Innovation and Adaptation

The changing face of Joint Fires and Effects in formation reconnaissance: How the Royal Australian Artillery must evolve

By Aaron Foster January 9, 2022


Cove Team note: This article was originally published in the 2021 edition of The Bridges Papers.

The last twenty years of conflict in the Middle East has seen coalition forces adapt and evolve their tactics and doctrine to suit the battlespace in which it fights. Iraq and Afghanistan saw the tactics of large scale conflict seen in the Second World War, Falklands War, and Gulf Wars become less relevant as operations became counter insurgency focussed. This came with significant complexity and has shaped a generation of Artillerymen. Looking forward the contemporary operating environment will reflect the scale witnessed in the latter half of the twentieth century, again dictating significant evolutions in capability and procedures. There is a sense of uncertainty in our methods as the artillery community fights to establish a firm foundation to project from into the future. With the introduction of new and upgraded systems (Long Range Fires (LRF)[1], Protected Mobility Fires (PMF)[2], Digital Terminal Control System (DTCS) Next Gen, and Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK) and Android Precision Assault Strike Suite (APASS)) radiating a shining light on the capability horizon, our techniques and procedures are still influenced by the experiences of counter insurgency operations. Our current answer to supporting manoeuvre seems to be a generic ‘one size fits all’ approach, wherein any Joint Fires Team (JFT) can support any ground manoeuvre element with the standard skillset taught on the basic JFT course. The Royal Australian Artillery’s (RAA) ability to provide effective joint fires and effects requires greater investment in tactics and training if JFTs are to operate in high tempo formation reconnaissance. This article contends that the evolving nature of forward engagement areas in the land battlespace emphasises the value proposition of surface to surface fires and their controllers. It argues the modification required to current tactics, before finally considering future structure opportunities for the RAA, acknowledging their vital role to play in warfare in all domains, and in warfare at all ranges[3].

The evolving nature

The forward areas within which formation reconnaissance operate are highly contested, requiring the support of surface-to-surface and air-to-surface assets, with the ability to coordinate and control being the critical function of forward observers. Whilst stealth may be the preferable technique for a contemporary peer-on-peer battlefield, the current and future operating environment of formation reconnaissance is unlikely to permit this method to its full extent. Operational tempo and battlefield density determine the reconnaissance model, and time is rarely available for passive observation. Capabilities available to opposing stakeholders ensure any surreptitious manoeuvre around the battlefield is difficult to maintain for prolonged periods, and reconnaissance assets must deploy on task fully prepared for kinetic engagement. The contemporary battlespace will see adversaries who are equally intent on, and capable of, dominating domains as we are; therefore, the ability for reconnaissance to maintain sustained observation will likely be unviable. Tempo will drive reconnaissance, and we must keep up physically, and in the currency and accuracy of information and intelligence acquired. For forward observers this requires the ability to remain mobile with secure and reliable communications links over distances. This tempo and manoeuvre comes with greater risk of engagement with the opposing force. Layered offensive support assets must be in abundance, as should air assets with the caveat that they are not a substitute but supplementary to surface to surface systems. Heavy investment in the survivability of the reconnaissance force through the apportionment of assets is a necessary investment in subsequent action.

Incoming armoured capabilities, in particular Boxer (Land 400), provides a highly mobile, armoured reconnaissance asset capable of heavy weights of fire utilising organic weapon systems (namely the 30mm LANCE Turret Remote Weapon System (RWS), Spike LR2 Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) system) across multiple variants. Currently this provides Army’s best proposition for a tempo driven armoured reconnaissance force into the future, currently in the process of integrating JFTs into the capability to guarantee the provision of joint fires and effects coordination to extended range. With multiple optics and firepower options these forward elements possess the ability to break contact and extract quickly, importantly surviving an encounter in the short term. Despite the optimism of this capability, the incorporation of JFTs to effectively support armoured reconnaissance is not yet battle ready. It must be acknowledged that there is still a great deal of bottom up refinement required to Land 400 to understand the ability for JFTs to support while fully closed down in armour. Whilst the future environmental frame will see the collaboration of SitAware[4], Generic Vehicle Architecture (GVA)[5] smart displays, and mounted target acquisition systems (VINGTAQS-II[6] and the LANCE-II[7] turret system itself), until they are fully operational the suite of mission types a JFT would offer a manoeuvre commander will be heavily limited. This emphasises the options JFTs bring to manoeuvre commanders, and that we must invest in the training programming of observers on multiple systems specific to role to ensure they are battle ready now.

Modifying our tactics

The new systems that are becoming available require the upskilling of our observers, and will change the way in which we employ our capabilities, requiring swift modifications to our tactics and doctrine. In focussing our attention to more modified future employment we must look at what is required for the perceived coordination of joint fires and effects. Firstly, we must discard our infatuation with air assets, be they fixed or rotary wing. They undoubtedly bring a formidable capability to the table; however, we have become complacent through the luxury of air superiority. Ground contacts in Afghanistan and Iraq on occasion certainly gave air assets reason to be cautious in exercising their freedom of the skies, but largely weather has been the most challenging of adversaries to our air capability, breeding an undeserved confidence in our fighting ability[8]. When faced with a contemporary enemy we will not boast this same freedom, and must learn to adapt our methods accordingly.

The ability to remain hidden to strike surgically and decisively is as pertinent as ever. Our focus must now be on utilising surface to surface fires, only unmasking at a time and place where we can capitalise our advantage, striking with overwhelming first round effects, then moving before counter engagements. The artillery raid is by no means a new concept[9], however must now be actively and routinely trained to gain the prowess to remain survivable in future conflict. The key to realising the aspiration of achieving first round effects currently lies in the integration and development of ATAK and APASS, presently vying for dominance as the precision software of choice within the targeting world. As we acknowledge our former vulnerabilities in relying on voice communications, the collaboration of such digital precision strike suites with Next Gen DTCS allows us to push to greater distances whilst still maintaining our ability to call for fire. The increased range of surface to surface capabilities, adding to existing air capabilities, and Joint Fires Observers (JFOs) yields the opportunity for targeting at the tactical and operational level. Using armoured reconnaissance to move into position to strike precisely with concentrated offensive support will be a decisive act in degrading adversary capability[10].

Signature management is now critical to our survivability. To operate at extended range we must remain below the detection threshold or adapt to transmit and move. As with unmasking our offensive support assets, we will be required to transmit and move immediately, maintaining tempo to maintain survivability, transmitting only through necessity, lest we be detected to be targeted[11].

Surface to surface coordinated fires and effects will come from self-propelled artillery platforms, and LRF. It will be critical that these assets are allocated in direct support of reconnaissance as part of the investment in the future fight. At the recent Armour 2030 - Future concepts and capabilities symposium it was raised that we must no longer fire to manoeuvre, but rather manoeuvre assets in order to layer our capabilities, fires, and effects. In turn this allows engagement and manoeuvre before adversaries are able to counter. This concept should be embraced and utilised in support of reconnaissance to ensure the ability to screen, guard, and critically break contact to ensure the survivability of essential, but finite, assets[12].

The violence brought to bear by the towed M777A2 howitzer will still be relevant, and available, but is more appropriate for the close fight given the range overmatch of opposing equivalent systems. The mobility and survivability of the M777A2 is sufficient when employed correctly; however, it’s shorter range, reliance on being towed, and lack of protection make it more vulnerable and less conducive to support reconnaissance engagements given the distance forward it needs to travel to support forward call signs. When allocated complimentary to other layered assets it will certainly apply the appropriate levels of ferocity to maintain a weight of fire.

Tactically, PMF can be used to coerce the enemy into unmasking their positions. Self-propelled artillery can be used to engage an enemy position and quickly move as enemy counter battery guns unmask in response. Forward observers are then presented the location to counter strike using other cued supporting assets, be they long range fires or reinforcing PMF assets. These methods can be employed through traditional observers’ optics or CEA Tactical (CEATAC) radar systems complementing PMF gun groups.

Future structure

In order that fires and effects capabilities are available to support evolving tactics, opportunities must be seized to change the force structure within the RAA. The future requirement for a dedicated Artillery Brigade (Fires Brigade) will assist in establishing some form of control over the dynamism of incoming fires projects, and operationally over the deployment and employment of assets in support of manoeuvre. Adopting the Russian tactic of manoeuvre to fire will greatly enhance our potency on the battlefield and secure the initiative[13]. Whilst artillery platforms can be organised into appropriate capability regiments (i.e. dedicated self-propelled regiment/s, long range fires regiment/s, air defence regiment)[14], JFTs can also hone their skills in bespoke roles, be that formation reconnaissance, pre-landing force (PLF), or mechanised/motorised ground combat elements. Formation reconnaissance JFTs would equate to long range patrolling dismounted and mounted tactics, as opposed to more standard combat manoeuvre. The control and coordination of such a force by Artillery Brigade Fires Joint Fires and Effects Coordination Cell would ensure both the availability and appropriate distribution of assets on call to reconnaissance tasks.

Conclusion

It is evident that the contemporary operating environment more reflects that seen pre-Iraq and Afghanistan; however, tactics must change with the introduction of advanced technology and weapon systems. The introduction into service of new fires capabilities ensures the value of artillery observers in formation reconnaissance, and the effect they can achieve in degrading the enemy before manoeuvre engagement. The reorganisation of the RAA force structure and the continued development of future capabilities adds significant value to coalition operations, ensuring we are a formidable adversary on the battlefield when we receive the call to war. As the changing face of conflict sees innovative weapon systems, target acquisition systems, and the introduction of remote autonomous systems we must keep the pace in adapting our tactics and doctrine accordingly, using them to dictate the course and outcome of conflict.

Endnotes

[1] Long Range Fires (LAND 8113): A tactical and operational missile system both interoperable and complementary to coalition partner capabilities that providing Army a capability that, deters and coerces adversaries, and will complement RAAF and RAN anti-access and area denial effects.
[2] Protected Mobility Fires (LAND 8116): The introduction of self-propelled howitzer artillery, namely the Hanwha Huntsman AS9. This will be a key enabler in supporting Army’s holistic protected manoeuvre system of Combat Reconnaissance Vehicles, Infantry Fighting Vehicles and Main Battle Tanks.
[3] Accelerated Warfare, Australian Army Department of Defence, Commonwealth of Australia, 2019
[4] SitAware: The most recently introduced Battle Management Systems (BMS) providing advanced command and control (C2) capabilities, Track Management Capability (TMC) and consolidating information to produce the Common Tactical Picture and Recognised Ground Picture, ensuring coalition interoperability to Army.
[5] Generic Vehicle Architecture (GVA): The generic architecture that allows updates throughout its lifespan to mitigate the problems associated with system updates, and support interoperability across security partners.
[6] VINGTAQS II: Vehicle mounted long range surveillance, observation and reconnaissance system, determining target coordinates at long distances, also accommodating laser designated targeting.
[7] LANCE 2 Turret system: The MK30-2/ABM automatic cannon Remote Weapon System (RWS) of the Boxer Combat Reconnaissance Vehicle (CRV) incorporates a digital fire control system, thermal imaging camera and laser rangefinder, aiding in the procurement of target identification and information.
[8] Gray, B. (2021). Accelerating Land Based Fires in the Australian Army. The Royal Australian Artillery Liaison Letter. 1:2021
[9] Westermeyer, P.W. (2014). U.S. Marines in the Gulf War, 1990-1991. Liberating Kuwait. History Division United States Marine Corps. Quantico, VA. 2014
[10] Basan, T. (2020). Time for a new approach to war? A case for adopting the kill chain concept. The Cove (Jan, 2020)
[11] Layton, P. (2021). Fighting Artificial Intelligence Battles. Original Concepts for Future AI-Enabled Wars. Joint Studies Paper Series No. 4.
[12] Australian Army (2020). Land Warfare Procedures–Combat Arms (Mounted Combat) 3-3-1 Mounted Minor Tactics
[13] Hooker, Jr. R. D. How to fight the Russians. Land Warfare Paper 135. The Association of the United States Army (Nov 2020).
[14] Ruggeri, P. (2020). An Artillery Brigade. Future Operating Environment Writing Competition 2020. The Cove (2020)


Portrait

Biography

Aaron Foster

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.



Comments

Aaron, Thank you for this excellent paper. There is no more important topic for Army at the moment than how we use our part of Joint Fires. I’m not RAA so I will take your comments as read, but a few observations and questions that I hope are already part of your next article. Firstly, will we reasonably have the mass required to adopt what you describe as a Russian way of employing arty? If not, how do we adapt that thinking to a scalable approach suited to our minimal capability in terms of numbers? Can we supplement with, for example, simple MRL systems to add mass to the medium/close fight? I would imagine that staying below the detection threshold will become increasingly difficult. Are the CRV-Boxer the means to the JFT end? I recall working with the RA modified Warriors in Poland many years ago. The threat environment is now much different. What is our fall back position. Is it SF teams? Autonomous ground vehicles? You mention air defence. This is a vital topic in itself, and again, perhaps is not being afforded the priority required both tactically and strategically. I read of the South African artillery use in Angola – a major limiting factor was air defence of the arty units, even against fairly unsophisticated air threats. Yet arty was again proven to be a battle winner in the Angolan theatre, and was an important force multiplier and a scarce strategic asset. There are perhaps lessons for us here. The M777A2. I would think it time to park most of these assets and get cracking on the issues you have raised. Army is investing heavily in new equipment, yet our workforce capability is barely keeping up with the advances. We cannot have ‘stranded’ personnel assets crewing a system not future battle ready. How do we prepare for the worst case, perhaps at the risk of the things we want to do, because they are in our comfort zone? Thanks again for a thought provoking read. AJB

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