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By Scott Gourley

– BATTLESPACE talks to Major General David Ralston, US Chief of

When asked about artillery in the 21st Century, Major General David Ralston, 36 th US Chief of Field Artillery and Commandant of the US Field Artillery School, relates a very telling observation from earlier in his career.

“When I was in England going to school, I went into a museum there,” he explained. “The first display in the museum was the first tank that was taken into World War I. When you looked at that you could hardly imagine the advances that evolved into the M1 series Abrams and other modern tanks. It’s unbelievable how much the design of the tank has changed in that period of time.”

“But the very next display was a World War I 105mm field artillery piece,” he added. “And it looked and probably operated pretty darn close to the ones we have today.”

“The differences between the advances made in the last century in armor and artillery are striking. Still today, with the M109A6 Paladin, the most sophisticated field artillery system we have, you’re taking a young 18 or 19 year old ‘Number One’ crewman, having him pick up a 98 lb. projectile with the strength of his back, putting it on the loader tray, and then, with his fingers curled so he won’t get them crammed into the breech, pushes that projectile uphill on the tray. This is 21st Century America and in some ways we’re acting like an emerging industrial power,” he said.

He continued, “However NLOS-Cannon for the first time will use robotics to automatically load the projectile inside the breech plus resupply the howitzer. And we’re coupling those technologies with new precision munitions that are already entering the field. Our GMLRS (guided multiple-launch rocket system)unitary rocket is having great success in country and is now nicknamed “the 70 kilometer sniper weapon” because of its accuracy. All of that is now supported by advanced software and command and control system integration. So we are steadily moving the field artillery into the 21st Century and making it full spectrum.”

But the road to that full spectrum force has not been without its challenges, which include application of field artillery units in so called “non-standard” missions. As explained in one recent report from the U.S. General Accountability Office, “…Certain types of units have been in especially high demand, leading to extended and repeated deployments for soldiers with specialties such as military police, transportation, and combat arms. For example, 92 percent of the Army Guard’s military police units have been deployed at least once and 18 percent more than once. To relieve demands on these forces, the Army has retrained some low demand units, such as field artillery, for high-demand capabilities like security…”

And while the US Chief of Field Artillery clearly supports these new tactical applications, they do present challenges to the field artillery’s mission of providing “full spectrum” capabilities.

“The problem that I’ve got is NOT that we have been using field artillery for ‘non standard’ missions,” Ralston said. “Artillerymen are doing an exceptional job serving as motorized infantrymen, military policemen, and a host of other non standard missions. The problem is that they’re coming back from those missions and then going back to other non-standard missions so soon that they never re-certify as artillerymen.”

“Artillerymen have fairly technical skills in computing and integrating artillery into the fight,” he explained. “But in their non-standard roles they aren’t able to re-certify in those artillery skills before they have to turn around and go back again. Now if you do that once, it’s no problem. But with artillery units doing back to back non-standard missions, you’re growing personnel who are now advancing to the rank of staff sergeant and serving as field artillery section ch

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