Aiming The US Army’s Thousand-Mile Missiles


The Army wants new long-range missiles that can shoot a thousand miles. But first it has to figure out how to use them. That requires training a new cadre of Army targeteers to work more closely with the other services than ever before. Why? Because even if the Army can build the new superweapons, it’ll be firing blind unless it is hooked up with the other services’ satellites, planes, and drones to spot targets. The smartest smart weapon is pretty dumb if you don’t know what to shoot at.

What’s more, long-range firepower requires not only long-range sensors to spot targets, but an in-depth planning process that starts long before the first shot is fired. That’s something the other services have done for years for airstrikes, but the Army hasn’t had to. So the service has created an Army Multi-Domain Targeting Center to train a new cadre of joint-certified targeteers.

It’s complex. As the military’s joint Combatant Commands put together their contingency plans, they need to analyze the threat; figure out what parts of the potential enemy force would be priority targets; allocate scarce assets to look for them; and determine the best weapons to neutralize specific targets in specific scenarios. That might mean the new Army missiles, or it could be Air Force smart bombs, Navy Tomahawks launched from ships and submarines, cyber attacks, electronic jamming, or any number of options. That way, when and if a war starts – the hope, of course, is to deter one from ever starting – there’s a playbook of targets and how to hit them already at hand.

Late To the Party

Historically, however, the Army simply hasn’t had to do this, because it hasn’t hadlong-range weapons it had to find targets for. Except for the Pershing II nuclear missile in the 1980s – decommissioned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) – its longest-range weapon has been the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), with a reach of about 188 miles.

The classic AirLand Battle doctrine of the Cold War left all targets beyond that range, and many within it, to the Air Force. In the generation of guerrilla warfare since 9/11, US control of the air was so complete, the enemy so incapable of shooting down US aircraft, and American airstrikes so precise, that even small Army units could quickly call in Close Air Support (CAS) from Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots against targets right in front of them.

“We could always depend on air supremacy, maritime supremacy, prior to getting engaged in the fight,” said Col. Yi Se Gwon, director of the Army Multi-Domain Targeting Center at Fort Sill, Okla. “So we didn’t really have a need to execute the joint targeting process.”

In fact, most Army officers didn’t really understand how joint targeting works. “We didn’t have to think about it,” Gwon told me in an interview. “Prior to 2015, I didn’t know it myself.”

But that year, Gwon went to South Korea to command the Battlefield Coordination Detachment there, representing the Army in the Air Operations Center. That’s where all the services work together to determine potential targets, assign intelligence assets to find them, and plan how to destroy them if North Korea started a war.

Both the targeting problem and the joint process to solve it were far more complex than what the Army was used to in Afghanistan in Iraq. Gwon realized, he told me, that “there was a whole broader mechanism we could be tying into much better.”

Multi-Domain Targeting

Meanwhile, back in the US, the Army was studying a 21st century successor to AirLand Battle, what became known as Multi-Domain Operations. With Russian and Chinese long-range precision missiles increasingly able to keep US ships and aircraft at bay, the Army believed it could no longer count on the Air Force, Navy, and Marines for fire support. To the contrary, the Army might need to support the other services by destroying enemy anti-aircraft or anti-ship missiles with artillery, ground-launched missiles, or helicopters.

But if the Army was going to evolve from a consumer of joint, long-range precision firepower into a provider, it had to participate with the other services in targeting that firepower across a vast and complex battlefield. That meant Army officers had to learn how to conduct the joint process Gwon had been so impressed by in Korea.

The Army Multi-Domain Targeting Center which Gwon heads was created in 2016, after a series of studies, to train and certify a new cadre of soldiers in joint targeting. But how many joint targeteers does the Army need?

“Approximately 500 across the Army,” Gwon estimates. Those soldiers will man the necessary targeting cells in corps headquarters and selected divisions. (Division headquarters sometimes plug directly into joint command structures but usually go through a corps, so they don’t always need their own joint targeteers). But those 500 might just be a first installment, he acknowledges.

The technology and the trained people to use it need to evolve together. That’s why Gwon and the Targeting Center are at Fort Sill, the Army’s artillery school. So is the Cross Functional Team that’s developing new equipment and concepts for Long Range Precision Fires.

They’re almost “around the corner,” said the CFT director, Col. John Raffety (soon to be a brigadier general). “The director over there and I are old friends,” he said of Col. Gwon. “We’ll work closely with them.”

The CFT also has its own Army targeting officer on staff and, as of a few days ago, a military intelligence officer. “What I’m really excited about,” Rafferty told me, “(is) those are our teammates that are going to connect us to the joint targeting process, who are going to communicate with the joint intelligence community.”

The common goal? To have enough certified personnel – not just individuals here and there, but whole teams and staffs trained to work together – to make the best use of the Army’s new long-range weapons as soon as they enter service.

Sharing Sensors

Even when the weapons are built, the Army won’t have its own reconnaissance satellites or long-range drones to pinpoint distant targets, Gwon and Rafferty both told me. There’s no need to duplicate what the other services are already doing in Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), because the whole point of the joint targeting process is to share assets efficiently across the entire joint force.

So, for example, “we’re not fielding a suite of Army drones to go out and find targets for SLRC (the Strategic Long-Range Cannon) for self-serving Army requirements,” Rafferty said. In most cases, he said, “these are really to address the same targets that are out there now”: the long-range radars, surface-to-air missiles, and air defense command posts which Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots are already worried about, which are growing ever more sophisticated and threatening, and which we could use more ways to take down.

Now, the Army is also upgrading its existing cannon, rockets, and missiles, primarily to support the Army’s own ground forces by striking tacticaltargets. But, Rafferty explained, the new, ultra-long-range “strategic fires” systems will serve “the strategic joint fight,” helping the Air Force, Navy, and Marines break through the anti-access defenses.

Both the tactical and strategic missions require the Army to “streamline the sensor-shooter link at every echelon,” Rafferty said. Army launch batteries will need a network to swiftly suck up targeting data from far-flung sources, not just their own unit or even their own service. For the strategic fires weapons in particular, “our connection….can’t stop at the (Army) strategic fires battalion headquarters,” he said. “It’s got to continue past that — or even bypass that.”

“We, the Army, won’t own the ISR platform, but we’ll definitely be telling it which target we need it to collect on,” Gwon told me. The new cadre of joint-certified Army targeteers, he said, will be “the bridge to get the ISR we’re going to need to employ long-range precision fires the way it’s being designed to be employed, at hundreds of kilometers.”

This article was first published by our partner Breaking Defense on September 11, 2018.