Army Rebuilds Artillery Arm For Large-Scale War

The service’s new AimPoint plan builds very different forces for Europe and the Pacific – but new high-level artillery HQs are central to both.

WASHINGTON: Call it the once and future king of battle. The Army’s artillery branch, neglected over 20 years of hunting guerrillas, is being revived as the long-range striking arm for multi-domain warfare against Russia and China. That will affect everything from what missiles the service buys, to which officers get promoted, to how the service organizes itself for battle – a force structure outlined in a new Army Futures Command study called AimPoint.

The biggest change? Having already created two experimental Multi-Domain Task Forces built around artillery brigades, the Army now plans to build new high-level headquarters called Theater Fires Commands to coordinate long-range missile warfare on a continent-wide scale.

“That is a direct output of AimPoint,” said Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, whose Futures & Concepts Center developed the force structure plan. While the Theater Fires Commands do not exist yet, he said, the service has already begun setting aside manpower in its Total Army Analysis process to staff them.

In AimPoint’s vision of the future, “the brigades largely look very similar to what you might see right now… except for your [increased] ability to connect to national assets” in space and cyberspace, Lt. Gen. Wesley told reporters last week in a wide-ranging discussion. The big changes, he said, will come at higher levels – division, corps, and theater command – that have largely played a supporting role in highly localized counterinsurgency operations, but which must take the lead in coordinating large-scale campaigns against well-armed nation-states.

“If you look at echelons above brigade, what we’re having to do is build out our capacity to fight large-scale, campaign-quality combat,” he said. “Those echelons we have mortgaged a bit in the last 20 or 30 years because our BCTs [Brigade Combat Teams] were so powerful relative to our opponent. [Today], because we are being contested in all domains and our two peer competitors are investing in their militaries, we have to build back some of that campaign quality at echelon, with the distinction being you’ve got to have information warfare, you’ve got to have cyber, you’ve got to have space access.”

Once the shooting starts, however – and even before, when you’re trying to deter the other side from shooting at all – you still need old-fashioned firepower, with a 21st century twist.

Artillery has been a US Army strength since World War II, when its ability to quickly coordinate far-flung howitzer batteries to pour overwhelming fire on a chosen target was one of the few things the German Wehrmacht feared. But back then, and even throughout the Cold War, the limits of radio networks, artillery range and precision targeting meant artillery could only be decisive on the tactical level, supporting the face-to-face battle of infantry and tanks.

Today, however, the precision-guided missiles that the US, Russia, and China are developing have such long ranges – hundreds or thousands of miles – that you need satellites to spot suitable targets and send back targeting data, plus superior cyber warriors to protect that communications network from hostile hackers. Bringing all those technologies together in the right organization with well-trained personnel, and artillery can make a decisive impact on theater-wide operations or even the strategic level.

Dead Branch Resurrecting?

But there’s a problem. Over the three decades between the end of the Cold War and the reawakening to Russian and Chinese threats, the Army neglected its artillery branch. In 2002, the Army actually disbanded the artillery brigades in its divisions and dispersed their component battalions across its armor and infantry brigades. Then, in Afghanistan and Iraq, US firepower was so overwhelmingly superior, and air support was so readily available for even small patrols, that artillery troops rarely got to fire their guns, even in training, and were routinely retasked for other duties. By 2008, three artillery colonels co-wrote a paper that called their arm of service a “dead branch walking.”

Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese howitzers, rocket launchers and surface-to-surface missiles came to not only outnumber but also outperform their aging US counterparts. That led Lt. Gen. Wesley’s predecessor as the Army’s chief futurist, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, to tell Congress in 2016 that “we are outranged and outgunned.” The next year, in October 2017, the Army officially made Long-Range Precision Fires its No. 1 modernization priority.

Now the Army is urgently developed new artillery systems, from rocket-boosted, precision-guided howitzer shells with a range of 40 miles, to 300-plus-mile tactical missiles, to hypersonic weapons that can fly thousands of miles at more than Mach 10. But technology alone is not enough.

After two decades of its soldiers rarely getting to use artillery, the Army now needs experienced gunners to run its new high-level Fires Commands and make the most of its new long-range missiles. Sure, infantry and tank brigade commanders can call in strikes on the targets they see in front of them in a tactical fight. But it takes senior artillery officers and experienced, specialist staff to choose the most critical targets for an entire theater of war and to coordinate long-range strikes over hundreds of miles. While the Army recreated division-level artillery headquarters in 2014, it is now studying long-range fires commands at the corps and theater levels.

What’s more, the different theaters will require a different mix, not only of artillery systems, but of all the supporting players being developed as part of the Army’s “Big Six”: Long-Range Precision Fires, Next Generation Combat Vehicles, Future Vertical Lift, Networks, , Air & Missile Defense (also an artillery branch mission), and Soldier Lethality gear.

For Indo-Pacific Command, focused on the Chinese threat, the vast expanse of ocean means the Army must support the Navy. That means long-range artillery batteries – very long range, given the distances involved – based on friendly islands to control the surrounding sea lanes, forming unsinkable anvils for the Navy’s highly mobile hammer. But, Wesley said, that also requires advanced air and missile defense systems to blunt the enemy’s own long-range salvos, long-range high-speed aircraft to move ground forces from island to island and a sophisticated, secure network to coordinate it all.

In Europe, by contrast, the distances are shorter – requiring a different mix of missiles – and ground combat is the central front, with small and largely landlocked seas on either flank. That makes armored ground vehicles and soldier gear, from new rifles to targeting goggles, much more important than in the Pacific.

Those profound differences mean the Army cannot create a single universal unit with one set of equipment that can adapt to every situation, as the cancelled Future Combat Systems program once attempted. Even if a one-size-fits-all Army somehow made sense tactically, Wesley said, it wouldn’t work out technologically. With rapid advances in computing affecting everything from targeting to logistics, there’s no way to develop a new piece of equipment, mass-produce it and issue it to every brigade across the Army before something new and better comes along. Instead of “pure fleets” where every brigade has the same software, trucks, missiles, etc., organized in the same way, the Army must tailor its forces to the theater.

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