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Modern artillery is better, stronger, faster

UDAIRI RANGE, Kuwait—Soldiers call it the "King of Battle" because nothing rules the field of war like the heavy guns of an army's artillery.

Just as lasers, global positioning systems and digital communications once revolutionized air warfare, similar advances on the ground during the past decade have brought artillery again to the forefront of battle, where it was temporarily eclipsed.

During the 1991 Gulf War, 155mm M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzers and M270 multiple-launch rocket systems saw little use outside the opening hours of the 100-hour ground campaign that drove Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait.

That's because gun crews found it impossible to maneuver the big guns into place, fire and still keep up with faster M1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. With the advent of wide-scale precision bombing during the Gulf War, some military analysts predicted that heavy artillery could go the way of the black powder cannon.

Just the opposite happened.

"The best way to put it is what used to take minutes now takes seconds," said Maj. Eric Kail, 37, executive officer for the 1-10 Field Artillery, from Fort Benning, Ga.

From the time ancient Romans used catapults to hurl rocks, flaming objects and large steel-tipped arrows at enemy fortifications, artillery has been one of the most feared and terrible weapons a soldier on the battlefield could face.

But hurling a large projectile over a long distance, even in modern times, has been a tricky science. History is rife with examples of "friendly fire" deaths caused by errant artillery rounds.

Because of the risk, bringing effective artillery fire to bear on an enemy is a painstaking process. Even with global-positioning systems (GPS) in the 1991 Gulf War, M109 and rocket launcher crews still had to chart their shots and their probable impact with a complex set of geometric formulas and map coordinates given via radio by a forward observer.

After the first round landed, the observer would call in corrections to "adjust fire" for a second one. Depending on where the second round hit, he would then radio an adjusted set of coordinates with the instructions "fire for effect" until the target was destroyed.

The process is known as "bracketing." In the past, it could take experienced artillery observers and gun crews anywhere from five to 15 minutes to get the first round on target.

Now because of a GPS-based network called the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System the process takes only a fraction of the time.

"Now you can pull up in a Bradley, use a laser range finder and get a 10-digit grid coordinate with the push of a button," said 1st Lt. James Morse, 32, platoon leader from Des Moines, Iowa for the M109A6 Paladin, which has the latest electronic improvements.

In a separate vehicle containing the fire direction center, other soldiers crunch in factors such as distance, altitude, wind speed, humidity, barometric pressure, the earth's rotational speed, the muzzle velocity of the gun and the type of projectile. The system takes 12 seconds to compute the data and come up with a "target solution." The fire direction center transmits that data to the gun crews.

If they are on the move, the only thing a gun crew has to do is stop, recheck the data and shoot. The M109A6 Paladin can hurl a 96-pound projectile for 18 miles.

"With the GPS and the computer, we can pull into position and within a matter of seconds, the entire battery can be ready to fire," Morse said.

The automated system has also allowed U.S. artillery officers to change their tactics. In the past, they had to position their guns close together to achieve maximum effect on a target. But in doing so, they also exposed their soldiers to greater risk from enemy counter-battery fire. The new system allows them to disperse over a larger area, giving troops a greater chance of survival.

But even spread over a wide area, the system produces maximum firepower like never before, artillery officers say. During an exercise last week, Capt. Dererick Giles, 30, an M109 battery commander from Lexington, Miss., watched as rounds from almost 70 howitzers and rocket launchers pummeled a target area about 1,300 yards away.

With a kill radius of 35 yards, the barrage blanketed an area that measured several hundred yards square.

"That would be considered a total wipeout," said Giles. "Anything standing within 250 meters of that target area would be totally annihilated."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): iraq+exercise