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Adapting Towed Artillery Today to Meet a Near Peer Competitor Tomorrow

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Adapting Towed Artillery Today to Meet a Near Peer Competitor Tomorrow

Kiernan Kane                                                                       

Following the success of the attacks against Ukraine in 2014, Russia unexpectedly deploys their increased military capacity toward the Baltic States and invades the Estonian capital of Tallinn within 60 hours.[1] In response, the United States (U.S.) defends the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally and rapidly deploys a light airborne brigade combat team (BCT) from the 82nd Airborne Division Global Response Force within 96 hours.[2] The Russian-U.S. conflict is unfrozen, and the U.S. and its NATO allies are now in a full-scale campaign.

Albeit fictional, the findings of the wargame were astonishing to point out that the U.S. and its NATO allies are not prepared for such a conflict. In fact, when a premier light airborne brigade sized element faces a Russian adversary, not only were they outgunned but lacked sufficient mobility.[3] Moreover, the U.S’ most responsive and light units, equipped with towed artillery systems, are seemingly ineffective in such a conflict. If life was given to the wargame and mobilization to counter Russian aggression occurred, towed artillery is incapable to meet this long-standing near peer adversary due to vulnerabilities in range, mobility and responsiveness. Originating at the artillery battery level there must be a different and creative approach to tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP’s) driven by an understanding of the operational environment by every Soldier and Marine down to the lowest level. 

As a framework for the operational environment, look no further than the events surrounding the Russian-Ukrainian conflict just three years ago. Lessons learned from said conflict not only provide a capabilities laundry list for the Russian artillery systems, but paint a pragmatic picture of what critical vulnerabilities exist in our towed artillery systems. The battles that encompassed the conflict depicted a heavier precedence of artillery and long range coordinated strikes. In total, the engagements amounted to artillery being the culprit of producing nearly 85% of all casualties on both sides.[4] The most alarming capability the Russian artillery possessed was the psychological effect of seamlessly eradicating their Ukrainian adversary in minutes with the massed destructive effect of their indirect fires. For example, in Zelenopillya, “. . . in a combined MLRS and self-propelled artillery fire strike that lasted no more than three minutes, two Ukrainian mechanized battalions were virtually wiped out.”[5] The effects of leaning on these lessons learned produce a stark reality that those at the tactical level must come to terms with. Overwhelming sentiment by top U.S.  officials are best summarized by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as “very concerned,”[6] considering the Russian actions against Ukraine and its antithesis of U.S. values. The timeframe to counter Russian actions via military deterrence has already begun. The most immediate, as of 9 January 2017, being the deployment of 3,500 personnel, 87 tanks, 18 Paladins (self-propelled artillery) and 144 Bradley tanks to Poland.[7] The arrival of the resources is the beginning of nine month rotations to send armor brigade size elements to Europe- a clear deterrence signal that towed artillery is ill-suited for and must adapt quickly. 

In a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting on emerging threats, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley stated that the U.S. Army is currently “outranged”[8] against a Russian adversary. Specifically, in regards to the proliferation of Russian ground based artillery and surface to air missiles in the European theatre. The maximum range capability inherent to the light towed artillery variant (M119A3) is approximately 19.5km[9], and its medium brother, the M777A2, can reach out to 30km.[10] Although these ranges have been satisfactory in the domains of Afghanistan and Iraq, they are bulging vulnerabilities in an engagement against a near peer competitor that can range out to 100km.[11] Moreover, to bring these towed artillery systems in during later stages of the conflict would prove overly risky due to the Russian surface to air missile systems (Figure 1)[12] that threaten freedom of movement in the air domain.

Figure 1. Russia – NATO A2AD Environment

Source: Thomas Karako, “Looking East: European Air and Missile Defense”

Hamstringed by range, towed artillery would move under constant threat of Russian ground based artillery or surface to air missiles to be able to range the enemy. Due to this vulnerability in range, many of our ally countries in Europe have transitioned their artillery systems to circumvent many of the threats the Russian’s pose. In Germany, for example, the PzH2000 artillery platform has a 52- caliber cannon, compared to the U.S. standard of 39-caliber, which provides for greater lethality and increased range up to 60km.[13] Acquisitions stateside have identified this vulnerability and began to invest in increasing the range of the M777A2 medium towed artillery platform to 70km.[14] However, with a lagging acquisitions process, the answers to these capability shortfalls in our proven systems are up to those at the tactical level in the short term. Specifically, at the battery level, there must be creative training done to provide solutions to these shortfalls in range. Similar to the Chechen’s, who trained and adapted in the mid-1990s to combat the lethal range of Russian artillery by “hugging”[15] and getting close to the Russian platforms to negate the superior Russian range capability. The tactical units cannot wait for the technology that will overcome range dilemmas because we don’t have the luxury of time. The time must be used, as FM 7-0: Training for Full Spectrum Operations states, to understand the environment and attempt to replicate the operational environment in training.[16] Moreover, to break through the vulnerabilities in range, there must be disaggregated movement training focused on mobility and responsiveness to ensure artillery survivability. This translates to successful mission command where junior leaders at the platoon level have the trust from their chain of command to quickly execute within the framework of commander’s intent.[17]

To ensure towed artillery survivability on the battlefield against a near peer competitor, a greater precedence must be placed on mobility and responsiveness. However, the decade old howitzer firing tables for both towed artillery systems (M119A3 and M777A2) have requirements that prevent both platforms survival against a near peer competitor.  Currently, the acceptable time for towed artillery is up eight minutes to emplace one howitzer and be prepared to fire.[18] In comparison to our ally Germany, a platoon of four PzH2000’s cannons can emplace and deliver 120 shells in half the time it takes to emplace one U.S. towed artillery platform.[19] The issue of time is exacerbated when an entire battery of six U.S. howitzers’ must emplace. Battery emplacements are the standard form of employing towed artillery to best support a battalion sized maneuver element on the ground.[20] However, a battery position area for artillery (PAA) takes up a large footprint and is highly vulnerable to near peer acquisition assets. Although the mass effect of six guns is sacrificed, the focus should transition from battery operations to platoon operations in engagements against near peer competitors with more lethal ground based artillery systems. Look no further than our competitor, Russia, that evolved their employment of artillery systems to allow for greater mobility and responsiveness. Historically known for linear formations and authoritative decision making, Russian artillery adopted distributed areas for artillery that focus on shoot and move tactics to “. . . reduce the time in fire missions”[21] or in one location. The result of these tactical developments is a revival of timely, accurate and destructive Russian artillery that unveils current gaps in the employment of U.S.  towed artillery. To prepare for a near peer threat, there must be unconventional training that focuses on mobility and responsiveness at the platoon level. Ultimately, an initial reliance on artillery survivability through quicker movements on the battlefield with the goal to break through range vulnerabilities to mass fires at a point that is decisive. In addition, leveraging a battery’s modular table of equipment (MTOE) with the assets that we already have and determining creative applications to aide in mobility is paramount. For example, the RQ-11 Raven unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), should be leveraged in training for beyond line of sight to support the mobile platoons finding suitable PAA’s. The end state is that the RQ-11 provides platoons more fluid movements in between PAA’s, and adopt a shoot and move mindset. The critical vulnerabilities of towed artillery exposed by the threat of near peer competitor can be solved today in the training we conduct. However, to succeed against a more lethal force we must be creative in our approach with the doctrine and equipment already at our disposal.

The first step in solving a problem is admitting that there is one. In the case of towed artillery, proponents for the platforms acknowledge pundits who state, “. . . towed artillery is too exposed on the battlefield, takes too long to get in and out of action and relies on vulnerable [vehicles] to move it any distance.”[22]  Understanding that towed artillery has its vulnerabilities, the pay offs of the system and its performance in the areas U.S. forces have been operating for nearly two decades affords an explanation to why it’s capabilities are still relevant. The primary reason, as the author for “Towed Artillery- Range and Light Weight Is the Motto” states, “. . . [is] the ability to transport the system over long distances much more easily than its self-propelled counterparts, most notably when rapid deployment and special forces are involved.”[23]  Although these systems are light enough to be transported via select type/model/series rotary wing aircraft as well as parachuted in via C-130J/C-130H/C-17 Globemaster III aircraft[24], this by no means accounts for the immense preparatory time that is inherent in either of these maneuvers (Figure 2).[25]

Figure 2. M777A2 loading a C-130 Hercules

Source: Photo by U.S. Air Forces Central Command

Conducting air raids, air assaults and parachute operations with towed artillery, these gargantuan tasks are by no means assisting towed artillery in becoming more mobile and responsive.[26] For parachute operations, the outdated day and night standards allows up to fifty minutes[27] from landing on the drop zone to be in position to fire the first round. Even if this time standard was met, which it rarely was, the towed artillery howitzer would not be able to provide responsive fire support to the ground scheme of maneuver.[28] Furthermore, look no further than the previous example of Russian artillery destroying two Ukrainian mechanized battalions in no less than three minutes[29], and you see the drastic need to be mobile. The towed artillery system’s in their current state are incapable to meet a near peer adversary in the short term. However, there is still hope to revive the platform, if leaders at the battery level train creative TTP’s.

The real challenge occurs when there is not a full understanding of the operational environment, and how our TTPs and equipment might otherwise be vulnerabilities. In regards to towed artillery platforms, the capabilities in range, mobility and responsiveness have proven themselves in the domains the military has found itself the past two decades. However, against a near peer competitor, the capability advantages once enjoyed will no longer exist in tomorrow’s operational environment. Training must be conducted today originating at the battery level that places greater precedence on dis-aggregating towed artillery platoons for survivability, and all the while utilize the equipment and TTP’s at our disposal in unique ways.  The character of war is constantly evolving and to fail is to remain stagnate in how towed artillery is employed. There currently is no technical solution or developments to make-up for the vulnerabilities that towed artillery faces against a near-peer. Thus, creative TTP’s applied alongside maneuver warfare doctrine must be leveraged to facilitate flexible decision making and execution by our junior leaders at the platoon level.

End Notes

1. David A. Shlapak and Michael Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics,” RAND Corporation, accessed December 28, 2016, 1, http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1253.html.

[2]. Brigadier General Charles Flynn and Major Joshua Richardson, “Joint Operational Access and The Global Response Force: Redefining Readiness,” Military Review, June 2013, 38, http://usacac.army.mil/.

[3]. Shlapak and Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence,” 6.

[4]. Dr. Phillip A. Karber, “Lessons Learned from The Russo-Ukrainian War,” Potomac Foundation, accessed October 2, 2016, 10, https://prodev2go.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/rus-ukr-lessons-draft.pdf. 

[5]. Ibid., 18.

[6]. Heather A. Conley et al., “Transatlantic Forum on Russia,” Center for Strategic International Studies, November 17, 2016, https://www.csis.org/events/transatlantic-forum-russia-0.html.

[7]. Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Tarr, “4th ID Crosses the Border into Poland After Three-Day Convoy,” U.S. Army, January 12, 2017, https://www.army.mil/.

[8]. Jen Judsen, “U.S. Army Chief Sounds Alarm: Military at ‘High Risk’,” Defense News, April 7, 2016, http://www.defensenews.com/.

[9]. United States Army Combined Arms Center, JFIRE, ATP 3-09.32 (Fort Leavenworth, KS, 30 November 2012), 37.

[10]. Ibid., 37.

[11]. John Gordon et al., “Comparing U.S. Army Systems with Foreign Counterparts: Identifying Possible Capability Gaps and Insights from Other Armies,” RAND Cooperation, last modified January 24, 2017, xvi, http://www.rand.org/.

[12]. Thomas Karako, “Looking East: European Air and Missile Defense after Warsaw,” quoted in Ian Williams, “The Russia- NATO A2AD Environment,” Center for Strategic International Studies, July 14, 2016, https://missilethreat.csis.org/russia-nato-a2ad-environment/.

[13]. Gordon et al., “Comparing U.S. Army Systems with Foreign Counterparts,” 22.

[14]. Lauren Poindexter, “Picatinny Engineers Seek to Double Range of Modified Howitzer,” U.S. Army, March 17, 2016, https://www.army.mil/.

[15]. Lester W. Grau and Timothy L. Thomas, “Russian Lessons Learned from the Battles for Gozny,” U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office, accessed October 2, 2016, http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/.

[16]. Headquarters Department of the Army, Training for Full Spectrum Operations, FM 7-0 (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 12 December 2008), 9.

[17]. Headquarters US Marine Corps, Warfighting, MCDP 1 (Washington, DC: US Marine Corps, June 30, 1991), 58.

[18]. Headquarters Department of the Army, Field Artillery Gunnery, FM 3-09.8 (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 31 July 2006), 4-65.

[19]. Gordon et al., “Comparing U.S. Army Systems with Foreign Counterparts,” 23.

[20]. Headquarters Department of the Army, Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for The Field Artillery Cannon Battery, FM 6-50 (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 23 December 1996), 17.

[21]. CPT Keith W. Dayton, “Field Artillery Survivability: The Soviet Perspective.” U.S. Army Russian Institute. Garmisch, Germany, 1981, 8.

[22]. "Towed Artillery - Range and Light Weight is the Motto," Armada International 27, no. 4 (Aug, 2003): 54, https://search-proquest-com.lomc.idm.oclc.org/docview/197083900?accountid=14746.

[23]. Ibid., 55.

[24]. Author Experience.

[25]. Photo by United States Air Forces Central Command, accessed January 28, 2017, http://media.defense.gov/.

[26]. Author Experience.

[27]. Headquarters Department of the Army, Field Artillery Gunnery, 4-78.

[28]. Author Experience.

[29]. Karber, "Lessons Learned," 18.

Bibliography

Conley, Heather A. et al., “Transatlantic Forum on Russia.” Center for Strategic International Studies. November 17, 2016. https://www.csis.org/events/transatlantic-forum-russia-0.html.

Dayton, Keith W. CPT. “Field Artillery Survivability: The Soviet Perspective.” U.S. Army Russian Institute. Garmisch, Germany, 1981.

Flynn, Charles Brigadier General, and Major Joshua Richardson. “Joint Operational Access and The Global Response Force: Redefining Readiness.” Military Review. June 2013. http://usacac.army.mil/.

Grau, Lester W., and Timothy L. Thomas. “Russian Lessons Learned from the Battles for Gozny.” U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office. Accessed October 2, 2016. http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/.

Gordon, John et al., “Comparing U.S. Army Systems with Foreign Counterparts: Identifying Possible Capability Gaps and Insights from Other Armies.” RAND Cooperation. Last modified January 24, 2017. http://www.rand.org/.

Headquarters Department of the Army. Field Artillery Gunnery. FM 3-09.8. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 31 July 2006.

Headquarters Department of the Army. Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for The Field Artillery Cannon Battery. FM 6-50. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 23 December 1996.

Headquarters Department of the Army. Training for Full Spectrum Operations. FM 7-0. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 12 December 2008.

Headquarters US Marine Corps. Warfighting. MCDP 1. Washington, DC: US Marine Corps, June 30, 1991.

Judsen, Jen. “U.S. Army Chief Sounds Alarm: Military at ‘High Risk’.” Defense News.  April 7, 2016. http://www.defensenews.com/.

Karako, Thomas. “Looking East: European Air and Missile Defense after Warsaw.” quoted in Ian Williams. “The Russia- NATO A2AD Environment.” Center for Strategic International Studies. July 14, 2016. https://missilethreat.csis.org/russia-nato-a2ad-environment/.

Karber, Phillip A. Dr. “Lessons Learned from The Russo-Ukrainian War.” Potomac Foundation. Accessed October 2, 2016. https://prodev2go.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/rus-ukr-lessons-draft.pdf. 

Poindexter, Lauen. “Picatinny Engineers Seek to Double Range of Modified Howitzer.” U.S. Army. March 17, 2016. https://www.army.mil/.

Shlapak, David A., and Michael Johnson. “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics.” RAND Corporation. Accessed December 28, 2016. http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1253.html.

Tarr, Elizabeth Staff Sgt. “4th ID Crosses the Border into Poland After Three-Day Convoy.” U.S. Army. January 12, 2017. https://www.army.mil/.

United States Army Combined Arms Center. JFIRE. ATP 3-09.32. Fort Leavenworth, KS, 30 November 2012.

 

About the Author(s)

Captain Kiernan Kane is an Army artillery officer currently attending the Marine Corps Expeditionary Warfare School at Quantico, Virgina.