In the midst of the offensive in June 2023, it was reported by ‘Oryx,’ a Dutch website tracking losses in the war in Ukraine, that 18 Krabs – self-propelled artillery systems donated by Poland – were damaged or destroyed (Mitzer and Janovsky, 2023). Noting the high intensity of the conflict, this was expected. The cause, however, was not. Most of the Krabs were destroyed by ‘Lancet’ loitering munitions, not counter-battery fire (Defence Express, 2023).

This short report will discuss the threat loitering munitions pose for towed gunline batteries whilst offering lessons that can be incorporated into gunline deployment training to increase M777 howitzer survivability. For this, the report will only focus on defending against loitering munitions in the context of protecting Australian M777s and not the merits of utilising loitering munitions offensively.

A loitering munition fits a niche between a cruise missile and an armed drone, as they are an aerial weapon with a warhead that can ‘loiter’ around a target area before crashing into the target. Loitering munitions offer advantages by enabling faster reaction times to valuable targets without placing high-value platforms near the target area. Further, they can allow for accurate and discriminate targeting as the target can be changed mid-flight or aborted. Finally, since they are expendable munitions, they are designed to be cheap and numerous (Atherton, 2015).

In the war in Ukraine, the primary loitering munition used by the Russian military is the ‘Lancet’ drone, which has a range of up to 40km with 40 minutes of endurance (Barnes, 2023). Piloted by an operator, they are set in motion by a catapult enabling a small launch signature. As of July, the ‘Lancet’ drone has mainly targeted artillery installations, destroying or damaging over 106 self-propelled systems and 131 howitzers of which two dozen are M777 howitzers (Bakshi, 2023) (Roblin, 2023).

Formerly, the focus for Ukrainian artillery crews was to mitigate the threat from counter-battery fire through survivability moves immediately after missions. But as the war drags on, the ammunition expenditure from Russian artillery has dropped significantly and ammunition dumps targeted by HIMARS strikes have seen a change in Russian artillery tactics switching from counter battery fire to loitering munitions being utilised to target Ukrainian artillery (Watling and Reynold, 2023) (AARC, 2022).

Speaking to Reuters, Ukrainian artillery crews said that ‘Lancet’ drones are the main threat they face, especially with the significant increase in ‘Lancet’ strikes in recent months (Hunder, 2023). The use of loitering munitions changes tactics in the following ways:

  1. The “loitering” trait of the “Lancet” drone allows it to locate artillery more easily and conducting shoot-and-scoot tactics, following the moving vehicle’s signature along roads, and is most likely to hit crews during a survivability move or as it moves to a hide position (Roblin, 2023).
  2. Rather than Russian guns being unmasked to fire on dispersed guns, it is easier to send an expendable and cheap ‘Lancet’ to target the individual equipment, which makes tactics such as baiting with single guns far more vulnerable than they were in the past. In addition, target selection standards become lower with the addition of loitering drones, which further increases the risk that single guns can be targeted. Therefore, dispersing to defeat the targeting cycle to avoid criteria for engagement is no longer a tactic that can be relied upon.
  3. The threat of being targeted by ‘Lancet’ drones can make it challenging for artillery crews to maintain sustained covering fire in support of manoeuvre as the long rates enable drone operators to hone in on their position (Watling and Reynold, 2023).

Mitigating how loitering munition attacks their targets will require additional considerations for M777 deployment – including physical barriers and training – that are not discussed in current doctrine, and based on the losses sustained in Ukraine, methods for survival in a heavy suicide drone environment needs to be added to our procedures.

Unfortunately for Ukrainian artillery, their lack of knowledge in ‘Lancet’ drone combat has had a devastating effect on their equipment and crews. Ukrainian crews have now started to remain stationary after a mission, focusing on immediately camouflaging their equipment after a mission, ensuring to place camouflage netting over the M777 as well as natural camouflage.

This has the additional effect of ‘catching’ light loitering munitions, which get caught in the netting before detonating. This differs from Australian practice, which focuses more on camouflaging the admin area and ammunition storage with a cam net and draping a tarp over the equipment. This setup fails to protect the gun and crew if attacked by a suicide drone. Bottom-up refinement driven by detachments could also improve how we can better incorporate cam netting over the equipment even in action.

In addition to cam nettings, some crews will erect metal cages ranging from welded bars to chicken wire to protect against loitering munitions by again, ‘catching’ the drone. Note that any airburst fusing will negate this protection; however, the “Lancet” drone is a point detonating fuse. An additional physical tactic being utilised more often to confuse ‘Lancet’ operators, is using physical decoys. They are placed near the firing M777s to bait ‘Lancets’ to strike.

The most successful decoys have been wooden replicas constructed by Ukrainian companies that have been placed with additional assets to sell the decoy, including spent casings around the ground or poorly placing camouflage netting over the decoy. This aspect is covered in our doctrine but is rarely practised or considered in our exercises. The Ukrainian reality highlights that regiments should work towards a solution involving placing decoys in the battlespace and then practicing this in exercises, either coordinated with a larger deception picture run by a brigade or controlled by the regimental command post.

Notably, there are nonphysical measures that gunlines should consider in their planning and training to reduce the risk of being targeted by loitering munitions. Dispersing the artillery crews is still crucial to minimising the threat of counter-battery fire and loitering munitions; a more significant signature created by a battery in a tight position is easier to detect and target. Further, finding well-camouflaged positions suited to single gun positions is more accessible than for entire batteries.

When the counter-battery fire (CBF) threat is low, but the loitering munitions threat is high, the focus should shift from conducting shoot-and-scoot tactics to prioritising camouflage and hiding. Employment considerations should include choosing positions in heavily vegetated locations that can hide an M777 and additional stores to provide extra camouflage for the equipment (such as metal cages or netting over the gun).

Batteries should train to deploy in heavily vegetated areas, though considerations for crest clearances as well as accessibility will make this challenging. Further, commanders will need to accept increased risk to equipment being damaged when conducting movement in heavily vegetated areas.

Another consideration is that rather than a movement criteria for shoot-and-scoot tactics, standards for how long a gun should go ‘quiet’ post fire mission is essential to minimise drone sensors cuing loitering drones. Further, upon completing a task and going ‘quiet,’ the focus following a mission is restoring camouflage disrupted during the gun’s firing to avoid detection from loitering munitions.

However, if the CBF threat is as high as loitering munitions, additional control measures will be required when considering survivability moves. One such measure is establishing different routes between alternate positions and minimising the use of roads likely being monitored by reconnaissance drones or loitering munitions. Crucially, commanders must ensure the survivability moves do not set patterns that can be targeted by effective ISR for cuing loitering of munitions. These alternate positions should focus on either natural or artificial concealment.

Finally, missions should utilise short methods rather than methods involving continuous fire. In both a counter-battery and loitering munition heavy environment, long sustained rates will not allow a gunline to survive. Historically, guns will mass preparatory fires and then conduct sustained rates to provide covering fire to enable suppression of targets for manoeuvre forces. Switching to a heavier weight during preparatory fires and then providing intermittent suppression effects to enable the gunline to ‘go quiet’ is one solution, but this will require a shift in manoeuvre thinking about suppressive fires.

Gunlines face ever more complexity in surviving the modern battlefield and the addition of loitering munitions in the battlespace. Should Australia become involved in a war of similar intensity as Ukraine with a near-peer or peer enemy, we would suffer countless casualties unless we adjust our doctrine now and commence practicing new TTPs against loitering munitions on exercise. It is imperative we add suicide drone survival tactics to our current doctrine and apply survival procedures to gunline training.