The future of fires – part 1

ALTHOUGH THIS PAPER is about the future of fires, it is first necessary to establish the basic functions for which artillery is required. As Alfred Mahan observed, even very significant technological developments, such as the transition from galleys to sailing ships, and from sailing ships to steam-powered vessels, while fundamentally changing naval tactics, did not alter many of the strategic tasks governing the effective employment of navies. This chapter therefore explores the utility of fires in decisively shaping the battlefield. Artillery must fulfil four roles on the modern battlefield. These are, in order of priority:

  • Suppression of enemy fires.
  • Striking high-value targets (HVTs).
  • Breaking up enemy force concentrations.
  • Providing fire support to enable manoeuvre.

Each task makes the subsequent one possible, however a warfighting fires’ capability must deliver all of these effects. This chapter will unpack what each of these involves, and why they are critical to effective warfighting.

Suppression of Enemy Fires

Counter-battery fire is a critical fires responsibility because unless enemy artillery is suppressed, they will be free to strike friendly HVTs, break up friendly force concentrations, and provide fire support to enable hostile ground manoeuvre. Leaving enemy guns intact ensures suffering correspondingly high casualties. For this reason, British doctrine states that: ‘A counterfires plan is essential and is normally afforded the highest priority, particularly … before an attack … It must be expected that a defending enemy will have identified forming up points and approaches, which they will target with indirect fires’.

There are five basic methods for neutralising enemy guns: destroying them; depriving them of ammunition; forcing them to move, and therefore not to fire; convincing them to fire on decoy or unoccupied targets; and depriving them of targets by denying their kill chain necessary information about the location of targets.

Against Russian forces the final option is unlikely to be viable. Russian artillery is dependent for targeting on EW and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets reporting directly to the artillery group, at the same echelon, or prosecuting strikes on a pre-planned set of targets at pre-designated times. As Russian forces intend to heavily degrade communications in the battle-space, their doctrine is not premised on reliable connections between manoeuvre elements and artillery pieces held at a higher echelon. The targeting of Russian guns may be proactive, or reactive. Proactive targeting will be dependent on observation and reporting of their movements, detection of their communications or analysis of likely emplacement. Reactive targeting will be dependent on the acoustic or trajectory analysis of Russian guns as they fire. A critical component of Russia’s military modernisation was the standardisation of its artillery pieces around the 2S19 Msta 152-mm self-propelled howitzer, and the transition from several Soviet MLRS platforms to the 9A52-4 Tornado wheeled MLRS system.The kill chain on Russian systems has been observed in Ukraine to sit between 15 and 12 minutes between the observation of a target, and the delivery of effect. Russian counter-battery fire on the other hand has been observed to take between 4 and 6 minutes. It is also notable that Russian artillery is less accurate than NATO systems, leading to a preference for saturation missions against area targets. This tends to lead to Russian MLRS delivering a complete salvo before manoeuvring to reload. Russian howitzers tend to operate as complete batteries of six guns, delivering a fire mission against a grid square before manoeuvring. With a battery of six guns firing approximately six rounds per minute, this would see Russian guns in place for four minutes while firing, before manoeuvring. In order to strike Russian guns, therefore, NATO fires must either be able to deliver counter-battery fires within four minutes, or else have high confidence of hitting a dynamic target, moving at up to 40kph. Given that this is quicker than NATO reactive counter-battery fires can be delivered, knocking out Russian guns must currently depend on proactive targeting.

One consequence of the Russian approach to gunnery is that it demands a very considerable quantity of ammunition, both in terms of total rounds fired, and in terms of reloads for MLRS systems and howitzers. Furthermore, it is observable that while Russian manoeuvre units are designed to move across country and have a high number of organic enablers – such as bridging assets – making them difficult to target, Russian logistics is heavily dependent on railways, large depots and trucks with limited cross-country capabilities. It is notable that from a logistical point of view armies tend to fight as they train, and even on active operations in Ukraine, Russia have a consistent tendency to concentrate large quantities of equipment in rear areas.

In the longer term, therefore, perhaps the most effective way of suppressing Russian fires is targeting the logistical tail to their artillery systems. This could constitute either long-range precision fires (LRPF) against railheads and ammunition dumps, or analytical targeting of the roads, bridges and other bottlenecks behind Russian firing positions once they are unmasked. In order to do this, however, it is necessary to have sufficient range to fire over the Russian artillery line.

One of the key challenges for NATO forces is that it is highly improbable that NATO can field more artillery pieces than Russia. The result is that Russia is able to assign batteries for counter-fire missions, while assigning other batteries to missions against NATO force concentrations and to support ground manoeuvre. One way to avoid this problem is to outrange Russian systems, leaving NATO artillery out of reach of their counter-fires. Range increases come with a corresponding rise in cost, weight and therefore requirements for logistical support, and consequently reduces the number of systems fieldable. On the other hand, costs can be imposed on Russian forces by increasing the number of fire missions necessary to suppress a comparatively small number of guns by dispersing them, so that each Russian battery must expend the same volume of ammunition pursuing a diminishing number of targets, while leaving more NATO artillery pieces free to prosecute counter-fires or fires against Russian manoeuvre elements. For this to be possible, NATO must be confident in the resilience of its C2 systems in the face of Russian jamming. It must also be confident of its ability to secure its dispersed guns against enemy deep-penetration units, or for those artillery pieces to self-protect.

Striking High-Value Targets

The first operation of the 1991 air campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a deep penetration raid by eight apache helicopters against radar towers that were critical to the Iraqi air defence system. Once these were destroyed, precision strikes knocked out Iraqi C2 centres and critical national infrastructure before shifting to target the most threatening Iraqi systems, the foremost of which were Scud launchers. Striking enemy HVTs is central to the Western way of war, and has proven utility in unpicking more sophisticated enemy capabilities. Targets may be broken into four objectives: blinding the enemy; paralysing enemy decision-making; dislocating enemy formations; and defanging enemy combat units. Achieving these missions, however, is becoming increasingly difficult and harder to pursue in the sequential manner typified by Operation Desert Storm.

The least effective part of Desert Storm was the targeting of Iraqi transporter erector launchers (TELs) firing Scuds. These missions became a drain on available aircraft and were routinely foiled by decoys and camouflage. Unlike much of Saddam Hussein’s forces, however, the majority of Russian HVTs are now mobile. There are five air defence batteries in each Russian brigade, supported by longer-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems held at higher echelons. Beyond the three or more target acquisition radars (TARs) supporting each of these batteries, a majority of Russian TELs and SAM systems have their own radar, although of a more limited range and lower fidelity. Russian C2 nodes tend to be truck mounted, and therefore easily moved. Moreover, Russian brigades have significant organic bridging capabilities, so that hitting bridges and other pieces of civic infrastructure may not dislocate Russian forces from manoeuvring to provide mutual support.

The consequence of the increase in organic and mobile assets is that Russian systems cannot be unpicked sequentially. Knocking out a SA-21’s support radar will not in itself enable penetration of the airspace. The SA-21 will be able to leverage SA-17 and other battery radar. Nor is long-range standoff an effective way of degrading many of the lower-end mobile HVTs necessary to blind, paralyse or dislocate Russian formations. Increased range is not necessarily an advantage in engaging dynamic moving targets. Bridges, fixed radar installations and power infrastructure are all targetable by cruise and ballistic missiles. However, if an attempted strike against a Russian NIIP 9S18M1-1 TAR from a SA-17 SAM battery is envisaged, such standoff capabilities are less likely to succeed. Although an F-35 operating within the Russian MEZ, or ground units making an observation, may relay the precise location of the radar, the Typhoon launching a Storm Shadow would need to fire from outside the MEZ at approximately 400km. The munition would take approximately 24 minutes to reach the target and, with the fidelity of radar and other sensors increasing year on year, would quickly be identified and the threat flagged to Russian ground units, whose SAM systems are able to move within six minutes, meaning that by the time the munition arrived there would be no target at the location. The challenges of dynamic targeting with long-range precision strike have been amply demonstrated by failed attempts to hit targets in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the increase in the effectiveness of defensive suites, combined with the limited number of LRPF available given a unit price of £800,000 per munition, ensures that such capabilities will need to be prioritised against targets with a high probability of kill (PK), rather than against dynamic HVTs. This does not mean that long-range standoff lacks utility, but rather that the HVTs relevant to divisional warfighting are too numerous, and too hard to target, to warrant the use of such munitions. Trying to retain sufficient stockpiles of long-range standoff munitions to strike these targets is likely to be prohibitively expensive.

The problem of time in flight, and the shoot-and-scoot capability of adversary systems, can be mitigated by firing from a ground system within the Russian MEZ. By reducing the time in flight, ground systems can reduce the warning time from launch to impact. A simpler munition can therefore be used, reducing costs. Damaging a radar, for example, or a command truck, is not especially difficult as the sensors that make these systems useful are comparatively delicate. Area-effect munitions therefore make knocking out such systems far simpler. The ability to target such systems is dependent on the kill chain that finds the HVTs, however. The UK’s F-35Bs, while highly capable of identifying radar, cannot reliably provide target track data to legacy air and ground systems without utilising Link-16 – NATO’s military tactical data link – which would undermine its stealth characteristics, or reaching back through US systems. Force recce and other systems may provide high-fidelity identification, but will struggle to track a moving HVT once it passes from view. EW and other capabilities will prove highly valuable. However, the point is that to effectively leverage ground fires to strike HVTs it is necessary to be able to draw dynamically on multiple kill chains.

Breaking Up Enemy Force Concentrations

Ever since the invention of mobile field artillery, the ability to disrupt and attrit enemy force concentrations has had a decisive impact on the outcome of battle. From Waterloo, where the allied gun line blunted the advance of Napoleon’s columns, to the battles of Salerno, Taranto and Anzio, where artillery and naval gunfire support played a critical role in breaking up German armour, preventing allied forces being driven into the sea, the ability to deliver a heavy volume of fire at reach has shaped the battlefield. Between Waterloo and Anzio there was a dramatic improvement in the range and lethality of artillery, and yet the determining factor in its effectiveness remained similar – the capacity to quickly deliver a high volume of fire into a concentrated area.

The development of explosive shells increased the effect of a smaller number of guns, consequently causing infantry to disperse. During the Napoleonic era, a British infantry platoon would deploy in a space of approximately 16.75m by 2m. By the Second World War, a platoon was expected to occupy a frontage of approximately 200–400m by 60–100m in defence. There is a strong correlation between weight of fire and casualties inflicted. The volume of firepower is usually proportionate to the size of forces that can be concentrated into a space. Punishing this concentration, therefore, and denying an adversary the capacity to concentrate, is critical to winning tactical exchanges.

Considering a motor-rifle brigade, Russian doctrine dictates that it will attack with a 6-km frontage in 15km of depth, comprising four manoeuvre elements supported by around 40 main battle tanks. British forces, currently unable to knock out Russian massed fires, estimate an operational requirement for a brigade to fight across a 100-km frontage, with 100km of depth. Even assuming that British forces would concentrate to fight, this would place no more than a reinforced company group in contact with a full Russian manoeuvre element. Unless UK forces can break up the concentration of the Russian brigade, the outcome of such an engagement would be decidedly unfavourable.

It is important to recognise that the objective of breaking up enemy force concentrations is not in the first instance to destroy the enemy, but rather to prevent them from achieving local numerical superiority, and thereby protect friendly forces, and enable engagements with advantage. To break up enemy concentrations, it is first necessary to demonstrate the capability, which is invariably achieved by delivering a punishing effect. Once the ability to effectively saturate a defined area has been demonstrated, the adversary should disperse to avoid suffering comparable casualties in the future. In this sense, breaking up enemy force concentrations is critical to Britain’s Manoeuvrist approach, ‘which emphasises effects on the will of the enemy. It blends lethal and nonlethal actions to achieve objectives which shape the enemy’s understanding, undermine their will and break their cohesion’. While the effect might only be demonstrated once, it must be clearly signalled that it can be repeated if the enemy concentrates again. For this reason, it is not a matter of having a single salvo of highly lethal munitions. Instead, a heavy weight of lethal effect must be able to strike repeatedly. The level of dispersion forced upon the adversary will be proportionate to the area that British forces can saturate with fire.

The need to be able to repeatedly deliver an effect that must necessarily either rely on many precision-guided munitions (PGMs), or an even greater volume of unguided munitions, requires retaining a sufficient reserve of ammunition ready for use. The logistical challenge that this represents means that such salvos must not be wasted, either by targeting an insufficiently concentrated enemy formation, or by falling for deception operations. The capability to break up force concentrations is therefore dependent on a reliable kill chain. This is combined with the ability to identify the concentration of enemy forces and to define the kill box within which it is located. It is then necessary to coordinate many fire platforms which – except when such opportunities arise – may otherwise be engaged in quite different tasks. The need for this responsive coordination makes a strong case for concentrating command of artillery at the divisional level, where EW assets, fused with multiple other sensor streams, can enable the identification of appropriate targets. That such fire missions may see a significant proportion of fires assets suddenly re-tasked, however, means that – with a finite number of platforms – there is a risk that other critical fires functions will not be carried out while the strike against an enemy concentration is being prosecuted. Combined with the waste of ammunition once the adversary has reacted to being detected and engaged, there is a strong impetus within this fires function to be able to deliver the greatest volume of effect within the shortest possible time.

Fire Support to Enable Friendly Ground Manoeuvre

The defeat of adversaries in the close battle is dependent on the effective application of fire and manoeuvre. Without the threat of being overrun, dug-in infantry can often avoid heavy losses to artillery fire. While the lethal radius of a 105-mm high explosive round is 40m in open ground, this reduces to 1m against tdug-in infantry. However, artillery fire against dug-in infantry can suppress them, enabling friendly elements to manoeuvre. Manoeuvring against an enemy that is not suppressed is to invite unacceptable losses. During the 1944 Normandy campaign, a British Army assessment concluded that the survivability of armour operating beyond the reach of friendly artillery halved every six seconds once the vehicle came under fire. Conversely, a suppressed enemy can be overrun or flushed out, and it is once an adversary is forced to move that fires become lethal. Artillery accounted for 58.3% of German losses during the First World War. This trend has persisted into modern conflict. Following the period of high intensity conflict in the Donbas between summer 2014 and 2015 it was concluded that artillery accounted for 85% of casualties on both sides. The lethality of fires is exacerbated once an enemy begins to retreat. While assaulting manoeuvre elements are forced to maintain cohesion to avoid falling victim to ambuscade or counterattack, a broken formation will not be slowed down by the imperatives of coordinated movement. This often means they will outstrip their pursuers, but as was demonstrated in the Iraqi army’s withdrawal from Kuwait, or the withdrawal of Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) formations from several Iraqi towns, such units can suffer catastrophic losses to fires, thereby preventing the enemy from regrouping, and ensuring decisive defeat.

The effective employment of firepower in support of manoeuvre is substantially different from breaking up enemy force concentrations at reach, or precision strikes against HVTs. The first point is that the threat of the capability is not sufficient to suppress the enemy. Thus, it is critical that the fires system is able to sustain its fire for a prolonged period. This has an effect on range. Range is relevant in that it allows a battery to provide support from further away, thus protecting it from counterbattery fire. However, the need to sustain a high volume of fire also means that precision munitions are usually prohibitively expensive for this work, and as the range of an unguided fire mission increases, so the dispersion of the rounds must increase. This reduction in accuracy also increases the distance that must be maintained between the fire and friendly manoeuvre forces. Many studies have demonstrated, however, that the closer friendly forces can keep with a barrage, the less they will suffer in the assault. Thus, fires systems supporting ground manoeuvre work best operating comparatively close to friendly forces. Such systems are not required to prosecute missions into the enemy deep battle, since effecting targets far behind the fighting will not enable tactical manoeuvre. Finally, a degree of dispersion in rounds is important, as some randomness increases the psychological impact of the fire mission, and therefore its suppressive effect. The limit on dispersion must be that the fire is deliverable in close support of friendly forces without committing fratricide.

There is a tension in delivering fire support between neutralising and suppressing the adversary. The judgement largely comes down to munitions and terrain. In open terrain a force may be effectively neutralised by the application of fires. In dense, marshy or urban terrain, or against dug-in forces, the number of rounds necessary to neutralise the adversary renders suppression to enable assault preferable. Nevertheless, the infliction of casualties must necessarily be disproportionately effective in fixing an adversary, since they must be cared for. Therefore, the delivery of fire missions to support ground manoeuvre will often transition from delivering as many rounds as possible in the first salvo when the target is not in cover, thereby inflicting the maximum number of casualties, to a sustained barrage necessary for effective suppression. One important point here is that the sustained barrage can be interrupted by counter battery fire, both explaining why suppression of enemy fires is a higher priority, and creating a need for fires systems to pass the baton in delivering a barrage between dispersed fires elements.

The switching from firing to inflict casualties to firing for suppression does not have to be linear. Lifting a barrage, and then delivering a heavy salvo, may catch adversaries exiting cover. Alternatively, Russia demonstrated in Ukraine how non-lethal fires could be mixed with artillery to push forces into the open. Having delivered a salvo against Ukrainian vehicles, Russian forces texted Ukrainian dismounts taking cover, threatening an armoured attack, and then caught the dismounts with indirect fire as they attempted to withdraw. Alternatively, suppression may fix a target in a kill box long enough to enable a decisive capability to be deployed. For Russia, this may comprise artillery firing cluster munitions, or capabilities such as the TOS-1A, a short-range thermobaric MRLS system capable of saturating a 40,000-m2 area, with the shockwave concentrating in scrapes and foxholes to achieve a very high level of lethality against dug-in infantry. Indirect fire may therefore fix a platoon, while the TOS-1A is brought into position to deliver its payload, clearing the path for Russian manoeuvre forces to advance.

Finally, it is worth highlighting that NATO forces have tended to significantly underestimate the quantity of firepower needed to enable ground manoeuvre without prohibitive casualties, when fighting in complex terrain. The RAF has made a great deal out of a supposed civilian casualty rate of just one from its strikes against Daesh. This figure is highly disputable, since the RAF conducted numerous strikes against buildings with no way of knowing who was in them. However, there is another pernicious effect of this narrative of precision. Fundamentally, the success of Iraqi liberation operations against Mosul, Fallujah, Tel Afar and Baiji depended on large numbers of artillery strikes. In 2016 and 2017, the author witnessed Iraqi forces operating with the support of significant numbers of 155-mm howitzers, 57-mm anti-aircraft guns converted for direct fire, mortars, Grads and other land-based fires systems. Iraqi forces even deployed a TOS-1 to Mosul. Despite NATO countries running low on PGMs with the number of air strikes involved, the Iraqis still used a large amount of ground-based fires in retaking urban areas. The success of these operations was therefore dependent on a capability that most NATO forces would struggle to generate themselves, lacking both enough tubes and ammunition stockpiles.

The Shaping Effect of Fires

One of the challenges in prioritising the development of an effective fires capability is the belief that effective ground-based fires are only vital in high-intensity warfare. Given that direct war with Russia is unlikely, and the bulk of military operations either take place against sub-peer adversaries, or below the threshold of armed conflict, firepower is not the foremost priority in the allocation of limited resources. As the example from Iraq above illustrates, however – given Britain’s interest in pursuing an engagement strategy – providing artillery support may be a critical offer in enabling partners and allies to conduct challenging operations. More importantly, artillery has a substantial psychological effect that is not confined to near-peer high-intensity warfare.

To return to the Russian rocket strikes against Ukrainian forces near Zelenopillya on 11 July 2014, it is important to note that the Russians employed BM-21 Grad and Smerch MLRS. These Soviet systems are ubiquitous, simple and cheap. Yet the effect has reached far beyond the conflict in Ukraine. Russia’s credible fires capability has forced Western armies to reconsider how they manoeuvre and resupply and the equipment necessary to avoid taking unacceptable casualties. This has imposed significant costs on NATO forces, long before any actual political crisis that could lead to direct confrontation emerges. Yet suppose such an incident were to occur, and there was a parallel build-up of forces in the Baltics with Russian and NATO troops on either side of the border. Owing to the weight of Russian fires, NATO forces would need to operate dispersed, dig in when not manoeuvring, extensively camouflage their positions, and avoid exposing their logistical hubs. The lower force density this would impose would make it harder to confront comparatively small Russian irregular, unbadged or special forces that might attempt to infiltrate the battlespace. These procedures would be imposed because if NATO units did not do these things they could present Russian forces with an opportunity to destroy vital assets without warning, as the opening action in escalating to direct conflict. Conversely, Russian forces, owing to their integrated air defences and the shortage of NATO artillery, would likely not need to disperse or conceal their logistics. They would therefore be able to move large numbers of troops and significant quantities of materiel, with greater efficiency, giving significant advantages in the early stages of fighting. Thus, NATO’s limited tactical and operational fires capabilities cede significant advantages to Russian forces, even below the threshold of armed conflict, and erode NATO’s deterrence posture.

Beyond the practical countermeasures necessary when operating under the threat of superior firepower, artillery has a significant psychological effect below and above the threshold of direct armed conflict. It is notable that large preparatory bombardments, whether before D-Day or the Somme, appear to have given a significant boost to the morale of units preparing to conduct assaults, even though the actual effect of these bombardments on enemy fortified positions was far from satisfactory. Conversely, troops facing an adversary with a disproportionate fires capability must bear the stress of anticipating its effects, which is often more damaging to morale than actual combat. In the critical preparatory phases before conflict, therefore, the fact that NATO troops would currently have insufficient artillery support while facing an adversary able to deploy a vast weight of firepower must necessarily have a negative effect on the morale of Allied forces. Powerlessness and the loss of situational awareness are two factors that contribute significantly to units breaking. The foreknowledge that Russian forces possess long-range fire systems to which NATO lacks sufficient countermeasures must necessarily convey a sense of powerlessness to those holding ground that may soon become the target of those systems. In this sense, the physical presence of friendly artillery must contribute to the steadfastness and psychological preparedness of NATO forces.

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