of Battle” for good reason. From the Napoleonic Wars until modern times, artillery has been by far the most effective and deadly land-based weapon, killing and wounding far more soldiers than infantry, cavalry or later, armor. After he learned of its effects on invading German armies in World War II, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, officially an atheist himself, elevated artillery from royal to divine status, calling it “the God of War.”
Today’s M777 lightweight howitzer can fire conventional rounds about 15 miles with a circular error probable (CEP) of 200 to 300 meters. CEP is a measure of accuracy that predicts half of the rounds fired at a specified range will hit within a defined radius around the intended target. While standard artillery is not inherently precise, artillery units employ tactics to ensure target destruction.
A common tactic is firing a salvo of many rounds to ensure that the projectile’s lethal radius accomplishes its mission. This tactic is awe-inspiring, since the explosive capability and lethal range of modern rounds virtually guarantees target damage or destruction. However, in many combat situations, artillery’s combat dominance has proven to be limited because it is not precise enough to avoid collateral damage. Consequently, artillery has not played a major role in counter-insurgency warfare when adversaries use noncombatant populations as shields or simply operate in congested areas where they are hard to identify.
Given all the improvements already incorporated to achieve accuracy, one developmental area remained: artillery rounds themselves. To reach this objective, researchers looked for ways to apply technologies similar to missile guidance systems. In barely more than a decade, these efforts succeeded, putting artillery back in the fight. As Rollie Dohrn, ATK Armament Systems chief engineer, noted recently, “New guidance systems are the first major technology breakthrough in artillery since the development of variable time fuzes during World War II.”
Today, incredibly accurate ordnance is hitting targets in Afghanistan with high precision and near precision, thanks to ATK and Raytheon, both major U.S. defense contractors. According to Dohrn, accuracy research began in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The goal was to provide low-cost, near-precision systems. Near precision is defined as a CEP of 50 meters, which means half the rounds fired at a target will impact within a 50-meter radius of the target point. Precision is about an order of magnitude better, with a CEP of 5 to 10 meters from the target point. Although artillery had used just one dimension, range, to correct fire, ATK began to focus on a two-dimensional, range and azimuth correcting mechanism during initial system development, an initiative that led to the Precision Guidance Kit (PGK).