What Does the Future of Land Fires Look Like?

The Royal Artillery’s ability to fight peer and near-peer threats has stagnated after two decades in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Modernising Defence Programme now offers the Royal Artillery a chance to consider the future of fires.

The Royal Artillery was in consistent use supporting allied and coalition forces during the counterinsurgency conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The operations, where emphasis was placed on the targeting process and the reduction of collateral damage, involved the use of the Royal Artillery’s precision fires capabilities. The Exactor and the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems demonstrated that precision fires, delivered at range, was no longer the sole preserve of airpower.

The utility of fires has been further highlighted by the destruction of large armoured formations using massed artillery. In July 2014 the Ukrainian Army was manoeuvring four armoured battalions in an attempt to cut off the separatist forces’ supply lines outside the eastern Ukrainian town of Zelenopillya, near the Russian border. With almost no warning, artillery and rocket munitions rained down on the Ukrainian force for three minutes, causing over 100 dead and wounded, with the majority of two battalions’ worth of vehicles destroyed. The ferocity, speed and effectiveness of the fires had not been seen, or produced, by Western forces since the Korean War in 1950.  A mix of conventional munitions, dual purpose improved conventional munitions, air-dropped mines and top-down anti-tank sub-munitions, along with the reported use of thermobaric weapons, ripped apart armoured vehicles and human bodies alike.

In early 2018, a US forward operating base in Syria came under fire from an unknown massed force, which included tanks and artillery. The US commander, Brigadier General Jonathon Braga, ordered his force to return fire in self-defence. In a three-hour engagement US artillery, supported by layers of ISR assets and airstrikes, killed and wounded up to 300 enemy fighters, and many support and technical vehicles were destroyed. The enemy force, which is believed to have been supported by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group, was decimated and radio recordings, believed to be from the Russian mercenaries present, demonstrates the lethality of massed fires and the panic that it induced.

The global market for artillery systems is set to increase by 30% in the next 10 years – from $7.3 billion to $10.4 billion. The development of Russia’s new UAV system, deployed via the Smerch rocket system, coupled with their desire to improve their long-range missile strike capabilities, and a new Norwegian 155-mm ‘Ramjet’ artillery shell demonstrate that there is a willingness in many countries to increase the lethality and utility of all types of fires systems.

Can the West Follow Russia’s Approach?

Modern Russian artillery capabilities (including rockets, mortars and tube artillery) are significant, including: laser-guided artillery and mortar rounds (2k25 Krasnopol), GPS-guided 152mm rounds, thermobaric multiple launch rocket systems and top attack sub-munitions. The lethality of these systems is significant: Major General (Ret’d) Bob Scales, a former commander of the US Army Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, described the Russian artillery thermobaric weapons as producing a ‘lethal area 10 times greater than an American MLRS battalion’.

The West, and the UK in particular, is constrained in several ways when it comes to developing such weapons. The development and use of thermobaric weapons by the UK has been controversial and raised concerns at ministerial level. The UK ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions (2008) in 2010: the UK is now legally unable to use, develop or trade in these weapons. The US is a non-signatory member of this convention: it can still use these weapons but, due to political pressure, has reduced its stocks and does not practise their use. The Cluster Munition Coalition, which tracks the status of the convention by country, identifies that 3 of the top 10 countries in global arms sales (Russia, China and Israel) are non-signatory members and continue to produce and export vast quantities of these highly effective munitions.

The UK has experienced how effective these weapons are in combat, both through the Royal Artillery firing Israeli-made L20 cluster shells in Iraq (2003) and the RAF using the RBL755 cluster bomb as far back as the Falklands War. The effectiveness of these weapons has been demonstrated once again and, as seen with Russia’s claimed development of a ‘stealth cluster bomb’, which can destroy up to 15 armoured vehicles, the threat from cluster munitions and their potential devastation is not waning.

Although cluster munitions often have a failure rate of less than 5 percent, the sheer number of sub-munitions that some systems have, causes significant post conflict issues when discarded and faulty munitions cause havoc for returning civilians. 

These risks have resulted in the humanitarian objections overriding a military need. Is it time to reconsider this approach – giving greater weight to military, rather than humanitarian needs? Are we at that point where the risk to soldiers on the battlefield, and the risk posed by potentially battle-wining armaments, overrides the desire to reduce collateral damage in the form of accidental civilian deaths?  If we were to take a threat based approach to these questions, the ‘morality of cluster bombing’ combined with the proliferations of these weapon systems by our likely adversary may put UK forces at a significant disadvantage during a peer, or near-peer conflict.

Other Developments in Artillery

Since the Napoleonic Wars artillery weapon developers have been increasing range and payload, placing the weapons system as far away as possible to reduce danger ensuring that the platform can stay in the fight longer. With Russia placing orders for the 2S35 Koalitsiya-SV artillery system, which has a reported range of 70km with precision-guided munitions and 40km with standard munitions, the race to place artillery systems out of harm’s way is back on.

Ramjets are just one of the potential future options; the US Army is trialling a rocket-assisted projectile as part of its Extended Range Cannon Artillery weapons programme, achieving notable success to date, which would make its medium-weight M777 A2 howitzers competitive in terms of range with the Russian heavy guns of the 2S19 Msta, and future 2S35.

Looking further ahead, with China testing a naval railgun, the theoretical abilities of railgun systems could be game-changing for land- and sea-based artillery systems. With projectile speeds greater than Mach 7, and ranges of up to 160km, railguns offer a glimpse of the future. The 4.5-inch Mark 8 automated gun, which currently equips the Royal Navy’s frigates and destroyers, is often described as the equivalent of a battery of 105mm light guns. Using a similar comparison, with the range and rate of fire predicted of a railgun system, a fully tested and working railgun could replace not only a battery of artillery, but also a regiment and potentially a brigade too.

Although the theoretical side of how a railgun works is relatively simple, the practical application of making a system and incorporating it onto a platform are staggeringly difficult. With power source and excessive heat being the key issues for railgun systems it is likely to be many years until a practical system, be it on land or sea, is developed.

And, going a step further, a BAE project funded by the US Department of Defence, titled Hyper Velocity Projectile (HVP) seeks to not only be suitable for a variety of different systems (5-inch naval guns, 155-mm artillery and railguns) but also seeks to bridge the gap between standard projectile development using charges and propellants and the future ammunition including high velocities and precision-guided capabilities. HVP can not only be used in many existing systems, its portfolio of tasks is also much bigger – including air defence. With this, its performance brings it into the realms of guided missile performance, albeit at a much-reduced cost.

The Value of Building on Previous Developments

When looking to the future, it is often easier to improve extant approaches, rather than develop truly innovative concepts. Increased range, more lethality, quicker in and out of action are how many fires systems are described. The conflicts in Syria and Ukraine have shown that the utility of fires in the future depends as much on communication and identifying targets as it does on range and lethality. Target identification and massing fires were as important in those conflicts as the impact of single armament types. A forward observer speaking into a radio is becoming an unwanted legacy. These conflicts have shown the immense value of UAVs, both small and large, along with modern C2 systems. They may not be a panacea for the West’s problems, but they have demonstrated their worth in delivering massed, effective fires over the past decade.

Although the British Army’s new Strike Brigade concept has ignited the wheeled versus tracked artillery debate, it is clear that the RA’s core capabilities are tired, dated and do not compete with its likely adversaries. The Defence Equipment Plan 2017, published yearly for Parliament does little to resolve this. In 1945 Field Marshall Montgomery wrote to all Gunners expressing his gratitude: ‘The Royal Artillery has never been so efficient as it is today: it is at the top of its form … other Arms have done well too. But the Artillery has been terrific’. To regain this relevance and performance the Royal Artillery and the British Army  need to think about and discuss these issues, and make the case for how land fires are a genuine battle-winning capability.

Adam Coffey
Adam is a British Army Officer and was a Visiting Fellow at RUSI.


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