A note from The Cove Team: This article was first published in The Royal Australian Artillery Liaison Letter journal.
The modernisation and capability expansion of the Army’s artillery will result in a ubiquitous land-based capacity to blend kinetic multi-domain capabilities into a unified effect. The Australian Defence Force seeks to alleviate the burden on the manoeuvre arm through the convergence of fires and effect across multiple domains. The expansion of long-range lethality announced in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, will provide flexibility, responsiveness, and firepower that facilitates combined and joint operations to greater effect. Artillery traditionally completes its role in combination with armour and infantry; although it can and should be used to influence the battlespace via deep engagements and strikes (harmonised with other delivery assets). It operates in all terrains, from sea level to extreme altitudes, ignores adverse weather and can be employed in the most inhospitable of terrains.
The violence created by massed land-based fires transcends the movement and manoeuvre of battalions. Arguments that dismiss its utility are symptomatic of decades of wars of choice, the lack of a tangible threat, and a propensity to seek quick solutions offered by technology or stand-off capabilities; artillery is a fundamental apparatus of war. Unfortunately, many military professionals do not realise, ignore, or have difficulty accepting the efficacy of mass and destruction. Instead, there is a preference for discreet delivery and precision. The reality; however, is that in a high intensity conflict (particularly one of necessity) it is entirely appropriate to problem-solve with high explosives. Precision is seductive and enticing, but it is neither practical nor applicable in all contexts. There is a distinct need to recollect the visceral reality of close combat in a high intensity industrialised war and reinvigorate fires to meet emergent challenges. To address this problem, the Army plans to endow itself with a credible self-propelled artillery piece compatible with combined arms formation manoeuvre, numerous long-range missile platforms to support both land and maritime operations, and systems to facilitate rapid expeditionary deployment.
Role and Relationships
Armour and Infantry, the close fighting manoeuvre corps, traditionally share an abiding closeness with the joint fires community. However, recent years have witnessed changes in thinking in the Australian Defence Force regarding structure and models of use, and a penchant for standoff precision strike over classic manoeuvre supported by fire. This is understandable, but lessons from most recent conflicts indicate that the effectiveness of standoff capability in isolation is not absolute and is heavily context-dependent(1). Standoff strikes work tactically for counter-insurgency but will not necessarily prove effective in the face of high-tempo, manoeuvre forces paired with massed enablers and directed by an audacious commander. Precision is extremely valuable, but in a future high intensity battlespace, massed violence setting preconditions for success will be equally as critical.
Artillery has proved to be one of the major combat multipliers in history, and in the future its role will be the convergence of fires and effect across multiple domains(2). Modern technology by itself did not save the day in Mosul, nor did it do so in the Russo-Ukraine War, nor in the close fights of Iraq and Syria. Rather, brute force, willpower and attrition did(3). Advocates of a systems and technical approach to war, continue to overlook that it is ‘a dreadful and impassioned drama’ to which the introduction of new capabilities expand complexity as much as reduce it(4). At almost every juncture where technical innovation has been declared to make classic capabilities irrelevant, this has been proven wrong(5). History informs us that the centrality of close fighting manoeuvre corps will remain an enduring aspect of battle(6). This uneven burden is a persistent reality, and while other services and corps contribute meaningfully and effectively, infantry and armour will continue to shoulder the greatest share of that burden.
Throughout modern military history, leaders and military theorists have observed that mass and the ability to generate it are the key to victory(7), although where it was numbers, now it is the ability to project and layer effects in a given time and space by whatever means possible. Like its allies, the Australian Defence Force seeks to alleviate by interlinking air, land, sea, space and cyber effects to respond and potentially pre-empt threats and opportunities(8). Land-based fires exist to facilitate conditions of relative advantage against adversaries. Artillery, when employed correctly, permits large battlespace challenges to be reduced into manageable and quantifiable segments. It is conspicuous that the intangible features of contemporary artillery contests are, in the populist view, moving from the idea of ‘dumb’ mass to what is perceived to be smart/intelligent/brilliant solutions. It is critical for future success to achieve firepower asymmetries over our adversaries since rarely are engagements, battles, or wars won without sufficient firepower.
The majority of contemporary pseudo-futurists appear to forget, or have chosen to ignore, the visceral reality of close fighting and the need for persistent mitigation of manoeuvre vulnerabilities. The ‘fog of war’ will persist and the ability to throw volumes of high explosive at problems, whilst inelegant, is extremely effective(9). Admittedly entirely aspirational, but at the tactical level there should be an aim to yield force dominant enough to either lead to instantaneous capitulation or impose destruction so comprehensive that even if a subsequent engagement is needed, the result is preordained. Fires integration is most effective when intimately complementing or being complemented by a form of manoeuvre to achieve a combined endstate. Furthermore, it is more effective when part of an integrated, and echeloned, joint fires apparatus which includes a number of platforms and capabilities. To some, airpower may seem to have displaced Artillery, but this is only true in the non-contested air paradigm of recent conflicts(10). Land-based fires are a pertinent capability when facing an adversary that can contest the skies; an enemy of the type Australia hasn't faced in decades(11). In the future, the Australian Defence Force will need to address this challenge by sudden, extreme bursts of violent action, judiciously integrated across all domains. Success will be measured by the side that can best achieve duration, reach, and sequencing spasms of concentrated, energetic viciousness, and creating temporary and localised periods of superiority.
The obliteration of a component of enemy forces is often a prime objective in close combat engagements, as part of the pre-emption, dislocation or disruption of a higher echelon(12). Historically, fires engagements have been crucial to realising this aim by diminishing an adversary’s capacity by both physical destruction (soldiers and equipment) and the degradation of will and cohesion (morale and unity). In most cases, only after an adversary’s will had been shattered does it become conceivable to impose substantial causalities or achieve freedom of action. This is common to most engagements regardless of size and intensity, but comparable effect on the enemy's will and cohesion depends upon the shock of massed effects and the consequential losses and destruction. When artillery is optimised, then it can be the principal reason for a reasonably comfortable success in the close fight; history is testimony to this.
The Australian Defence Force is allied with nation-states who possess quality massed fires capability, integrated into both conventional combined forces and special operations. There is no reason Australia should not expect competent enemies to likewise calibrate themselves. As the enthusiasm for cyber, precision, and innovation continues, there is a risk of a degrading self-awareness in regard to basic tactical requirements. This is not advocacy for halting the expansion of cyber capabilities and emerging technology, nor for ceasing the procurement of precision munitions, rather that they should not be at the expense of fundamental capabilities.
What has changed over the past several decades are the capability of army fires, artillery, and rockets vis-a-vis potential adversaries. Today, a qualitative and quantitative capability gap exists with respect to Artillery. In its incursion into eastern Ukraine, the Russian Army demonstrated a sophisticated capability to find, fix and destroy targets with long-range fires and other enhanced strike assets. Allies, friends and regional competitors are expanding their inventory and evolving tactical application of artillery and long-range fires to achieve comparable utility(13). Australia is doing likewise.
Throughout the Cold War, land formations were prepared to trade artillery and rocket barrages with their foes at unprecedented levels. They did so with a level of confidence that volume and range could be maintained as the battle progressed. But recent insurgencies did not require this level of capability, potentially as the adversary changed from industrially enabled high-tech force to an adaptive insurgent(14). Possessing undisputed freedom of action in the air, aircraft increasingly became the preferred kinetic solution. However, as the global security environment changes and the Australian Defence Force begins to reconsider near-peer competitors, the degradation of fires systems and tactics represent exploitable vulnerabilities. The ability to deny and degrade airpower through advanced missile systems, electronic warfare and cyber-attacks is expected to become commonplace(15). The paradigms that have defined much of the recent Australian experience of conflict are changing, and the Australian Defence Force must adapt accordingly(16). Artillery is a tailorable capability and can still function in Global Positioning System denied and Electronic Warfare degraded environments supported by proven legacy procedures(17). It is highly likely that the evolution of combat environments will drive Artillery towards an increasingly relevant future. The reputation of Artillery is founded over a number of wars and conflicts by the ‘ability to mass fires and respond with rapid, accurate fires for manoeuvre’(18). Australia’s principal allies have maintained their massed fires capability (or are rapidly reclaiming them), and are balancing it with development of longer ranges, accuracy, and variety of platforms. Balance and breadth are essential, and in the past Australia chose to gamble on the minimum, accepting a multitude of vulnerabilities. This weakness has been addressed by capability advancements announced in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update(19), but realisation of this capability will take a number of years to achieve.
The employment of fires in the future will be somewhat similar to the past 100 years, which have been characterised by orchestrated and hasty engagements to shape the environment and diminish the adversary, but with a rebalancing of precision and mass. None of this is anything new, but for the Australian Defence Force genuinely to compete in a future high-level conflict its joint fires apparatus will need to possess a balance of guns (towed and self-propelled), rockets, and missiles. This will be complimented by a variety of ammunition and fuses to achieve desired results at the target end. If in a future conflict air support cannot be guaranteed, this will necessitate a robust artillery capability.
Historically, the majority of casualties have been inflicted by artillery(20). So, while air delivered effects are currently popular, established ground-based systems have an important role in the future, particularly if sustained rates of fire are required. Military organisations must be cautious of becoming enslaved by recent fashions and alluring trends, only to be betrayed when war begins; it is hubris to be so captivated by fashion such that historically proven methods are ignored(21). The expansion of long-range lethality announced in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, will provide flexibility, responsiveness, and firepower that allows combined and joint tasks to be achieved to greater effect(22). However, there remains a distressing propensity to rely on non-organic fire support assets, such as fixed and rotary wing aircraft. This saturates many levels of tactical leadership, and its genesis can be found in experiences drawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, where non-organic assets were abundant. The indifference towards land-based fires and reliance on non-organic fire support assets is an indicator of a land force that is built, in both intellect and spirit, not for war but for intermittent pockets of conflict, where the luxury of air superiority can be assured. The reality is that the Army cannot rely on air force for fire support, and in a high surface-to-air threat the air forces will be heavily reliant on artillery suppression of air defence(23). Recent experience has conditioned leaders to assume, and commonly do not contemplate anything but, air support; this dubious reliance is likely to prove catastrophic(24). In recent conflicts air support response averaged eight minutes. Artillery fires can arrive on target within two to three minutes. The approximate three-minute difference is an eternity in a close fight, even assuming air support is available, which in a near peer contest there is no guarantee(25). Even now in Iraq and Syria, 'artillery units can often provide support much faster than calling for close air support, especially if no aircraft are already on station over the target area'(26). In a near peer competitive setting, or even in one where an enemy has a measure of air-to-air or surface-to-air capability, the Army must provide for itself. The Air Force will be appropriately dedicated to missions to gain/maintain air superiority. There is a distinct need to relearn the importance of accurate, timely, and all-weather fire support to joint and combined arms operations; as it remains a capability that airpower or other means cannot replicate.
Reinvigoration of Massed Fires
In the future Artillery will contribute to high-intensity operations by providing flexible, persistent, and instantaneous effects. Technology developments have led to increased flexibility, responsiveness, and significantly more accuracy. It's possible to concentrate land-based fires of such density and lethality to achieve disruption of advancing armoured formations in a matter of minutes, massed engagements in the Ukraine are demonstrative of this(27). For some, this factor has yet to genuinely sink in: that in a modern high intensity conflict the norm is mechanised and armoured units being regularly disrupted/dislocated by fires, and Australia cannot absorb cumulative destruction of this nature. Napoleon himself stated that, 'good infantry is without doubt the sinews of an army; but if it has to fight a long time against very superior artillery, it will become demoralised and will be destroyed'(28). Though from another era his observation remains relevant, the threat needs to be taken seriously, as Australia cannot afford to sacrifice battle groups with any frequency.
Compared to costly platforms and capabilities, artillery (Howitzer and Rocket) presents a reasonably inexpensive means of delivering kinetic effects. Depending on airframe, ordnance, distance, etc airstrikes vary between eight to ten times as expensive(29). Main Battle Tanks, such as the M1A1 Abrams, normally come in around 3-4 times as expensive, but also include the likely additional cost of the lives of crew(30), and field gunners are 50% cheaper to train(31). Arguably, aircraft possess higher (though fleeting) tactical flexibility and a range advantage, but artillery provides a practical assurance and durability aircraft will not match. Artillery is inherently linked to manoeuvre units, is significantly more responsive and unrestricted in adverse weather, and with the introduction of Protected Mobile Fires are likely more survivable than fast or rotary air against a near peer adversary.
Importantly, in-service and emergent ammunition performs admirably and are cheaper than air-delivered equivalents (when piloting, aircraft maintenance, hours and fuel are considered). Furthermore, ammunition that will imminently be introduced to service can achieve an effect against armoured or mechanised formations air cannot replicate with a comparable effort(32). Most importantly, unlike aircraft, Artillery can perform continuous fire missions to support own troops. None of these points should be taken as promoting the thinning or replacing of air capacity. However airpower continues to exude a mystique and is an ‘unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like all modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment’(33). Air power is a powerful tool of war; however, it does not dominate the battlefield in a peer threat environment and impressions of the last 40 years of conflict are largely exaggerated and misunderstood(34). Technical enthusiasts delight in comparing one system against another, but one on one platform fights are a rarity. Any comparison should consider an aggregate of the systems of one side versus the aggregate the other(35). When the example of the past is ignored, it is simple to fall into technological determinism, and an obstructive ‘modern scientific pacifism that tries to prove that bloody war is unnatural and has no utility in solving conflicts’, denying the potential reappearance of major battle(36). Airpower cannot be everywhere at once and needs to be appropriately balanced against a system than can be linked heart and soul to the ground manoeuvre force in all terrains, weather, and contexts.
The focus on technical alternatives and non-traditional mission profiles in recent conflicts is what led to the atrophy of conventional field artillery. For some, the attitude today appears to be one where it is perceived as an accessory rather than an essential arm; once again indicative of an organisation that assumes away problems, and has spent too long away from a real fight. The commendable disapproval of war, shared by many Westerners, is in many ways a manifestation of a post-military society, replaced by humanitarian intervention, limited war, precision, and the complete avoidance of misery in battle (as if that is actually achievable). Artillery tends to lose significance in the minds of those most reliant upon it through times of peace(37). The absence of an existential threat means that peacetime norms have appropriated the right to critique the past and select future structure and capability.
The joint fires operating environment will continue to evolve, and it would be sensible to anticipate an ever-increasing obsession with range, lethality and a reinvigorated desire for mass. In conjunction with this, the contemporary examples of Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine allude to a much more unstable and distributed battlespace(38). This will mandate very different approaches to tactics, operations, and a return to the frequent and substantial use of fires to create opportunity and shield vulnerability(39). In a future where it is likely that adversaries will wield comparable or greater capability, it would be practical to let go of the preoccupation with precision and discreet effects that proved effective against motivated agrarian fighters(40). Aggression, mass, speed of decision, and the will to apply devastating force will be essential and the investment in Long Rang Fires(41), Protected Mobile Fires(42), and improvement to in-service platforms provides a much larger family of capabilities(43). The three established Gun Regiments, and a handful of 81mm mortar platoons, are an insufficient land-based fires apparatus, the incoming investment represents a true expansion of capabilities and tactical/operational options(44). Considering the potentialities of the current and future battlespace, the Army is evolving into an integrated and layered massed fires system to enable manoeuvre in the close fight and negate potential adversary formations in the deep; the strengthening of ‘long-range lethality’ will achieve this(45). There is also potential the foundation upon which the Army has previously based cannon numbers is still very much of a paradigm no longer pertinent. Formerly, the rule was that one battalion should be supported by at least one battery of guns, plus the numerous batteries supporting the division or corps. However, in post-World War II evolutions and developments the Australian Defence Forces chose to accept risk with the absolute minimum numbers of guns to support manoeuvre units, one battery per infantry battalion and no fire units held at Division (degrading over a number of years for a variety of reasons). The paradigm of one battery per battalion has expired, the co-efficient has changed in modern conflict, numbers of infantryman matter less than the enablers supporting them at the point of friction with the enemy, and there are few persistent capabilities that can consistently provide that extra touch of violence required(46). The phased plan to improve current capabilities and adopt a complimentary assortment of artillery, rocket and missile systems is practical when in view of the emergent strategic environment. Robust infantry and armour will always matter, but without the support of a layered and harmonised fires apparatus they may prove to be a ‘one-handed puncher’(47), the new fires capabilities will serve to mitigate this risk. Adapting in-stride in the battlespace, it, 'is quicker to concentrate fire…than mass forces, this improves flexibility and leads to surprising the enemy and economised of effort'(48). Ultimately, in war the burden inescapability falls to infantry and armour, so Artillery must endure to enable their success.
The introduction of self-propelled artillery, numerous long-range missile platforms to support both land and maritime operations, and systems to facilitate rapid expeditionary deployment will produce a true echeloned fires system complimentary to capabilities provided by the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Australian Navy. Presently, the number of delivery systems do not present an appropriate range of options to provide credible support to manoeuvre arms in a close fight, nor options for the Government of Australian when it comes to operating against a near-peer adversary. In the future Australia will possess a range of options and fires systems(49). A modest formation manoeuvring in the littoral of the near region that can effectively operate in multiple domains and employ long-range fires could have enormous influence on the Area-Access/Area-Denial umbrella and the multi-domain fight. The most important consideration should be always how to expend a small army for the purpose of war, so as to reduce the initial sacrifice of irreplaceable manoeuvre forces – the contribution of land-based massed fires can prove decisive in preserving force and enabling decisive action.
The modernisation of Army’s artillery will result in a ubiquitous land-based capacity to blend kinetic multi-domain capabilities into a unified effect. However, while it will be able to contribute to the evolving concepts of multi-domain manoeuvre, Artillery also remains the solution to the problems of battle that infantry and armour cannot solve themselves without significant loss of life and equipment; engagements to break through a defended front, plugging gaps created by overwhelmed or withdrawing forces, the denial or retention of fortifications and terrain, and the setting of preconditions prior to an attack(50). A lesson of war is that ‘firepower provides freedom of manoeuvre in combat, and no air force or combat arm provides that firepower better than the artillery’(51). To be very clear, airpower is not irrelevant and massed fires cannot solve all problems, but there is an imbalanced understanding of utility that needs to be corrected by a prudent reassessment of capabilities and roles.
The Army should anticipate facing experienced and capable adversaries equipped with the latest weapons technology, and this includes an array of destructive land-based delivery systems. Whilst the Australian Defence Force is coming to understand how best to embrace a multitude of emergent capabilities, land-based fires remain an enduring requirement should the Australian Defence Force desire to be a credible warfighting entity. In the future, it intends to close the gaps in warfighting capability it previously accepted in the ‘wars of choice’ of the past twenty years. Though the future remains uncertain, and the modern battlespace is a lethal environment populated by highly advanced combat platforms, adversaries possessing the means for both mass and precision, and the will to use it. The Army is increasing its land-based fires apparatus in order to ensure that that when facing a capable adversary, it can match their ability to generate mass at the point of friction, preserve life and enable freedom of action.