FIREPOWER—WHAT THE ARMY CALLS ‘FIRES’
A battery of field artillery is worth a thousand muskets.
Our artillery has really been sensational. For once we have enough of something and at the right time. Officers tell me they actually have more guns than they know what to do with.
Artillery conquers and infantry occupies
J.F. C. Fuller
I do not have to tell you who won the war. You know, the artillery did
General George S. Patton
My first encounter with artillery was when I was five. At the time we lived in England near a village called Chalfont Saint Peter (Anne Hathaway's cottage is nearby. She was Shakespeare's significant other). It boasted a common where I liked to go and play.
What is a ‘common’? Essentially, it is a left-over from a time when much of the land was common—publicly owned—and open to all. The Enclosure Movement of the 18th and 19th centuries put an end to much of that—it was a land grab by the rich—but some patches survived. Today, a common is little different from a park, although typically unfenced and less cultivated—at least in my experience.
I am a great fan of commons. I believe that as much of the land as possible should belong to us all. I believe in free enterprise, but not to the point that one person ends up with all the marbles.
BRITISH 25 POUNDER ARTILLERY – NO LONGER IN USE EXCEPT FOR CEREMONIAL PURPOSES
On the day in question, there was some sort of official ceremony and a battery of six 25 pounder guns brought in to fire a salute. Being a little boy and curious, I wriggled my way to be as close as possible. I was alone. Young though I was, I was regularly sent to the village to buy cigarettes for my mother so was well used to it. She had a distinctive maternal style.
I was petrified to the point of tears when the first gun fired. It was the loudest, and most terrifying sound I had ever heard in my life. I fled home. For various reasons, I have become more accustomed to artillery over the years, but that first sound still hits me in the gut.
Artillery is terrifying, both psychologically—and in its physical effects. Even if you are not hit, there are few more fear-inducing experiences than being on the receiving end of a barrage. The noise, blast and fear of imminent death cauterize the senses. You feel insignificant and entirely vulnerable in the face of such power. The prospect of being killed by blast, or ripped apart by red-hot shards of metal, lacks appeal.
In fact, artillery is relatively survivable if you are well dug in—but that still means you cannot move—and have to await your fate. If you are caught out in the open, depending upon the terrain, it is likely that your casualties will be terrible.
BRITISH DESIGNED 155MM M777 ‘LIGHTWEIGHT’ TOWED HOWITZER NOW IN USE BY U.S. ARMY & MARINE CORPS
The kill zone of a 155mm howitzer is roughly 50 meters and the casualty radius 100 meters. The effective range is 15 miles for a conventional shell and 25 miles for an Excalibur (a guided round). The normal rate of fire is two rounds per minute—though five is possible for limited periods.
THE LONGEST RANGE ARTILLERY SHOT THAT THE MAINES HAVE RECORDED WAS A 155MM M982 EXCALIBUR ROUND WHICH WAS FIRED FROM MORE THAN 36 K (22 MILES) ONTO TALIBAN.
Traditionally, artillery has not been particularly accurate—more an area weapon—unless in a short-range direct fire mode—but the 155mm Excalibur is a PGM (Precision Guided Munition) and in Iraq was found to be accurate to within 4 meters (13 feet) which is pretty amazing given its range of 25 miles. On the other hand, each Excalibur shell is so expensive, the quantity available is decidedly limited.
The great thing about artillery fire support is that (theoretically) it is available on a 24/7 basis. It isn’t affected by the weather, its loiter time isn’t affected by high fuel consumption (unlike air-power); and operationally, command is simplified by the fact that it is integral to its service (Army or Marines).
Artillery is called King of Battle for very good reason. It inflicted the majority of casualties in WW I and was decisive in WW II.
So what is the problem?
Everything about it is heavy. That means transporting it, and keeping it supplied, is damnably difficult.
For instance, a single ‘light’ 155mm howitzer weighs nearly 8 tons and requires a crew of 9—and each shell ways about 100 pounds. That means—if you fire two rounds (normal rate of fire) a minute for one hour (a short barrage) you need six tons of ammunition per hour. Keep up the barrage for eight hours, and that means you need 48 tons for just one gun. For a single six gun battery, you need 288 tons.
For just one battery!
In short, artillery is a logistics nightmare—especially for a fast moving maneuver oriented unit.
Not, in truth, that we do much maneuvering at speed on land these days. IEDs are one reason; logistics is another; the third has to do with the fact that we pay more lip service to maneuver warfare than we actually do it.
For that reason, it tends to be a higher command asset so that, in reality, it is not available on demand. You have to negotiate up the chain of command. It is yet another scarce resource.
Is there an alternative—or a supplement?
There is—up to a point. Mortars.
MARINES EFSS (EXPEDITIONERY FIRE SUPPORT SYSTEM) 120MM RIFLED MORTAR IS TRANSPORTABLE IN THE MV-22 OSPREY TILT ROTOR, CH-53 HELICOPTER AND C-130 AIRCRAFT UPWARDS. THE SYSTEM INCLUDES THE GROWLER JEEP AND AN AMMUNITION TRAILER
For the sake of comparing apples with apples (more or less) I’m comparing the 155mm howitzer with 120mm mortar. Why so? Well, the projectiles have—more or less—the same killing zone.
A classic mortar is a relatively simple indirect fire weapon (albeit surprisingly sophisticated in detail) which sacrifices range for portability and simplicity. An added advantage is that mortars, generally speaking, have higher rates of fire—and the ammunition is lighter (roughly a third of the weight of artillery rounds). Today, thanks to computer based targeting systems, they are also extremely accurate.
In sum, the one advantage that artillery has over mortars is range. Of course, that’s an overwhelming advantage if you have no other way of ‘going deep’—your enemy can just stand off and kill you at his leisure—but what if you do have an option—air-power.
The U.S. has more air-power than any other nation in the world—and we have PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions) to go with it. That means we can bomb with relative impunity from 20,000 to 30,000 feet—and be fairly sure to hit our targets.
True, there are missiles available which can down an aircraft at that height—but they are not widely available, we have counter-measures, and the missiles themselves are vulnerable. So airpower, if not invulnerable, is relatively low risk—as matters stand.
On that basis, it would seem only commonsense that airpower could substitute for artillery.
Clearly, it already does on occasions—and fairly frequently at that, particularly where Special Forces are concerned. However, it is not quite that simple for several reasons:
- Air-power is a scarce resource and not always available.
- Most of the aircraft we have carry only a small number of bombs and have limited ‘legs.’ They cannot maintain a bombardment for hours in the steady way artillery can. Artillery is arguably still better for area denial.
- The Air Force isn’t particularly fond of the CAS (Close Air Support) mission.
- The Air Force is a separate service with a separate chain of command.
It seems to me that the time has come for the Air Force to be capable of (note my words) replacing artillery—which may require completely new aircraft tailored for the mission. It will certainly require a different mindset by the Air Force.
DRAGON FIRE II AUTOMATED SELF-LOADING MORTAR IS ABLE TO FIRE WITHIN 18 SECONDS OF RECEIVING TARGET DATA—AND IT IS DEADLY ACCURATE
One of the most interesting 120mm mortar systems out there is the automated Dragon Fire II. Though you have to keep its ammunition hopper fed, its system loads and fires itself—and is extremely accurate. It was developed by the Marines but, in the end, was not selected because of its weight and bulk. The limiting factor was the CV-22 Osprey tiltrotor which—to be blunt—has too small a cargo area. In fact, it was developed without the thought that it might need to carry a vehicle, let alone a mortar and ammunition trailer.
Given the cost of the Osprey, this omission is somewhat inexplicable (not an adequate word but I’m trying to be tactful) but a surprising number of weapons systems are not thought through holistically. The focus tends to be on the project rather than the operational concept.
Here are the Dragonfire II’s specs.
- Weight - 1.5 tons
- Range - 8 miles with extended range ammunition
- Rate of fire – 10 rounds per minute
- Can fire in 18 seconds from target data being entered into computer.
Personally, I think the Marines made a mistake in not selecting the Dragon Fire II though the limitations of the Osprey probably gave them no choice in the matter. But the DF II is an extraordinary weapons system.
By the way, mortars will become even more deadly with the introduction of PERM (Precision Extended Range Munition) rounds. These have a range of 17 kliks—about 12 miles, and a CEP accuracy of 20 meters at full range.
THESE HIGHLY ACCURATE PERM ROUNDS WILL GIVE A 120MM RIFLED MORTAR ABOUT HALF THE RANGE OF A 155MM HOWITZER
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