Hypersonic missile technologies represent a fundamental shift in the way modern wars are waged. These platforms under development in Russia, China, and the United States travel at speeds in excess of Mach 5, making them all but impossible to intercept using existing missile defense systems. The seemingly unstoppable nature of these weapon platforms has forced the launch of a number of new defense initiatives, ranging from carrier-based drone refuelers — to extend Navy aircraft ranges and keep America’s carriers outside missile range — to the Army’s latest strategy: a big ass cannon.
Of course, that’s not the technical term for the Army’s plan to field a massive gun that can fire missiles at targets from 1,000 miles away — they’ve saddled it with the unoriginal title of Strategic Long-Range Cannon (SLRC), which, while lacking the dramatic flair of a Musk-helmed project (SpaceX’s forthcoming BFR rocket was originally named for an acronym that started with Big and ended with Rocket), offers an accurate description of the technology.
The Army only recently managed to bridge the capability gap between American self-propelled howitzers and those fielded by Russian forces, who have boasted a range of nearly double the American platform for years now. That technological advancement means American artillery can now strike targets as far away as forty miles, which, while impressive, also serves as a sobering reminder of just how massive an undertaking the development of a 1,000-mile cannon really can be.
The Army’s strategy for countering the threat posed by hypersonic missiles is two-fold: an as-yet-unnamed hypersonic weapon of their own will be used to target and destroy the most dangerous targets (which would likely be enemy hypersonic launch platforms). From there, the SLRC would step in, firing volleys of slower and far less expensive missiles at targets that are considered “softer,” such as radar installations and anti-aircraft assets. This one-two punch could potentially clear the way for American carriers to approach and begin launching sorties of aircraft tasked with air-to-surface operations that could beat back an enemy force and allow American ground forces to advance.
This strategy is notably not branch-specific. The U.S. Army, who has no experience with finding or engaging targets at a distance that even approaches a thousand miles with this sort of weapon system, acknowledges that they’ll need to lean on the experiences garnered through the Navy and Air Force’s long-range targeting endeavors. They have emphasized that developing this capability isn’t meant to bolster the Army’s ability to win wars — it’s aimed at helping the joint force do so.
“I’ve heard the Army senior leaders say several times that we aren’t entering the strategic fires arena for the Army’s sake,” Col. John Rafferty, who leads the Army’s Long-Range Precision Fires Cross-Functional Team (LRPF CFT), said to Breaking Defense. “We’re doing this for the joint force.”
Of course, this endeavor has its fair share of other challenges as well, including the Army’s decades-long history of starting this high profile projects only to see them fizzle out after years of development and millions of dollars spent. If they can manage to defeat their own bureaucratic red tape, all they have to do is figure out how to shoot a cannon 1,000 miles.
According to Rafferty, however, that might be the easy part… sort of. The colonel points out that the Army already has some big cannons, and although it may be hard to believe, developing this new weapon won’t require any new technology — just upsizing the technology the Army already has on its shelf. He points to the 155 mm howitzer and the Army’s rocket-boosted artillery shells that have already been in service for decades.
“I don’t want to oversimplify, (but) it’s a bigger one of those,” he explained. “We’re scaling up things that we’re already doing.”