Naval Gunfire Support (NGS) refers to the treatment of shore-based targets by ship-based artillery systems. The flexibility, accuracy, and mobility provided by NGS represents a cornerstone to the success of any amphibious operation and remains a lynchpin of Navy’s contribution to the joint warfighting environment.
Through analysis of historical case studies, NGS shows its continued relevance in the joint domain, even if seemingly overlooked. Whilst not a war winning weapon in isolation, within littoral and amphibious operations NGS often represents the only type of offensive support available for close range preparatory fires and direct support for the initial forces once landed. The inherent characteristics afforded by naval guns often mean they can fulfil the role of medium or heavy tube artillery throughout the entirety of an amphibious campaign. Thus, the contemporary application of precision NGS is vital to ensuring the success of joint operations in the near future.
Cold War: The Decline
The perceived importance of NGS in support of conventional operations has ebbed and flowed throughout history. The heyday of NGS was in the massed amphibious operations of the Second World War; namely, operations such as Overlord and Iceberg. Here the vital requirement to suppress enemy fortifications and degrade enemy Command, Control and Communications (C3) in the immediate prelude and initial stages of a contested landing was recognised.
Throughout the Cold War the tactics, techniques, and procedures that refined NGS into a lynchpin of naval capability within the joint environment were seemingly forgotten as navies moved into the nuclear age. The strategic paradigm that dominated western navies throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s was that of nuclear deterrence.
Nuclear first and second strike capability from carrier-based aircraft and submarine launched ICBMs became the focus of western doctrine and influenced ship design. Traditional capabilities such as surface supremacy and NGS were relegated to secondary or tertiary roles of the Surface Fleet in both the Royal Navy and United States Navy.
Development of both missile technology and fixed wing aircraft seemingly relegated NGS to that of a footnote in the annals of naval history. These advances not only meant that ships could theoretically prosecute land targets from further away and with a greater degree of accuracy, but also the increase in range of shore defences meant that warships could not be expected to move within gun range of an enemy shoreline. The development of these technologies was so influential that in 1979 the first two batches of the Royal Naval Type 22 Broadsword class frigate were delivered without any form of conventional artillery.
Resurgence of NGS: Operation Corporate
One major political event in 1980s radically changed the strategic paradigm concerning NGS for western nations – Operation Corporate, otherwise known as the Falklands War.
NGS was a vital component to British success in the Falklands War. The conflict represented a significant dilemma for the Royal Navy and British Army. In line with the Cold War doctrine of the time, both services found themselves severely underprepared to mount a fully amphibious campaign over 129,000 kilometres from the UK.
From the Navy’s perspective, fleet replenishment and sustainment capability was strained to its very limit and the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) was severely underequipped. Thus, with limited air assets and unfavourable weather conditions, the FAA was barely able to provide air superiority for the fleet, let alone fly ground attack interdiction missions. Moreover, the British army that had spent the last 30 years preparing for a land conflict in Europe found itself incapable of deploying armoured assets in any meaningful strength and being completely unable to move any of its medium or heavy artillery assets. However, the light guns from 29 Regiment Royal Commando artillery and 97 Battery Royal Artillery were deployed and proved invaluable to the land force.
Nevertheless, the absence of medium and heavy artillery pieces meant that the British contingent found itself in danger of being outranged by Argentine artillery, namely by the L33 155mm guns operated by 3rd Artillery Group. It was here that NGS was in essence able to act as a substitute for the ground forces’ artillery.
In battles such as Goose Green, Mt. Longdon, and Mt. Tumbledown, NGS often represented the only form of offensive support available to infantry formations in the attack. Here it was used as part of a dedicated fire plan to ‘soften up’ defensive positions then switched to engaging targets of opportunity once the land battle began in earnest.
Moreover, in some instances, the astonishing rate of fire and incredible accuracy of NGS was enough to deter Argentine forces from fighting at all. The most notable of these events include the recapture of South Georgia where NGS provided from HMS Plymouth and HMS Antrim forced the Argentinian garrison to surrender before the fire plan was complete.
The Royal Navy’s NGS capability had such a profound impact largely thanks to the efforts and skill of 148 Battery, Royal Artillery. This battery provided a unique capability to the British task forces as it was a unit completely dedicated to specialist NGS Forward Observation. Thus, NGS was able to be provided in an accurate and timely manner to support joint warfighting objectives.
Unique capabilities provided by NGS
Accuracy. By their design, ship-based tube artillery is far more accurate that traditional land-based systems. Naval guns are first and foremost designed to destroy ships and provide a limited anti-aircraft capability. This translates to a weapons system that is optimal for point target neutralisation and destruction.
While on the surface this may seem as though NGS completely outclasses tradition field artillery, though in many cases the sheer accuracy of the system itself limits its tactical flexibility. Tasks such as suppression, interdiction, and disruption are far less suitable for NGS. The natural dispersion and fall of shot of a field artillery battery greatly assists attempts to affect a larger area of the battlespace. Field artillery has access to a more diverse range of ammunition such as the DM702A1 SMArt 155 and M982A1 Excalibur. Thus, it is able to achieve a greater range of mission profiles at the cost of tactical mobility.
Rate of fire. Another factor to consider is the rate of fire and ammunition capacity. Traditional land-based field artillery pieces (which are generally the most strategically mobile) are limited by the materials used in construction, available ammunition, and the crew’s endurance. With ship-based artillery systems, most are fully automatic, weight is less of a factor, and the magazine capacity of ships far exceeds what is readily available to that of a gun battery. The Mark 45 gun used on both the Anzac class frigate and Hobart class destroyer has rate of fire between 16-20 rounds per minute at a range of 37km with Mod 4 variants. While magazine natures vary between ships, the standard capacity for a destroyer is well in excess of 400 rounds. Therefore, the capacity for NGS to neutralise and destroy point targets within a short timeframe should not be discounted.
Tactical mobility. Finally, the strategic and tactical mobility afforded to ship-based fires system makes it an incredibly flexible system that, if implemented correctly, is difficult to target using shore-based defensive systems. Primarily, the only limiting factors from a BLUFOR perspective is the technical capabilities of the vessel, the tasking of the ship in a naval task force, and appetite for risk that must be accepted by the command staff of the vessel. While environmental factors and enemy order of battle must always be considered, the unique effects that NGS is able to produce arguably warrant greater consideration than it is currently being given.
The Contemporary Australian Context
Given Australia’s strategic position, and in line with the ADF’s changing force structure, NGS will likely play a major role in any engagement in the near future. The ADF can no longer rely upon a technological edge nor advanced warning of an attack to defend Australia’s interests in the Indo-Pacific. As stated in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, ‘Military modernisation in the Indo-Pacific has accelerated faster than envisaged. Regional force modernisation has resulted in the development and deployment of new weapons that challenge Australia’s military capability edge’.
In this age of Great Power competition, conventional engagements are likely to be short, sharp, and begin with little to no warning. Thus, the experiences of Operation Corporate must be studied and understood so the lessons learnt are implemented into the joint training environment. The most prominent of these is the recognition of NGS being vital throughout all stages of amphibious operations and for ships traditionally relegated to purely naval tasks instead being tasked in a general support role for the landed force.
The rapid nature of future amphibious campaigns, in conjunction with the ADF’s lack of air and artillery assets, mean that in the initial stage of any such operation there will be significant requirement for NGS to provide offensive support.
It is likely that the next conflict the ADF finds itself involved in will mirror the British experience of Operation Corporate. A conflict in the south Pacific would require the ADF to conduct a long-range amphibious campaign in a contested sea and air environment. Furthermore, ground forces would likely be unable to deploy heavy armoured assets in any meaningful number given weight and size requirements of amphibious landing craft. In this environment, NGS will most likely provide the lynchpin of joint fires planning and become the primary means of close-range offensive support for land forces.
NGS provides the joint force with a mobile, accurate, and cost-effective means of offensive support to the early stages of an amphibious operation. Its rapid availability to any naval task force in conjunction with the platform’s staggering rate of fire make it an ideal weapons system for suppression, neutralisation, and destruction fire missions. If the ADF is to provide the Indo-Pacific with a credible deterrent in co-operation and competition, as well as a potent force in conflict, NGS must once again make a prominent return and be trained in the joint environment at all levels of command.