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Weapons with dual missions

Land-based precision fires protect territory, promote deterrence

Forward-deployed Strategic Long-Range Precision Fires (SLRPF) are major assets in the United States’ arsenal to leverage if the nation, along with its allies and partners, is forced to respond militarily to aggressive actions in the Indo-Pacific region, including those by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Strategically placed, these mobile U.S. Army warfighting systems provide significant deterrence in conjunction with existing and constantly improving multidomain — air, cyber, land, sea, space and electromagnetic spectrum — capabilities.  

Distribution of SLRPF systems allows like-minded nations to maintain a Free and Open Indo-Pacific by providing strategic overmatch to adversaries’ advanced missile technologies and power projection platforms. 

SLRPF are large-caliber, heavy-hitting weapons — including missiles, cannons and other artillery — designed to pierce enemy lines and destroy key targets at extended ranges. Like other signature U.S. Army systems, however, they must evolve with warfare’s rapidly changing nature to remain effective.

“Improving the strength and agility of the Army’s field artillery systems and munitions will allow our Soldiers to deliver more precise and punishing effects on future battlefields,” said Maj. Gen. John Rafferty, who served as director of the U.S. Army Futures Command’s Long Range Precision Fires Cross-Functional Team from May 2018 to June 2022. The group, based at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, is charged with navigating how to advance Long Range Precision Fires for a new era of warfare. The program is the Army’s tactical modernization priority, and exploring possibilities for the systems involves tapping the expertise of the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command along with input from industry and academia.

Installation of the systems is a key part of a plan by the U.S. and its allies and partners to address CCP threats in the South China and East China seas, and elsewhere. Success entails cooperation among nations, such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and the U.S., along with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), India, New Zealand and Pacific Island Countries. By bolstering an unparalleled network of allies and partners that share a vision, including respect for a rules-based international order, the nations can deter aggression, ensuring collective security and prosperity.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s (USINDOPACOM) area of responsibility is the U.S. Department of Defense’s priority theater. Adm. John C. Aquilino, Commander of USINDOPACOM, stated that every domain in the region is contested by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the U.S. must remain ahead of the PRC’s capabilities with technological advances in artificial intelligence, offensive fires, directed energy, hypersonics and quantum computing, with advances integrated into the joint allied/partnership force as quickly as possible.

Members of a U.S. Army operations squadron pose before the launch of a Precision Strike Missile from a HIMARS field artillery launcher in October 2021. AIRMAN 1ST CLASS KADIELLE SHAW/U.S. AIR FORCE

A flight test conducted at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, in October 2021, validated Army SLRPF’s ability to fire missiles beyond 499 kilometers, which exceeds the 300-kilometer range of the existing Army Tactical Missile System. The Army plans to roll out the first operational Precision Strike Missiles (PrSM) in 2023, and the United Kingdom has announced it will field a PrSM in 2024 as part of an upgrade to its M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System. The new missile system is composed of existing launchers armed with the Army’s next-generation PrSMs and can destroy aerial threats, missile launchers, command and control centers, assembly/staging areas and other mission-critical targets. The missiles have a multimode seeker that locks onto enemy radar and radio signals, opening the door to strikes against maritime as well as traditional ground-based targets.

An incentive for diplomacy

It is likely that increasing U.S. and ally/partner military deterrence in the manner described by Aquilino and other U.S. military leaders will give pause to the CCP’s expansionist tendencies and improve the likelihood of diplomatic solutions to the potential flashpoints in the South China and East China seas.

The U.S. needs to move away from big, expensive, “prestige” platforms such as ships and aircraft that can be targeted with less expensive anti-access/area denial systems and invest in smaller, less costly and easily manufactured weaponry. To rebalance deterrence in the region, the U.S. should focus on improving area denial weapons.

“A combat-credible, conventional deterrent posture is necessary to prevent conflict, protect U.S. interests, and to assure our allies and partners,” Adm. Philip S. Davidson, then USINDOPACOM commander, testified before the U.S. Congress in March 2021. “Absent a convincing deterrent, the People’s Republic of China will be emboldened to take action to undermine the rules-based international order and the values represented in our vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”

A Precision Strike Missile launches in a test fire at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, in October 2021. ANTHONY MENDEZ/U.S. SPACE FORCE

The goal of U.S.-led deterrence in the Indo-Pacific is to place enemy forces at risk and to make any hostile action, such as a potential CCP invasion of self-governed Taiwan, too costly to execute.

The Indo-Pacific is characterized by vast expanses of ocean and archipelagos of thousands of islands of varying size and terrain. Factoring these geographic characteristics into planning for a conventional deterrent in an environment shaped, in part, by the PRC’s posture requires regionally distributed long-range precision strike capabilities.

The SLRPF system would offer strategic and financial advantages over legacy weapons. The Army PrSM is an example of the concept. Using a legacy platform such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) or the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), the PrSM can launch an anti-ship missile more than 500 kilometers, putting enemy naval vessels at risk. Meanwhile, manned aircraft have limited range and flight duration, are vulnerable to sophisticated adversarial air defense systems and lack the persistent, all-weather deterrent provided by SLRPF.

The SLRPF system’s proficiencies are hugely beneficial. “I think having a deep portfolio of range capabilities in the Pacific gives you lots of options because there are so many different locations that you can imagine firing from,” Rafferty told the website Defense News in September 2020. “And mixing and matching long-range capabilities from all those sorts of different locations creates an incredible dilemma for the enemy.”

The Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF) is the Army’s answer to the requirements for operational and strategic precision fires with varying missile, air defense, intelligence and cyber elements that together facilitate capabilities to defend a given area — the cornerstone of a combat-credible deterrence.

The Army’s SLRPF weapons and their ranges available to the MDTF include:

The long-range hypersonic weapon (2,775 kilometers)

The PrSM, compatible with HIMARS/MLRS launchers (500 kilometers)

The midrange capability (SM-6 missile, ground-launched Tomahawk Land Attack
Missile and PrSM Spiral 3) (1,800 kilometers)

The Extended-Range Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, compatible with HIMARS/MLRS launchers (150 kilometers)

The Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb, compatible with HIMARS/MLRS launchers
(150 kilometers)

These weapons will counter those installed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Rocket Force, most of which are positioned in eastern China within range of where the PLA anticipates the most likely confrontations: the South China and East China seas, the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan. Deploying mobile, ground-launched SLRPF systems in the region will complicate the calculus of PLA planners and increase the resources needed to target the systems.

“While Beijing might conceivably elect to target the handful of nearby bases capable of accommodating U.S. heavy bombers, and force U.S. surface warships to stand off from China’s coasts, finding hundreds of Army ground launchers that are constantly moving would be a Herculean task well beyond the capacity of Chinese forces,” Forbes magazine reported in October 2021.

Another factor to consider is the type of SLRPF system deployed. Hypersonic missiles, which can travel more than five times the speed of sound, are easily distinguishable from other Army SLRPF systems. Placing a hypersonic system without it being quickly identified would be difficult. Conversely, PrSM missile ammunition pods are practically indistinguishable from legacy HIMARS and MLRS pods, and adversaries would be hard-pressed to determine which missiles are being launched. This could provide additional flexibility in deploying advanced missile capabilities and potentially decrease the magnitude of the CCP’s response.

U.S. Soldiers inspect a HIMARS mobile platform that can launch SLRPF. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Looming questions

Where will the U.S. and its allies and partners place SLRPF systems? The military assets ideally should be strategically postured forward to deter, and if deterrence fails, effectively respond in kind to adversarial aggression to restore stability and security in the region. 

The U.S. must assure allies and partners of its strong and enduring commitment to the region, and that it will counteract CCP coercion. In turn, countries that agree to host an Army SLRPF system likely will view their decision as bolstering deterrence against a Chinese regime that is increasingly assertive, coercive, and dismissive of international rules and norms.

Stationed fires in South Korea are placed to deter North Korean aggression and to stabilize the region. They are not positioned as a threat to the PRC.

“Together with our allies and partners, our professionally trained and lethal joint military force, posture forward will provide the deterrence required while enabling diplomacy from a position of strength to ensure peace, stability and prosperity for all in the region,” Aquilino said during his congressional confirmation hearing in March 2021.

How might the CCP respond to SLRPF systems? Experts have identified three key factors likely to determine the answer:

Deterrence — the ability of the U.S. and its allies and partners to balance the PLA’s presence in the South China and East China seas and elsewhere by introducing their own formidable force.

Economic power — our collective ability to counter the CCP’s use of trade, lending and other economic levers unfettered by adherence to international laws and norms.

Allied cohesion — the degree to which allies and partners, including Quad members Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., and like-minded nations such as the Philippines and South Korea, can build and maintain consensus and interoperability.

To preempt deployment of SLRPF systems, the CCP would likely turn to bribes, bluster and veiled threats, including propaganda campaigns to persuade pivotal nations to refuse access to the U.S. for placement of the systems. If that fails, Beijing will likely resort to economic coercion and cyberattacks in an attempt to achieve its political objectives without armed conflict.

With an increasingly assertive CCP, a credible deterrent is imperative, and U.S. Army land-based SLRPF systems should be the foundation of that deterrent. Given its cross-domain capabilities and flexibility, the U.S. Army MDTF is the ideal unit to introduce this emerging technology to the region. The CCP will no doubt counter with rhetoric and coercion to prevent the U.S. Army from gaining positions in the First Island Chain. But by preparing for such a response, the U.S. and its allies and partners can gain and maintain regional control.

Many U.S. partners and allies hope to procure HIMARS and MLRS based on their value to Ukrainian forces defending against Russian invaders. It’s a great opportunity to get these systems in like-minded nations’ hands.

“In complex and high-tech operational environments, reaching and neutralizing threats quickly and accurately will be of utmost importance,” Rafferty said. “Thankfully, the capabilities we see already emerging as a result of strategic investments in modernization will expand the range, lethality and impact of our surface-to-surface fires, keeping the Army, the joint force and our allies a crucial step ahead of any near-peer adversaries.”  

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