Turning the Tide of Battle

In mythology, Excalibur was the legendary sword of King Arthur. It was such a formidable weapon that it was sometimes attributed to having supernatural powers. Therefore, whoever possessed it was the nation’s rightful ruler. Perhaps that’s why the M982 Excalibur artillery round has a similar symbolic meaning to the forces utilizing it today in Ukraine.

US Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, load a  satellite-guided Excalibur XM982 Precision Engagement Projectile during a fire mission. Image Credit: Sgt. Earnest J. Barnes via DVIDS

In mid-July, The New York Times reported that the 1,000 155 howitzer rounds we were sending to Ukraine, the ones the government said provided “greater precision” than regular shells, were highly accurate Excalibur rounds. A couple of months earlier, Canada had also sent Ukraine some of these highly accurate GPS-guided rounds.

The manufacturer of the munition, Raytheon, speaks with pride about their product. Video courtesy of YouTube and Raytheon Missiles and Defense.

According to Forbes, the United States has sent at least 126 M-177 howitzers to the Ukrainian Army. Other nations have sent several more. It is these 155 mm howitzers that are used to send the precision projectiles downrange and towards the enemy. At the time we first sent these $100,000 piece rounds overseas, an unnamed US military official told the press,

“So as you know, we’re conducting training out of Ukraine and Germany and England, And so, we’ve got everything from maintenance courses that we’re running, continuing to train on the employment of artillery systems, both HIMARS [rocket launchers] and howitzers. We’re working on Excalibur employment, and that’s our big stuff.”

I’m glad we’re slowly starting to send Ukrainian forces “the good stuff.” They are using it wisely, and it is starting to turn the tide of numerous battles in their favor. For example, instead of wasting these costly and highly accurate rounds to take out troops, they are being utilized to target Russian ammo resupply points and command and control centers. By removing these from the equation, they are taking out the eyes and ears of their enemy. Destroying ammunition and weapons caches eliminates the ability of the enemy to move forward effectively. Instead, they are forced to wait for resupply, and Russian replenishment systems are notoriously slow and inefficient, as is the rest of their logistics support. The Ukrainians are fighting smart. Hard and smart.

Just Tell It Where to Go

One of the co-developers of Excalibur, BAE Systems, puts it quite simply. They say, “Tell the round where to go, and it goes there.” Sometimes simple is best, but it takes a lot of sophisticated hardware and software to achieve that effect.

According to a US Department of Defense (DoD) handout on the munition, the following is the mission of the M982 Excalibur, it “Provides improved fire support to the maneuver force commander through
a precision-guided, extended-range artillery projectile that increases lethality and reduces collateral damage.” That’s a lot of Army-speak there. In short, it’s a better howitzer round. Much more accurate than lobbing “dumb” unguided bombs at the enemy.

The Excalibur is what is known as a “precision munition.” It is Global Positioning System (GPS) guided. GPS coordinates for the target are entered into the weapon system’s firing computer through what is known as an Enhanced Portable Inductive Artillery Fuze Setter (EPIAFS). We sure do love our acronyms in the Army, even when you can’t pronounce them.

Explaining more about the guidance system, the DoD goes on to say,

“Excalibur uses a jam-resistant internal GPS receiver to update the inertial navigation system, providing precision in-flight guidance and dramatically improving accuracy regardless of range. Excalibur has three fuze options (height-of-burst, point-detonating, and delay/penetration) and is employable in
all weather conditions and terrain.”

The munition is so precise that it can be used close-support operations within 75 to 150 meters of friendly troops. A skilled operator can put rounds within 2 meters of its intended target regardless of range. There are numerous videos online of Excaliburs being used to destroy vehicles. In one, the round enters right through the open passenger side window.

These high-tech howitzer rounds utilize a high explosive warhead effective against personnel, non-fortified urban structures, and what the military generically refers to as “materiel” – light vehicles, equipment, etc. The maximum effective range of the projectile is 40 km, about 25 miles, according to the US Army Acquisition Support Center (USAASC).

Excalibur is part of an international cooperative effort with one of the newest probable members of NATO, Sweden. They contribute resources (time, talent, and money) toward the round’s ongoing development. Accordingly, the rounds may be fired from the Swedish-made Archer howitzer.

Additionally, they may be fired from the M777A2 howitzer (of which many have been provided to Ukraine) and the self-propelled M109A6 155 mm howitzer, also known as the Paladin.