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Precision Strike: The King of Battle

24 March 2020
Strategy
Land combat
Military theory
Two darts in a dartboard and one beside the dartboard

In this final addition to the series we will be examining how the growth of the precision strike regime might dramatically transform the role of artillery within the Australian Army. This piece will look at how novel technologies and operating concepts might dramatically change the traditional role of Artillery. As noted earlier in this series, combined arms is the ‘core competency’ of the Army.[1] It is both an operating concept and a state of mind. By using maneuver to break the balance, initiative and resolve of the enemy, combined arms elements can close with and decisively defeat the enemy. It allows infantry, armour and artillery to exploit each other’s strengths and cover their respective weaknesses. Precision strike has the potential to change the way land forces think about combined arms. Traditionally, artillery has been confined to the relative safety of the edge of close Areas of Operation (AOs) where they can avoid hostile infantry or armoured outfits, as well as enemy counter-battery fire. However, advances in the reach, accuracy and versatility of conventional missiles, as well as other precision munitions,[2] may require artillery to take not only a more aggressive role within Army, but also within the broader Joint Force.

The role of artillery may soon grow from one that primarily delivers tactical and operational effects to a strategic role within the Joint Force. The utility of artillery delivering effects at all levels of warfighting, will gunners to influence and shape the battlespace in a way that wasn’t previously possible. The PLA has recognised the potential of this new understanding of how artillery projects force. The promotion of the Second Artillery Corps into a full-fledged service as the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) is a compelling example of the strategic role that artillery can play as an element of a joint force. This strategic role can be varied. Artillery may soon become a necessary element of a conventional first strike capability, with conventional rocket forces taking on responsibilities comparable to those expected of nuclear forces during the Cold War. Preventing ambitious regional powers from pursuing a fait accompli may require artillery to play an important part in conventional deterrence.[3] The US Army is currently working on a number of projects designed to provide artillery that can deliver strategic mission effects.[4] With its withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the United States is now developing a Strategic Fires Missile (SFM) with a potential range out to 2,250 kilometres for striking critical strategic targets that may be hardened such as command installations.[5] Coupled with this is research on a Strategic Long-Range Cannon (SLRC) that utilises a gun barrel to launch cheaper, slower missiles at larger numbers of soft strategic targets such as radars, missile launchers and mobile command posts.[6] The sheer range of these two capabilities is what makes them strategic weapons, as they allow commanders to utilise ground-based indirect fires against targets that were previously only vulnerable to deep strikes from bombers or stealth aircraft.

At the operational level, precision fires may be used to frustrate the maneuver of adversaries, while enabling the maneuver of friendly forces. By placing high value targets or troop concentrations at risk, precision fires can compel the enemy to disperse, complicating their ability to concentrate at the right place at the right time. This would also reduce the enemy’s operational latitude.[7] Employing a ‘deep battle scope’ to the employment of indirect fires could see artillery striking the systems that sustain an adversary’s A2/AD umbrella, Command and Control (C2) facilities, logistics and support bases and depots, air support, naval task groups, and armour formations.[8] This deep battle occurring within the ranges of 100 to 700 kilometres, has also been where states such as Russia, have traditionally had the greatest advantage.[9] The US Army is looking to fill this operational gap with the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) capability.[10] Intended to replace the venerable Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), it is set to improve on its maximum range of 300 kilometres with a requirement for the new system to reach out to at least 499 kilometres.[11] The PrSM is intended to be more versatile than the ATACMS, with two missiles to each firing pod, an open architecture to facilitate improvements (‘Spirals’), resistance to counter-measures such as Electronic Warfare (EW), and a future capacity to strike naval targets.[12] Versatility is therefore critical at the operational level, and the aim of the game for fires with operational level effects is to shut down the enemy's ability to maneuver while supporting friendly maneuver.

At the tactical level, as discussed in the second article of this series, precision fires will not be a replacement for traditional massed fires, and the role of towed and self-propelled artillery, as well as mortars, are unlikely to be entirely displaced in the near term. Precision fires will remain of highest utility against enemy precision capabilities, or against high value targets of opportunity. Nonetheless, commanders on the ground may use precision fires selectively in coordination with other Joint Fires for high value tactical targets such as large armour convoys or troop concentrations. Though missiles and rockets may not be the tactical weapon of choice, other precision munitions will become increasingly necessary for commanders as precision warfare becomes the new normal on the battlefield. Extending the range of existing artillery systems can fill this gap, as demonstrated in the goal of developing a capability to deliver high-volume cannon fires out to at least 100 kilometres in the US Army’s far reaching Long-Range Precision Fires (LPRF) program.[13] As precision-centric warfare becomes the new normal, emphasis on greater reach, accuracy and versatility will bleed down from strategic and operational level fires to the tactical level.

As noted in the first article of this series, one major impact of the growth of the precision strike regime shall be a movement toward greater domain integration.[14] In the context of precision fires, Artillery may find itself being critical to an enlarged role for Army within the Joint Force. Precision strike remains the lynchpin of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) systems employed within our strategic neighbourhood. The ‘Command of the Commons’ that the United States and its allies have traditionally enjoyed is gradually fading.[15] Two key observations emerge from this trend: (1) controlled landmass has become increasingly critical to the control of littoral environments; and (2) the ability of land-based systems to control the sea and air diminishes proportional to distance from controlled landmasses.[16] Defenders utilising land-based strike capabilities now have a capacity to influence the maritime domain that hasn’t been seen since shore based artillery went out of fashion. Indeed, in future wars, control of the sea may depend on control of the land.[17] What is more, the fundamental physics of precision strike favor land-based systems, and as such, the asymmetry will likely widen over time. Precision strike depends on the Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition (RSTA) provided by advanced sensors. The open seas and clear skies of the maritime environment are far simpler than the comparatively complex RSTA environment on land.[18] Land-based systems therefore enjoy a systemic RSTA advantage over sea or air-based platforms. In other words, precision fires delivered from land are far more likely to identify, track and strike targets effectively than their naval or air counterparts. Combined with the higher platform costs of employing precision capabilities at sea or in the air, land-based forces fielding precision missiles will enjoy a systematic advantage over their air or sea-based counterparts.[19] In a high intensity military conflict between two states with precision capabilities, this fundamental asymmetry may prove to be the decisive factor, and how land forces are integrated as part of a joint force may well be critical to effective multi-domain operations.

The way that artillery has traditionally fit within combined arms maneuver may also be on the verge of a dramatic change. Artillery teams may soon find themselves operating ahead of or indeed entirely independent of infantry and armour elements. An example of this is the innovative HIMARS Rapid Infiltration (HIRAIN) concept that has been experimented with by both the US Army and US Marine Corps. Artillery elements within both of these services have experimented with loading a HIMARS platform aboard a C130, unloading the rocket artillery on a remote island, completing a fire mission, re-embarking on the transport and departing for another location.[20] The Marine Corps also demonstrated a similar mobile precision fire capability in beach landing exercises, where HIMARS platforms provided rocket fire in support of amphibious assaults, and aboard ships at sea.[21] This shoot-and-scoot maneuver that leverages air or sea-based mobility is an example of the type of role Artillery may play in the future operating environment.

Rather than firing from behind infantry and armour elements that have traditionally been responsible for getting close in with the enemy, gunners may see themselves deployed ahead of the main line. This type of operational concept is of greatest utility in the maritime domain, where air or sea-based mobility could be used by artillery deploying to remote islands to execute fire missions against approaching amphibious forces, present lodgments that enemy forces need to overcome, or even creating an A2/AD envelope within which the Joint Force can infiltrate and exploit.[22] The US Marine Corps has experimented with exactly this concept for its own rocket artillery, with HIRAIN being intended to allow the Marine Corps to contribute toward the fight at sea alongside the US Navy. The United States Army has also identified this as a priority with its Multi-Domain Operations concept, looking at an enlarged role for the US Army in the Pacific, with a Long-Range Precision Fire (LPRF) modernisation program being key to this operating concept.[23] Little wonder then that the US Army has identified LPRF as its number one modernisation priority, including a requirement to engage and neutralise enemy A2/AD systems at long range.[24] In the Australian context, concepts such as HIRAIN may allow Army Artillery to take a front and centre role in the defence of Australia’s northern ‘Sea-Air Gap’, leveraging the asymmetric advantage of land-based precision fires to frustrate the potential movement of adversaries along our northern littoral. This may require conceiving a more aggressive and dynamic role for artillery that exploits the advantages of precision fires to help Army maintain its critical role of creating and maintaining access, persistence and lethality for the Joint Force.

Napoleon Bonaparte once famously quipped that “God fights on the side with the best artillery.”[25] Though precision strike will not change the fundamental nature of war, nor the fundamental importance of combined arms as the core competency of the Army; it may be time to reimagine the role played by Corps of Artillery within both the Army and the broader Joint Force. Precision fires provide the potential for Artillery to deliver diverse effects across the strategic, operational and tactical levels of warfighting; may spearhead an enhanced role for the land force in projecting force at sea or in the air along our maritime approaches; and may signal a more aggressive role for the Corps within traditional combined arms maneuver. Though it may be hard to think of Artillery outside the conventions that the Army as a profession of arms is accustomed to, it is nonetheless critical that the service innovates and adapts as a land force. In this series we have examined why the precision strike regime is growing, the ways it may shape the future operating environment, how Army can respond, and why it might transform the way we think about artillery.

This series is intended to foster debate and discussion within the Australian Army on precision capabilities and how the service can respond. This is part of a current and ongoing discussion that needs to explore how Army can continue to fulfil its critical role of creating and maintaining access, persistence and lethality for the Joint Force. As the Joint Force increasingly contends with contested environments where luxuries such as complete air superiority, command of the seas, and uncontested joint fires become less and less likely, Army must engage conceptually with how it can contribute as our nation heads toward a strategic future of great power competition.


[1] Brian J. Dunn, “The Tyranny of the Shores: Army Planning for the Asia-Pacific Theater” Military Review (2018): 106.

[2] Guided Rockets, Artillery, Mortars, Munitions (G-RAMM).

[3] Thomas G. Mahnken, Travis Sharp, Billy Fabian, Peter Kouretsos, “Tightening the Chain: Implementing a Strategy of Maritime Pressure in the Western Pacific” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (2019): 85.

[4] “Army Seeks 1,000-Mile Missiles Vs. Russia, China,” Breaking Defense, Last modified September 10, 2018, https://breakingdefense.com/2018/09/army-seeks-1000-mile-missiles-vs-russia-china/

[5] “Army Seeks 1,000-Mile Missiles Vs. Russia, China,” Breaking Defense.

[6] “Army Seeks 1,000-Mile Missiles Vs. Russia, China,” Breaking Defense.

[7] COL Vincent Alcazar, COL Thomas M. Lafleur, “A Role for Land Warfare Forces in Overcoming A2/AD” Military Review (2013): 81.

[8] “Why the U.S. Army Really Needs The Precision Strike Missile,” The National Interest, Last modified November 9, 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/why-us-army-really-needs-precision-strike-missile-95336

[9] “Why the U.S. Army Really Needs The Precision Strike Missile,” The National Interest.

[10] “Why the U.S. Army Really Needs The Precision Strike Missile,” The National Interest.

[11] “Why the U.S. Army Really Needs The Precision Strike Missile,” The National Interest.

[12] “Why the U.S. Army Really Needs The Precision Strike Missile,” The National Interest.

[13] “Why the U.S. Army Really Needs The Precision Strike Missile,” The National Interest.

[14] Australian Army, “Army in Motion”, Chief of Army’s Strategic Guidance 2019 (2019): 13.

[15] Stephen Biddle, Ivan Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific: Chinese Antiaccess/Area Denial, U.S. AirSea Battle, and Command of the Commons in East Asia” International Security 41, no. 1 (2016): 12.

[16] Biddle, Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific,” 12.

[17] “The Marines’ Next Warfighting Experiment Will Focus on Long-Range Fires,” Military.com, accessed October 22, 2019,

https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/02/07/marines-next-warfighting…

[18] Biddle, Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific,” 12.

[19] Biddle, Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific,” 12.

[20] “US Marines, Soldiers, and Airmen conduct HIMARS Rapid Infiltration in Australia,” US Marine Corps Official Website, accessed October 22, 2019,

https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/1897235/us-marines-soldiers-and-airmen-conduct-himars-rapid-infiltration-in-australia/

[21] “U.S. Marine Corps Rocket Launchers Could Surprise Chinese Forces,” The National Interest, Last modified September 29, 2019. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/us-marine-corps-rocket-launchers-could-surprise-chinese-forces-82091

[22] “U.S. Marine Corps Rocket Launchers Could Surprise Chinese Forces,” The National Interest.

[23] “Army working toward improved Long Range Precision Fires,” U.S. Army Website, Last modified October 9, 2019, https://www.army.mil/article/228347/army_working_toward_improved_long_range_precision_fires

[24] “The Team that is transforming Army fires leads the service’s priorities,” Army Times, Last modified October 18, 2019, https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2019/10/18/the-team-that-is-transforming-army-fires-leads-the-services-priorities/

[25] “Army artillery: Restoring the king of battle to its throne,” Defense News, Last modified January 31, 2019, https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2019/01/31/restoring-the-king-of-battle-army-artillery-to-its-throne/

 

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Discussion

Matthew Struthers on 7 April 2020 - 5:12am

Editor's note: This Land Power Forum post is now open for discussion.