Thursday, October 28, 2010

The cost-effectiveness of killing

That sounds like a pretty cold-blooded title, doesn't it? Yet it's pretty much the equation that's directing a great deal of military thought and practice today. It's exemplified in the field performance of a new weapon, the Raytheon/BAe Systems M982 Excalibur guided artillery round.

The new round can be fired from all existing 155mm. artillery pieces. It's designed to be fired at a high angle, and then 'glide' to its target, obtaining target information from satellites and other sources, as illustrated below.

Excalibur uses a combination of inertial and GPS guidance, and was designed to deliver an accuracy on target (a 'circular error probability', in tech-speak) of about 20 yards at a range of 25 miles. Its operational performance has been significantly better than that target, averaging about 3 yards at that range, according to one report, which goes on to say:

Excalibur’s greater accuracy has several effects beyond the obvious one of destroying the target with greater certainty. It allows artillerymen to operate a much lighter logistics tail. More accurate shells means far fewer shells are needed and fewer artillery pieces. Given the enormous costs of moving materiel to Afghanistan Excalibur could have a significant cost effect on the Army and Marine’s resupply efforts.

The services have changed the tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) governing Excalibur use. When it was first deployed, artillerymen were required to use two rounds for each target, Riley said. That has been changed to one shell, clear testament to the system’s accuracy.

The Army apparently plans to cut the number of Excalibur shells it buys from 30,000 to 6,264. That, of course, will drive up the politically sensitive unit cost. The unit cost ranges roughly from $47,000 to $99,000 per shell, depending on how many are bought. A Raytheon program official said the Army could save 30 percent of the unit cost if it buys the shells at full production rates of roughly 1,500 per year.

What does the enemy think of the weapon? As our own Christian Lowe reported from Afghanistan this summer, the Excalibur is fondly known by the Taliban as the Finger of Death.

There's more at the link. Here's a short video clip of Excalibur rounds during testing.

The cost factor is becoming more and more important, not just in terms of military budgets and government expenditure, but in terms of logistic reality on the ground. With limited access routes to Afghanistan, every round fired, every meal consumed, every gallon of fuel expended, has to be shipped or flown to a neighboring state (sometimes a very long way from the front lines), then trucked or flown into the country itself, then distributed over a very poor road network (or by helicopter or light transport) to the units doing the fighting. (We know, for example, that the delivered cost of fuel to the US Army in Afghanistan is approximately $400 per gallon!)

A standard 155mm. artillery shell might cost well under $500 when it ships out the arsenal door in the USA, but getting it into the hands of an artilleryman in Afghanistan might cost fifty times that sum, or even more. Add to that the fact that, using standard shells, the battery might have to fire eight to twelve rounds to destroy a target, and the cost of destroying it becomes astronomically high - certainly enough that the cost of a single 'smart' round like the Excalibur, which can do the same job on its own, is cheap by comparison.

If the army can ship a hundred Excalibur rounds to Afghanistan, it needn't ship several thousand conventional rounds which would otherwise be required to do the same job. That saves not only shipping costs, but also lives . . . supply convoys and flights are targeted by the enemy, after all. The less of them that are required, the fewer servicemen will be killed or injured escorting them. However, Congressional representatives and Senators back home won't look at it that way. They'll froth at the mouth and demand to know why the Army wants to spend $99,000 per shell. Clearly, that's a boondoggle! It can't possibly be cost-effective! Well, yes, it can, particularly because this program has been proven in combat to be even more effective than its developers promised . . . but politicians can't be relied upon to value facts more than they cherish a cheap sound-bite for their constituents.

As advanced technology moves into more and more areas of warfighting, this sort of conundrum is going to become an everyday problem for the military, and for our politicians. How can we kill our opponents most cost-effectively, whilst exposing our own forces to the smallest possible risk? Can cost-effectiveness be calculated only in monetary terms, or must it also be considered in terms of 'casualty cost'?



Bill N. said...

You didn't mention in your post how much it cost to have a F16 or F18 to drop a smart bomb. When the logistics of a jet vs a cannon is considered (ie fuel, parts, maintenance) a cannon shell is a bargain. A cannon battery can fire a round on target before a jet can even get into the air. The problem is the military has forgotten about the combined arms concept. A cannon can sit laid on a target needing only a radio to be ready to fire on a target within its range. For an aircraft to be ready to engage a target it has to be in the air consuming fuel.

DaveG said...

Also left unmentioned is that the increased accuracy will allow the targeting of threats closer to our troops. With less precise shells, there comes a point where the risk to our troops precludes artillery support that they may desperately need.

Old NFO said...

Dave G has a MAJOR point... With these rounds, they can actually fire danger close to friendlies and not have a blue on blue.