Shelling Pakistan, at $150k a pop

by Joshua Foust on 3/26/2008 · 9 comments

A few days ago, when I was expressing skepticism about some posts on Long War Journal about the precision of artillery strikes into Pakistan, I was rather harshly excoriated by a commenter who claimed to be a Sergeant from the U.S. military (and shares the name of a favorite DJ of mine).

Digging through the bloaty cursing and personal invective, he took issue with my apparent ignorance of the M-777, a new lightweight howitzer that is just now being deployed to Afghanistan. It fires a new GPS-guided round called “Excalibur,” and supposedly has a CEP (circular-error-probable, the circle in which a round will land 50% of the time) of well under 10 meters—impressive for a ballistic round landing 30 miles away from where it was launched. Despite my best efforts, however, I couldn’t find press accounts of the M-777 being used in action, only in live fire exercises. This doesn’t mean it’s never been used, just that I couldn’t find any press accounts of it (though it is likely the more accurate artillery would have been used to strike inside Pakistan).

Sanjar, an Afghan blogger I read regularly, has a rather scathing post about NATO’s use of this new artillery:

The use of weapons like this makes one think that NATO is testing their weapon systems… The diverse climatic and geographical condition of Afghanistan suits the introduction of GPS-guided artillery shells; western armies can test shell’s performance under different weather and terrain. Live targets, such as Taliban insurgents, serve to identify the vulnerability of the weapon system. By firing at Taliban NATO can see if any counter-measures such as jamming GPS signals of the shell could take place. The question of whether the Excalibur has been led astray by sophisticated interference technology is still something both the army and defence industry officials are reluctant to address.

I wonder what happened to armament critics and activists. The cost of a single shell equals around 7 school buildings or changing teaching curriculum for grade three, which still refers to the presence of foreign forces as Soviet occupiers or the Red Army. Over four million kids in Afghanistan are studying in open air.

Indeed, the many failings of the international community to provide the services it has promised is one of the great, largely unspoken, enduring failures of Operation Enduring Freedom. But this isn’t a fair comparison: the military and foreign aid budgets in NATO countries are kept secret. If the military can afford to field some hideously expensive weapons system that will reduce civilian casualties, I’m all for it. The problem is when the military wastes millions of dollars on bleeding edge programs while aid programs get cut; that is when the nasty trade-off gets highlighted in a most unflattering manner. Because all these fancy artillery shells will mean nothing if they keep Afghanistan poor, isolated, and covered in rubble.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Karl March 27, 2008 at 4:11 am
Joshua Foust March 27, 2008 at 4:57 am

Good call, Karl. I saw a similar (shorter, less comprehensive) piece in Newsweek yesterday as well. I don’t like the idea of “well we better bomb the f*ck out of this country while we still have a pliable dictator in charge,” but if that’s all it is, then I guess there’s little to do on this end. I don’t like how little intel is done on each compound before a strike is ordered, nor do I trust the supposedly omniscient surveillance capabilities of the floating robots we deploy to these places.

Andy March 27, 2008 at 12:09 pm

The M-777 has been used in Afghanistan for about 2 years – if you google “m777 afghanistan” you’ll find plenty of sources.

The GPS round, however, has only been in used in Afghanistan for the last month, but it’s been in use in Iraq for almost a year.

I don’t quite understand Sanjar’s criticism. The US and the coalition has been using GPS-guided munitions since 2001. The Taliban have no capability to use countermeasures like jamming. The artillery round isn’t being “tested” on Afghans – it was developed and tested in the US and is now available for use in Afghanistan. Better accuracy in any weapon system is better for everyone except the Taliban. Since artillery shells have much less explosive power than GPS-guided bombs, they have a much smaller kill radius and so are less likely to damage or hurt people and things in close proximity.

Andy March 27, 2008 at 12:19 pm

Oh, and the rounds are $15k a pop, not $150k.

Joshua Foust March 27, 2008 at 12:54 pm

After some digging, I found that each round costs a hair under $40k per round to manufacture, and with the development cost factored in is more like $80-$90k per round. And I found plenty of sources about the M-777 being in Afghanistan, in particular attached to Canadian units south in Helmand. What I couldn’t (and still can’t) find are reports on its use in combat — as best I can tell, the U.S Army hadn’t actually used the M-777/Excalibur combination in combat.

Sanjar’s criticism amounts to the following: the West will spare no expense in fielding expensive military equipment, but winds up $10 billion short when it comes to humanitarian assistance, or, as the CJ Chivers story in today’s New York Times indicates, supplying usable ammunition to the ANA. That’s a perfectly valid criticism, as it speaks to the alienation an increasing number of Afghans feel toward the International Community, thanks to their inability to really do anything to approach their promises made in 2002.

Awesomeo March 27, 2008 at 3:21 pm
Karl March 27, 2008 at 3:48 pm

I find it interesting that we measure success by the fact that our weapons only kill a handful of people.

Andy March 27, 2008 at 4:31 pm


I agree with the heart of Sanjar’s criticism – the aid side has surely failed.

WRT the actual use of the GPS round, I suspect you’ll hear more in the coming months. The munition was only introduced to Afghanistan this month, after all.

Joshua Foust March 27, 2008 at 10:43 pm

Karl, actually in terms of weapons use, that is a good thing. I’m all about making our weapons more precise, with less splash, and less collateral damage. If nothing else, it forces the military to work really hard to make sure the target they’re striking is the one they want, otherwise they have to face an angry public about how they got basic biographical facts wrong. It seems onerous, but it is healthy (unless you belong to the “bomb them into submission” crowd, which seems particularly entrenched in the milblogs).

Andy – I have no doubt of that, which is why I was perplexed “Sgt. John B.” was so vicious. If it’s been deployed for only a few weeks, in areas reporters don’t go because of the severe danger, how can I be expected to know of it beforehand? I’m no stranger to military technology, weaponry, or tactics; I also don’t have some sort of inside knowledge on them. It was just baffling.

As for Sangar… well, the man’s entitled to his opinions. I don’t particularly buy the testing theory, though I have seen very clear-eyed Colonels argue passionately that Iraq and Afghanistan are serving as excellent “warfighter think tanks.” So it’s not entirely out of the range of possibilities for that crowd, you know? There’s just no proof of it… and as you said, since most of the testing was done stateside, there is very little, aside from something like field trials, that would make testing them in Afghanistan very useful (Afghanistan itself isn’t that great for the mission, unless it’s kept stationary at the FOBs).

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