The US-announced withdrawal from the INF Treaty is a hot topic and will remain such for a long time. This is a game-changing decision, but the evolution of land-based surface-to-surface systems also impacts the contemporary warfare providing the armed forces with new capabilities, including strikes at shorter- and medium ranges without using missiles covered by the INF. Organized by the Association of the United States Army, the AUSA 2018 expo took place from October 8 to 10 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington DC. It was a mega-event to showcase the weaponry, which is to be used by the United States against peer adversaries – Russia and China. It demonstrated how rapid is the development of such weapons and how little attention media coverage it attracts.
Long-range precision fire is a priority to alter the ways contemporary battles will be fought. According to the Long Range Fires Cross Functional Team, “the joint force needs surface-to-surface fires capable of firing at strategic ranges to defeat near-peer integrated air defense systems.”
“We've got to push the maximum range of all systems under development for close, deep and strategic, and we have got to outgun the enemy,” US Army General Robert Brown, head of US Army Pacific Command, said during a panel discussion at the Global Force Symposium in March. “We don't do that right now; it's a huge gap. … We need cannons that fire as far as rockets today. We need rockets that fire as far as today's missiles, and we need missiles out to 499 kilometers.”
It should be noted that the official was talking about the range of 500 km not to be exceeded according to the INF Treaty, emphasizing the importance of ground-based weapons systems with intermediate-range capabilities. The mission is to field barrel-launched rockets and rounds that can fire at far greater distances. Col. Chris Mills, project manager, Precision Fires Rocket and Missile Systems, said at the AUSA 2018 that the possibility of increasing the Precision Strike Missile’s (PrSM) range will be considered in case the US is out from the treaty.
The new PrSM is developed to replace the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) providing increased standoff range enabling it to strike targets over 310 miles away or nearly 125 miles greater than that of ATACMS. It will also be more accurate and smaller. Low-observable platforms, such as the F-35 plane, will further extend that sensor range. It has been reported that the plans are being reviewed in order to accelerate the timeline from 2027 to an initial capability in the force by late 2022 or early 2023. One does not have to be a military expert to see that Russian S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air systems will be the prime targets for PrSMs with no aviation used and thus no expensive aircraft exposed.
With the US decision to tear up the INF treaty, the Strategic Long Range Cannon (SLRC) comes into the picture. The aim is to field an artillery piece firing chemically or electro-magnetically propelled rounds roughly 1,000 miles away without formally violating the INF because the rounds are not missiles. Army Futures Command’s chief, Gen. John Murray, told the House Armed Services Committee the service “is also looking at what we call the Strategic Long Range Cannon, which conceivably could have a range of up to 1,000 nautical miles.”
With a long barrel used, a shell can be propelled by multiple explosive charges to build up pressure behind the projectile like a rocket, extending range. A larger railgun is also an option if ways to provide power to make the range comparable to shorter- or medium range weapons are found.
So, the US Army is looking for precision-guided conventional weapons with intermediate range. As soon as the treaty is dead, the technology will be fielded and the development of better systems incentivized. With high precision technology, these weapons don’t have to be nuclear.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will provide guidance data to artillery systems, which knock out Russian air defense systems to pave the way for aviation striking deep to destroy key infrastructure sites. Long-range, precision guidance capable artillery will take out Russian aircraft and missiles, such as Iskander, on the ground. Hyper Velocity Projectiles now going through tests would turn the ground-based artillery and rocket systems into shorter-and medium-range offensive weapons doing largely the same job the ground-based systems intermediate-range ground-based missiles were destined for. Actually, with such systems in place, the INF Treaty would lose its relevance even if in place.
This is part of a broader picture as new weapon systems emerge along with the arms race encompassing new domains. It’s either addressing the issues via talks to control their development or let it slide into an unfettered competition. The US has chosen the latter. It has rejected the proposals to address cybersecurity as well as the problems related to space militarization. The announcement to leave the INF Treaty made the US responsible for the consequences. The reluctance to address the problem of new game-changing weapon systems emerging to change the modern warfare also makes it responsible for what happens afterwards, including Russia’s response. The US should be reminded of it at every international forum. Hopefully, it will.