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The Old-School Artillery Shell Is Becoming High Tech
Arms companies are increasing the range, precision and lethality of a battlefield staple that has remained largely unchanged for decades
By Alistair MacDonald, WSJ
Nov. 22, 2023 7:30 am ET
RAUFOSS, Norway—At a factory in rural Norway, engineers are perfecting an artillery shell they say will be able to travel many times farther than the traditional ammunition currently pounding the battlefield in Ukraine.
The work is part of a broader trend among arms companies to increase the range, precision and lethality of artillery shells that have remained largely unchanged for decades.
The technological advances, giving some shells capabilities similar to missiles but with a lower cost and quicker production time, promise a dramatic change for artillery as it plays its biggest role since the Vietnam War.
Some modern shells—including those guided to targets using satellite navigation and others propelled by mini-rocket engines—have already been deployed in Ukraine and Israel. The next frontier for arms manufacturers, including BAE Systems
and General Dynamics, is making shells that travel farther while also speeding up production to replace diminishing inventories.
Norway-based Nammo, in partnership with Boeing, is testing shells in Raufoss that use so-called ramjet engines that it says will eventually be able to travel up to about 90 miles—more than the distance from Philadelphia to New York. Standard-barreled howitzers have a range of around 15 miles with a conventional round, with longer-range cannons reaching just over 30 miles.
“This is a game changer,” said Øyvind Lien, program director for advanced tactical propulsion at Nammo. “You are putting a missile into a gun,” he said, amid the noise of grinding metal on the factory floor.
The engine burns longer, increasing the shell's range
Nammo's ramjet shells use outside air in their propulsion, allowing them to cram in more fuel and burn for longer.
The company’s ramjet technology works by allowing air to enter through the front of the shell at high speed. The air is compressed and oxidizes the rocket fuel, allowing it to burn. Using outside air means ramjet shells don’t need to have oxidizer as part of their propellant, meaning they can cram in more fuel.
Nammo and Boeing said a test in Arizona last month set a new distance record, without disclosing how far the shell was fired.
Nammo has been working on ramjet shells since 2018, and the project won’t be ready for serial production for another three years, Lien said. The company has already tested the engine some 400 times while fixed statically in a workshop, and a further 50 times out of an artillery gun.
One challenge of the push is ensuring that any new components inside the shell can withstand the extreme force that comes from being fired out of a gun, said Camilla Kirkemo Alm, a senior development engineer at Nammo.
BAE Systems is also working on new shells that it says have set distance records, partly thanks to being smaller.
Europe’s largest defense company is using shells that are around half the size of the usual 155-millimeter caliber that is used by standard Western howitzers. To fire the new shell out of standard barrels, BAE has encased it with a light metal sheath that falls off as soon as the projectile leaves the gun. Typically, the smaller a shell, the further it will travel.
“Traditionally, if you wanted the shell to fire further you would just extend the barrel or increase the propellant, and armies have not really switched away from the same basic projectile design used since the end of the Second World War,” said Jim Miller, vice president of business development at BAE’s combat mission systems business.
Miller, a former U.S. artillery officer, said BAE’s goal is to double the range of one type of longer-barreled artillery gun, known as a 52-caliber gun. Last year the company fired a version of its new shell around 68 miles from one of these barrels and is working on extending its range even further.
Firing longer distances has become particularly important in Ukraine. The widespread use of drones means it is easy to spot artillery and then target it. The further away a gun can be, the more likely it will be out of the range of drones and counterfire.
“Range is becoming critical for simple survival,” Miller said.
155mm shell casing being made at a BAE Systems factory. The shells are the standard caliber used by Western howitzers.
Munitions makers are also working to modernize shells in other ways.
Nammo is developing shells fired by tanks where the operator can decide on the type of effect. For example, the shell could be programmed to explode in the air above a target or to penetrate its armor. Other companies are exploring the possibility of being able to adjust how much of a shell’s warhead detonates at the target, to potentially reduce collateral damage.
And other companies are working to increase manufacturing capacity and speed up production amid higher demand from Ukraine and, more recently, Israel. A shortage of shells in the U.S. and Europe has meant Ukraine has been forced to ration their use at some points during its defense against Russia.
Both the U.S. and Europe produced about 300,000 artillery shells last year, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The European Union believes its producers can increase production to one million shells by next year and the U.S. is looking at a level of 1.2 million.
Range of 155 millimeter shells
Nammo's Ramjet shells can be fired from various artillery guns and have a far greater range than conventional ammunition. The company says the shells could eventually travel up to about 90 miles.
To speed up its supply chain, BAE is using electric fuses that use commercially available components and is switching to more commonly available grades of steel that are easier to source. It is also testing a way to use sound waves to mix explosives that it says could save time.
Manufacturing shells can be a lucrative business. Germany’s Rheinmetall said this month that it expects operating margins of 25% this year at its newly acquired Spanish shell maker compared with 8.4% for its wider business.
An advantage artillery shells hold over missiles is that they are quicker and cheaper to make.
Cruise missiles can cost millions of dollars, and the rockets used in U.S.-guided missile systems, like Himars, cost $150,000 each. By contrast, a standard 155-millimeter high-explosive shell costs about $800 and a more-sophisticated guided Excalibur shell is about $68,000, according to CSIS.
BAE and Nammo haven’t disclosed how much their new shell will cost once in production, though the latter has said its ramjet shells could be considered high cost in comparison with other artillery products.
Given the high expense of missiles, most countries have small stocks. Germany, for instance, has a stockpile of around 600 Taurus missiles.
“Do I need a missile that costs 500,000 euros each when we can do it with an artillery shell” that costs so much less, said Armin Papperger, chief executive of Rheinmetall, Europe’s biggest shell maker, referring to a sum equivalent to around $547,000.
The rockets used in U.S.-guided missile systems such as Himars, which have been used extensively in Ukraine, cost $150,000 each.
Still, missiles can do some things better than even enhanced artillery shells. The U.S.’s Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, can travel 190 miles. Cruise missiles have the advantage of greater range and a bigger, more flexible payload, said Amael Kotlarski, an expert on munitions at Janes, a defense intelligence company.
The increased complexity of shells also has its downside. For instance, guided shells have been vulnerable to Russian electronic warfare, Ukrainian artillery operators say. And new innovations, including ramjet rockets and guidance wings, take up space from explosive materials.
“There is a trade-off, as even a small ramjet engine in a shell changes how much explosive matter you can get in there,” Kotlarski said.
Write to Alistair MacDonald at Alistair.Macdonald@wsj.com