ATACMS Production Will Yield to Follow-On System in Mid-2020s

by Larry Dickerson, Missile Systems Analyst, Forecast International.

The acquisition of theater ballistic missiles is gaining popularity among Western militaries. For decades, the West and its allies depended on tactical aircraft to provide the necessary support to frontline troops. Now, militaries want to shift some of this responsibility to ground-based missile systems.

The U.S. Army will provide its maneuver units with an enhanced organic fire support capability. A weapon that is already meeting part of this need is the ATACMS.

Lockheed Martin developed the ATACMS originally to smash Soviet tank formations. However, this missile came into service just as the Soviet Union disintegrated. With the Soviet collapse, demand for the ATACMS evaporated. The U.S. still procured the ATACMS, but in lower numbers than once anticipated.

Nevertheless, the ATACMS did manage to make a combat debut. The U.S. Army fired over two dozen of the missiles during Operation Desert Storm and 10 times this number during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Some missiles reportedly hit targets in Afghanistan, and later the ATACMS struck strongholds of the Islamic State. Still, the combat success of the ATACMS did not result in a flood of foreign orders.

For a time, few countries apart from major military powers had a real need for a weapon such as the ATACMS. As the years passed, this situation changed and the number of countries interested in ATACMS-like weapons began to grow. A short-range tactical ballistic missile could provide rocket artillery units with the ability to strike targets at greater distances, as well as to penetrate reinforced and hardened facilities. Despite the export interest in the ATACMS, the United States was reluctant to allow all potential customers to place orders for the system.

The inability of customers to procure ATACMS-like missiles spawned a number of local development programs. Brazil, Israel, and Turkey all have active tactical missile programs.

Brazil’s program could remain a design study. Israel has begun procurement of the LORA and has won export sales (although it delayed announcement of this first foreign sale). Like the United States, Israel wants to lessen the dependence of its ground units on manned combat aircraft for support missions.

At present, the U.S. military is working to acquire an ATACMS replacement. The Precision Strike Missile, also known as the Long Range Precision Fires missile, will provide the U.S. Army with an enhanced deep-strike capability. The U.S. Army is considering its options, and might try to accelerate the introduction of this new missile system.

The original schedule called for low-rate initial production to start in 2025 or 2026, with the missile entering service in 2027. Now, the U.S. Army could achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC) as early as 2023 or 2024.

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