Operational Art

Revisiting the past for Future Ready capability: Counter fires and the RAA

By Nicholas Mahr January 11, 2022


Cove note: This article first appeared in the 2021 edition of The Bridges Papers.

Counter Fires (CF) – “the location, destruction and/or neutralisation of enemy artillery and mortars.”[1]

Royal Australian Artillery (RAA) CF against a near-peer fires threat is not yet a future ready capability. Where the RAA has fought a near-peer conventionally, the lessons were understood. Conversely, more recent experience in unconventional warfare has diminished CF preparedness. This paper aims to outline some measures that must be taken to ensure a future ready CF capability against a fires peer threat. It will outline the salient CF lessons learnt from where it first gained prominence, the First World War, before discussing their contemporary relevance by comparison to the Russo-Ukrainian War. Finally, it will outline measures for RAA CF employment.

Counter Fires is Born

The First World War was the RAA’s foundational experience in CF against a near-peer,[2] with lessons learnt still relevant today. Success was first determined by orchestration with manoeuvre utilising massed fires. Early in the war each arm pursued independent objectives, with long attrition-like bombardments preceding the attack. This has been argued to have value in ultimately resulting in victory,[3] but not without cost to surprise, ammunition, and lives. These were spared when destruction was replaced with neutralisation supporting manoeuvre.[4] This paradigm shift was significant. Working independently, catastrophic attacks were common,[5] but when arms combined, the utility of orchestration was indisputable. Monash’s Hamel proved this, with hostile batteries (HB) denied the opportunity to engage infantry.[6] Furthermore, these successes would not have been realised had it not also been for the mass - enabled by heavier and disproportionate ordnance – which was achieved against HB. Indeed, doctrine eventually established that heavy guns in high ratios were particularly effective for CF.[7] At Cambrai, 75% of guns were allocated to CF. This mass, unleashed at H hour, significantly aided victory.[8] Cambrai influenced Monash at Hamel, and given German artillery had caused approximately 60% of casualties throughout the war,[9] the unobstructed allied infantry advance here was testament to the success of mass and orchestration.

The war also reinforced the importance of layering multiple capabilities to locate HB. Where batteries initially relied on direct fire to engage their opponent, developments in Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) by flash spotting, range finding, and air/ground observation posts (OPs) enabled accurate, responsive and indirect fires.[10] Predicted fires, informed through ISR, had thus become the decisive factor in the close and deep fight.[11] These sources also fed the CF plan, and were instrumental in allowing HB engagement. At Hamel, they had been utilised for a month leading up to the battle in order to determine HB locations, contrasting earlier conflicts, where ground OPs alone were found insufficient.[12] While technology has since improved, this affirmed the criticality of employing layered ISR capabilities for CF.

Conventional Warfighting

Contemporary Russian artillery, demonstrated during the Russo-Ukrainian War, draws parallels to the lessons of the First World War. Where the RAA learnt that neutralisation of HBs with concentrated fires was more effective than enduring destructive bombardments, Russia applied this in Ukraine. Here, CF has mostly been aimed to force the HB to displace – but with a preponderance for mass and concentration. The mass achieved has been considerable. Daily rounds expended were estimated at approximately 300-400 per gun, but achieved in short concentrations, rather than through lengthy engagements.[13] While examples of preparatory engagements against Ukrainian positions exist,[14] these have targeted manoeuvre elements, rather than HB. Russian CF have instead been characterised by lethal, concentrated strikes,[15] enabled by short sensor to shooter links.[16] Thus, mass and neutralisation still hold relevance.

Similarly, the realisation that layered ISR must support CF was well understood by Russia, the pervasiveness of their sensors enabling CF surprise. Indeed, the reconnaissance capability of the omnipresent UAV enabled Russia to direct rapid and massed fires, contrasting recent Western approaches to employ these platforms for precision engagements, and Ukraine’s deficiency in support of CF entirely.[17] Indeed, at Debaltseve, Ukrainians were able to identify as many as eight Russian drones overhead at once.[18] Weapon locating radars have also enabled accurate and responsive fires targeting Ukrainian artillery. In contrast, the absence of Ukrainian radars and drones has undermined CF significantly. At Zelenopillya, two Mechanised Battalions were destroyed by Russian artillery in three minutes – this went unchallenged by Ukraine given sensor limitations.[19] Thus, ISR technology may have changed since 1918, but not its necessity.

Future Ready Counter Fires

Conventionally, any suggestion HBs should be engaged as they present is dangerous. Instead, the RAA must apply the lesson of orchestration and mass – which manifests in training the ‘silent’ CF plan. A silent CF plan is highly effective when HB are engaged collectively just prior to an attack,[20] thus orchestrated with manoeuvre. To unmask guns to destroy HB per an ‘active’ CF plan exposes limited fires assets to destruction. Rather, neutralisation of HB with mass and orchestration must be the aim. Indeed, data from 1918 found destruction required a 10:1 ratio,[21] which without the disproportionate effect offered by modern but sparing area-effect weapons (like rocket artillery[22]) Army will unlikely have. There are of course supporters for the alternative, active plan, but as the Ukrainians discovered, unmasking leads to rapid CF.[23] In contrast, the silent plan accepts a level of hostile fire to entice HB to move less frequently, all the while allowing ISR to ascertain locations in support of engagements when that time arrives.[24] While risk may be accepted by unmasking guns to prevent unacceptable attrition, generally protection of the guns is preferred until orchestration with manoeuvre can occur – ideally with superimposed and massed effects across domains. This orchestration undermines the enemy centre of gravity and contributes to decision superiority,[25] as previously described at Hamel.[26] Thus, the silent plan can be very effective, and gunners in conventional war – potentially outmatched by HB – will be required to employ mass and orchestration with discipline to see success realised.

Persistent and layered ISR is also essential in achieving the silent plan, the latter being dependant on accurate information on HB locations – nowadays highly mobile. Army must be capable of coalescing information gleaned from a multitude of sources to ensure redundancy, and maintain near continuous surveillance. The gunners of the First World War employed redundancy and layering.[27] Today, gunners must harness multi-domain capabilities; such as UAVs, satellite imagery, electronic warfare, radar, and land based reconnaissance. Other measures could include drone swarm technology to overwhelm enemy air defence,[28] with utility in their low cost, ubiquity and endurance in maintaining observation of HBs; capable radars with certain points of origin, weapon calibre and type so as to build a comprehensive artillery intelligence picture; and ongoing training on obsolescent LCMR, to prepare the RAA for employment of future platforms (achieved to great effect between World Wars).[29] Personnel must also be trained to interrogate satellite imagery for signs of HBs, and in submitting accurate shelling reports for collation. Army also has opportunity to reintroduce the Brigade Artillery Intelligence Office, offering expertise in coalescing the above sources of information to support the CF plan.[30] The ISR necessary to support CF are immense, but Ukraine’s underdeveloped ISR capability is testament of the threat. The survivability of manoeuvre will thus depend on an omnipresent and layered ISR capability to support the silent CF plan.

Conclusion

This paper has emphasised the requirement for the silent CF plan, supported by mass, orchestration and pervasive ISR. These are the lessons the RAA must take from the First World War, found to be still relevant today as seen in the Russo-Ukrainian War. The RAA must apply these lessons to ensure that we escape from the paradigm of fires in an unconventional war, to the mass and coordination demanded in the conventional. In doing so RAA CF will continue to work towards achieving the demands of future ready.

End Notes

[1] Smith, A.H. (2011). Do Unto Others, Counter Bombardment in Australia’s Military Campaigns. Big Sky Publishing. Newport: Australia.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Eden, S.J. (2002). Three Cheers for Attrition Warfare. Armor. Mar-Apr, 2002 29-32

[4] Floyd, N., (n.d.). The Metamorphous of the God of war, The changing face of Australian Field Artillery in World War One

[5] Smith, A.H. (2011). Do Unto Others, Counter Bombardment in Australia’s Military Campaigns. Big Sky Publishing. Newport: Australia.

[6] Westerman, W. & Floyd, N. (2020). Clash of the Gods of War. Australian Artillery and the Firepwer Lessons of the Great War. Big Sky Publishing. Newport: Australia

[7] Smith, A.H. (2011). Do Unto Others, Counter Bombardment in Australia’s Military Campaigns. Big Sky Publishing. Newport: Australia.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Westerman, W. & Floyd, N. (2020). Clash of the Gods of War. Australian Artillery and the Firepwer Lessons of the Great War. Big Sky Publishing. Newport: Australia

[10] Ibid.

[11] Westerman, W. & Floyd, N. (2020). Clash of the Gods of War. Australian Artillery and the Firepwer Lessons of the Great War. Big Sky Publishing. Newport: Australia

[12] Smith, A.H. (2011). Do Unto Others, Counter Bombardment in Australia’s Military Campaigns. Big Sky Publishing. Newport: Australia.

[13] Karber, P.A. (2015). Lessons Learnt from the Russo-Ukrainian War. Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory & U.S. Army Capabilities Centre (ARCIC)

[14] Ibid.

[15] Clark, W.K. (2015). Briefing from Ukraine’s front lines. Atlantic Council. Retrieved from: Briefing from Ukraine’s Front Lines - Atlantic Council

[16] Noorman, R. (2020). The battle of Debaltseve: A hybrid army in a classic battle of encirclement. Small Wars Journal. Retrieved from: The Battle of Debaltseve: a Hybrid Army in a Classic Battle of Encirclement | Small Wars Journal

[17] Karber, P.A. (2015). Lessons Learnt from the Russo-Ukrainian War. Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory & U.S. Army Capabilities Centre (ARCIC)

[18] Scales, R. H. (2016). Russia’s superior new weapons. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: Russia’s superior new weapons - The Washington Post

[19] Collins, L., & Harrison, M. (2019). King of the Battle. Russia Breaks out the Big Guns. Association of the United States Army. Retrieved from: King of Battle: Russia Breaks Out the Big Guns | AUSA

[20] Commonwealth of Australia. (1983). Manual of Land Warfare. Artillery Intelligence Staff Duties. Vol 1, Pamphlet No 6

[21] Smith, A.H. (2011). Do Unto Others, Counter Bombardment in Australia’s Military Campaigns. Big Sky Publishing. Newport: Australia.

[22] Commonwealth of Australia. (2020). Force Structure Plan. Retrieved from 2020 Defence Strategic Update & 2020 Force Structure Plan | About | Strategy & Policy | Department of Defence

[23] Collins, L., & Harrison, M. (2019). King of the Battle. Russia Breaks out the Big Guns. Association of the United States Army. Retrieved from: King of Battle: Russia Breaks Out the Big Guns | AUSA

[24] Commonwealth of Australia. (1983). Manual of Land Warfare. Artillery Intelligence Staff Duties. Vol 1, Pamphlet No 6

[25] Commonwealth of Australia. (2017). LWD 1 Fundamentals of Land Power

[26] Smith, A.H. (2011). Do Unto Others, Counter Bombardment in Australia’s Military Campaigns. Big Sky Publishing. Newport: Australia.

[27] Floyd. (n.d.). The Metamorphous of the God of war, The changing face of Australian Field Artillery in World War One

[28] Axe. D. (2021). Ukraine might field a Drone Strike Force – And it could knock out Russian tanks. Forbes. Retrieved from Ukraine Might Field A Drone Strike Force—And It Could Knock Out Russian Tanks (forbes.com)

[29] Smith, A.H. (2011). Do Unto Others, Counter Bombardment in Australia’s Military Campaigns. Big Sky Publishing. Newport: Australia.

[30] Commonwealth of Australia. (1983). Manual of Land Warfare. Artillery Intelligence Staff Duties. Vol 1, Pamphlet No 6


Portrait

Biography

Nicholas Mahr

MAJ

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



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