Authored by: MG(US-Army-Ret) Paul Vallely and Drew Johnson

Speaking to Congress last month, National Intelligence Director James Clapper issued a stark reminder: “Russia… has the largest and most capable nuclear missile force.” And distressingly, according to Clapper, Russia has developed a new ground-launched missile that breaks a 1987 nuclear weapons treaty.[1]

Tensions between the United States and Russia are at a post-Cold War high. Yet America’s defense systems haven’t kept pace. Specifically, the U.S. military has failed to evolve its conventional long-range missile technologies, which are critical for countering a well-armed adversary like Russia — and rogue nations like North Korea. Both these nations have considerable ground forces at their disposal which would attempt to overwhelm U.S. troops if a conflict ever took place.

Fortunately, the U.S. Army is working to create a new missile system that’s up to the challenges posed by the current geopolitical environment. The military’s brass must make sure this effort keeps moving forward.

The specific technology that is becoming obsolete is known as the Army Tactical Missile System, known as ATACMS. ATACMS are surface-launched missiles with a range of up to 168 miles. Usually mounted on track-and-wheeled vehicles, these missiles are presently the go-to alternative when airstrikes aren’t possible. They’re also essential in situations when our ground troops are outnumbered and face adversaries with long range rocket and artillery systems of their own.

ATACMS played a key role in the 1991 Gulf War, helping to disable enemy air defenses and establish American air superiority.[2]

However, given our global enemies’ rapidly evolving ground-launched capabilities — not to mention their potentially overwhelming ground armies that can strike from extended range — ATACMS is now dangerously out-of-date.

Military commanders are in wide agreement that the system simply isn’t suitable for meeting mounting threats from Russia, North Korea, ISIL, and elsewhere. As Army acquisition chief Heidi Shyu recently explained, the Army needs missiles with “much longer range than we have today.”[3]

In fact, the current system is so antiquated and overpriced that it’s no longer in mass production for the U.S. Army. It’s also incompatible with America’s warfare commitments. This system was designed to deliver both individual bombs and cluster munitions, which are multiple small bombs. But, in response to the 2008 Oslo Treaty, the United States has promised to no longer use cluster munitions beginning in 2019.[4]

And while the army is in the process of upgrading those systems already in use, this life-extension effort is only a short-term fix. In the long-term, relying on our existing ATACMS capabilities is an exceptionally poor use of military funds.

Consider that each of these legacy systems costs over $1.1 million.[5] The per-unit cost of a new, cutting-edge system, on the other hand, would cost about 35 percent less.[6]

Fortunately, the Army’s senior leadership has recognized the value of building a brand-new, state-of-the-art long-range precision fires system. According to Marcia Holmes, chief engineer for the Army’s Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space, the next-generation system would have a range of between 185 miles and 310 miles.[7]

It would also support at least two on a single wheeled launcher and as many as four missiles on the Army’s tracked launcher vehicle, vastly improving our ability to launch multiple missiles from a single assembly.[8] The current system can only launch one missile per wheeled launcher, severely limiting its target range.

These are precisely the kinds of capabilities needed to maintain America’s tactical edge against increasingly belligerent countries like Russia and North Korea. And since developing such a system will actually cost less than patching up our existing ATACMS assets, there’s little reason to wait.

ATACMS may have served America well in the recent past. But this outdated, expensive technology isn’t up to the challenges of we face today. The Army needs to build a long-range precision system that empowers our servicemen and women to defend our nation against the threats of tomorrow. Thankfully, that process is underway.


[7], p.6.
[8], p.6.