AUSTIN, Texas — The military’s missile crews of the future might not be crews at all.
Or if they are, these crews will consist of fewer people, more robots, and have their launchers spread out over vast distances with a range of new fires at their fingertips.
Future batteries could carry rockets that extract oxygen from the air mid-flight, track moving targets, and deliver big booms or a quiet electronic attack.
These are some of the goals of the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command that Hunter Blackwell, an official with the command’s aviation and missile center, shared Monday at the Army’s annual Future Force Capabilities conference. National Defense Industrial Association.
Blackwell outlined the priorities and challenges facing the Army missile community in the years to come.
Long-range sniper fire has dominated recent modernization conversations, showing that the service will rely heavily on its rockets and artillery in future complex, crowded and deadly battles.
First, Blackwell noted, they will have to “break the enemy bubble” by eliminating anti-access and area denial systems at all echelons. At the same time, they must protect friendly forces by gaining fire with range, range, and speed beyond what is currently available.
And to win, they will have to shoot on the move, to enable agile maneuvering, putting the right force in the right place at the right time. No more installing guns and shooting all day at various targets. It’s shooting, moving, shooting, all day.
The most important and so far the most promising system to achieve this is the army’s precision missile program, being developed by Lockheed Martin. The PrSM will replace the army’s existing tactical missile system.
But the military isn’t just building a bigger rocket with PrSM. As Defense News reported in 2021 during an initial capability demonstration at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, developers expect systems like PrSM to work in manned and unmanned teams.
This demonstration fired seven missiles from two rocket platforms, one manned, one unmanned, both unloaded from cargo planes to fire and then reloaded – simulating the rapid setup, firing and dismounting that the army needs.
“That means things like autonomy, platforms that can operate without the same soldier footprint to execute their mission. It gives us more firepower for the same soldier footprint,” Blackwell said.
Designers tackling the robot driver problem are working in the Autonomous Multi-Domain Launcher, or AML, program, Blackwell said.
Currently, they use the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, as a test bed for the AML. By removing the cabin and other elements that support the human on the HIMARS, they add more space for, wait… more rockets.
But moving missiles on automated trucks is one thing. The army wants more of the real ammunition. It must exceed the current range of 500 kilometers and up to potentially 1,000 kilometers, Blackwell said.
Researchers are working on the problem of distance with solid rockets and alternative propulsion systems. Right now, nearly 80% of the fuel aboard the rocket is oxygen, Blackwell said. If they are successful in extracting oxygen from the air en route to the target, this opens up more space for more evil effects inside the munition.
The warhead must strike and destroy a moving target. That’s why future rocket and artillery soldiers should think about where the target will be, not where it is.
The military also wants “multimode search technology,” according to Blackwell. This technology will give the PrSM the ability to hit high priority moving land and sea targets.
Missile defenses that protect the rest of the soldiers on the battlefield should be available at all levels. Air defense systems managed by missile teams would deal with low-level threats against squads, platoons, and higher-order long-range missiles. They don’t just watch over the command post and leave scattered squads to fend for themselves.
It’s combat economics: forcing the adversary to use more expensive ammunition to counter cheaper ammunition, Blackwell said.
It’s a lesson learned on the American side during the fight against terrorism and counter-insurgency warfare in which cheap drones or shoulder-fired rockets plagued defenders with expensive missile defense systems, a- he added.
Todd South has written about crime, the courts, government and the military for several publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer Finalist for a co-authored project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Navy veteran of the Iraq War.