The Army's top general said he saw the future when looking at a new artillery vehicle that can hit a target over the horizon while remaining lighter, faster and more fuel efficient than the vehicle it will replace.
Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army's Chief of Staff, examined the so-called non-line-of-sight cannon with Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., at Minnesota defense contractor BAE Systems on Friday during a visit Casey said was meant to "check on our future."
The cannon, a two-man combat vehicle with an automated ammunition system that can fire 155 mm projectiles with greater precision than current Army equipment, is part of an Army modernization plan called Future Combat Systems. The Army will formally unveil the cannon next month at its birthday celebration in Washington, D.C.
The Future Combat Systems initiative has been criticized by some members of Congress for delays and escalating costs. But with a cannon prototype to show off, Casey said he hopes to convert the skeptics.
"We're able to demonstrate to people that the Future Combat Systems is real. They've been hearing about it, seeing it on briefing slides for a long time. But Sen. Inhofe and I just saw it drive around the parking lot," Casey said during a roundtable discussion with reporters at BAE Systems, which designed and built the cannon with help from several other contractors.
Inhofe said five countries, including South Africa, make a better non-line-of-sight cannon than what the Army currently uses.
"It's disturbing to me ... that we would send our kids anywhere without the very best," said Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The cannon, which is the first prototype introduced as part of Future Combat Systems, is still several years away from being used in combat. Like the other vehicles in the program, it's built on a common chassis that can travel up to about 37 mph. It's much lighter than conventional combat vehicles, with rubber tracks and a compact, hybrid-electric engine.
It can fire six rounds a minute, compared to less than four for current Army artillery units, Casey said. It's been engineered to precisely hit a target up to nearly 19 miles away, which Casey said is important for both urban and rural warfare. It will give U.S. troops a "decisive advantage" over any enemy, he said.
"It's as relevant to the fight that we're fighting today in Iraq and Afghanistan with its ability to apply precision fires as it is to fight in major conventional operations," Casey said. "If you can hit a house this big and not damage the houses beside it, that's a big difference in what we're able to do."
The cannon also takes fewer soldiers to operate because ammunition can be loaded automatically by computer. Comparable vehicles the Army uses require four people, and the soldiers have to handle 100-pound bullets to make it work, said Deepak Bazaz, who helped direct the cannon project for BAE Systems.
"These are getting to be more like aircraft," Bazaz said while showing the vehicle to reporters. "All that automation is back here and the crew is up front controlling it."