What's an NLOS cannon?


The NLOS cannon: The reason your day's about to take a turn for the worst. See more images of the Army.
Image courtesy U.S. Army

It's 2012, and you find yourself in the precarious position of being a soldier in a military that's embattled against the United States. The caravan of armored vehicles you're a part of comes to a halt. An unmanned aerial drone has just appeared over the horizon, flying toward the caravan. You and several members of your platoon are ordered out of your vehicle to destroy the reconnaissance drone.

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After you take aim and fire a shoulder-mounted rocket -- effectively disintegrating the drone -- you hear a small, distinct explosion above you. You look upward to the curious sight of several small parachutes suspending what looks like canisters, drifting toward the caravan. Strangely, despite a crosswind that should be carrying the canisters away, you notice that each one is headed directly for a vehicle.

You hear someone shout "cluster bomb!" in your native language, followed by a body-rattling, quick succession of explosions. Your vision blurs, you hear only a single high-frequency note. You scan the area as the dust settles; it reveals nothing more than small fires where each of the armored vehicles had been just a moment ago. You exchange horrified looks with the remaining members of your platoon. It becomes excruciatingly clear to all of you that it's time to run. As you take a step or two, a brilliant light fills your sight. Then nothingness.

Eighteen miles away, the effectiveness of the attack is confirmed.

Welcome to the United States Army's world of future combat. At the center of this vision for the immediate future is what took out you and your caravan -- the non-line-of-sight cannon (NLOS-C). Capable of rapidly firing a number of different rounds -- from what appears to be out of nowhere -- the NLOS-C can accurately put the kibosh on enemy movement quickly, effectively and with decidedly less collateral damage.

Read about this essential leap forward in American military firepower on the next page.

 

What's so great about the NLOS-C?

An image of a preproduction non-line-of-sight cannon in development by BAE Systems.
An image of a preproduction non-line-of-sight cannon in development by BAE Systems.
Image courtesy BAE Systems

It may be surprising to hear, but as of 2008, the United States wasn't ranked first in the field of cannon artillery technology, according to defense observers [source: Global Security]. In previous and current wars, the shells fired by U.S. Army rear artillery missed too many targets, caused too much collateral damage (like the deaths of civilians), and failed to explode properly. 

This tidbit becomes less surprising, though, when one learns that in the 21st century, the U.S. Army still used manned tanks based on designs created in the 1950s and '60s. There were periodic updates as new technology emerged, but this essentially amounted to adding new bells and whistles to an old component. The Army anticipates introducing the NLOS-C into battle by 2010 [source: Field Artillery]. It will represent the first complete ground-up rebuild of mobile artillery technology in decades.

Non-line-of-sight refers to the cannon's ability to accurately hit targets from amazing distances, and despite geographic and man-made obstacles. Line-of-sight weapons require fairly close proximity to the enemy, beyond-line-of-sight much less. Non-line-of-sight can hit a target accurately from as far away as 30 km (about 18 miles), depending on the ordinance it's firing [source: Global Security]. The cannon being developed by BAE Systems for the U.S. Army uses a 155mm .38 caliber howitzer and allows for a wide choice of ordinance.

One group, termed smart submunitions, are the type of cluster bombs described in the run-in on the previous page. A single shell carries multiple charges, which separate in the air. Each submunition is guided toward its final target. Another family, the XM982 Excalibur, is a "fire-and-forget" round. It's capable of acting as an explosive shell, a target-acquiring munition that can seek out moving targets. It's similar to guided missiles, recognizing targets based on prescribed characteristics [source: Global Security]. The effectiveness of the shells fired is confirmed via Projectile Tracking System "before the round completes its trajectory" [source: Field Artillery]. In other words, the NLOS-C's crew knows you're dead before you do.

The NLOS-C will be capable of firing these and other different rounds, changing types of shells one shot after the other. Since the firing process is automated, the cannon can shoot rapidly. Automated firing also cuts the four or five personnel required to operate modern mobile artillery down to two soldiers. The armor of the manned vehicle is made of aluminum, making it 22 to 42 tons lighter than the M1 Paladin or Abrams tanks -- it's more efficient to transport to battlefields via cargo plane. The new cannon is also quieter and more fuel efficient. It has a diesel engine, but the tracks that move the NLOS-C are run by an electric-hybrid drive.

Defense observers predict that "The NLOS-C will be the key indirect fire support system for the U.S. Army's FCS [future combat systems] and will reduce United States casualties … and increase the effectiveness of the entire ground force" [source: Global Security]. Clearly, the NLOS-C represents the cutting edge in artillery technology. But BAE's manned cannon is just one part -- albeit a centerpiece -- of an entirely new vision for future warfare. On the next page, read about the Army's concept of what the battlefield will look like once NLOS-Cs are in the field.  

Future Combat Systems

The soldier in the Future Combat System will be more linked in than ever, both providing and receiving real-time information on combat conditions.
The soldier in the Future Combat System will be more linked in than ever, both providing and receiving real-time information on combat conditions.
Image courtesy U.S. Army

Michael Ignatieff, a member of Canada's Parliament, famously predicted a type of future warfare in which the battlefield would be run from afar by computers and analysts. He claimed that this virtual warfare would become even more difficult to conceptualize and organize -- and Ignatieff's prediction appears to have, in part, come true in the U.S. Army's vision of future battle [source: USNA]. The Army calls it Future Combat Systems (FCS), and the non-line-of-sight cannon is one essential part of that future.

The Future Combat Systems will employ unmanned vehicles like airborne reconnaissance drones, unmanned heavy vehicles like the Crusher, and remotely fired missile arsenals. Manned vehicles like the NLOS-C and its companion (the non-line-of-sight mortar), as well as troop and medical transport, will factor in as well. So, too, will the human soldier. But at the heart of the FCS is the network.

The Army's FCS will rely on battlefield integration and networking in much the same way that past battlefields have relied on human intelligence, radios and maps. The high-tech glue that binds the FCS is LandWarNet, "a combination of services that extends voice, video and data transmissions to the edges of tactical formations" [source: Dept. of the Army]. The Army's vision of the near future of warfare is a ground force that is highly linked in, exchanging and receiving real-time information on everything from local weather conditions at the front, to enemy troop movement, to the location of a sniper's nest.

The idea behind this new concept of warfare is to save lives, both Americans' and local civilians'. To accomplish this, information is of the utmost importance. Unmanned drone scouts will link directly to soldiers in the field, alerting them to threats ahead. Soldiers will link to rear vehicles like the NLOS-C, allowing the cannons to take aim on targets that ground troops face. MGVs (manned ground vehicles) will also receive transmissions from drones, allowing cannons to fire directly on targets that ground troops are yet to meet.

It's been awhile since the Army made such sweeping changes to its infrastructure -- since the 1970s, actually. It was "the Army's development of the AirLand Battle doctrine during that period resulted in the M1 Abrams tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the AH-64A Apache attack helicopter, the UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter and the Patriot anti-aircraft missile," Rob Colenso, Director of Online Operations for Army Times Publishing tells HowStuffWorks. He explains, "These so-called 'Big Five' generally began arriving in Army units in the 1980s and remain a crucial part of the force today." Of course, they will become much less crucial as FCS comes online.

This kind of overhaul doesn't come cheap. In 2004, the price tag for the Army's FCS update was around $117 billion [source: Defense Tech].

But superior firepower is just one step toward peace. To achieve real reduction in losses of life on either side of a conflict, diplomacy will have to keep up with the forward-looking pace the Army has set with its Future Combat Systems.

For more information on the military and other related topics, visit the next page. 

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Sources

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  • ­"XM982 Excalibur 155mm precision guided extended range artillery projectile." Global Security. May 29, 2007. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/munitions/m982-155.htm