Three Pillars for Revitalizing US Army Field Artillery
Three Pillars for Revitalizing US Army Field Artillery
CPT Richard Vertrees, Battalion Fire Support Officer, 2nd ABCT, 1st Cavalry Division
1LT Sean Foley, Company Fire Support Officer, 2nd ABCT, 1st Cavalry Division
For over a decade and a half the US Army focused on counterinsurgency tactics. Over that time period its Field Artillery proficiencies and capabilities atrophied while the military focus was on counter-insurgency, while those of adversaries increased. Russia is of particular interest. The country’s ground forces underwent a vast military modernization overhaul while the US remained mired in long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Current weapon systems in the Russian force structure can outrange and mass more firepower than those of a single US Army BCT. The Army’s Field Artillery should focus on several key pillars. These pillars are Capacity, Capability, and Training. Each can increase the lethality and readiness of Field Artillery, however each also has drawbacks. This article will conduct a thorough examination into each pillar with suggested methods of improvement and how the Army is affected (positively and negatively) in the short- and long-term.
The Capacity pillar focuses on increasing firing power through more FA cannon batteries or rocket artillery. Adding an additional firing battery increases the overall tube count of the Brigade from an 18-tube to 24-tube configuration, regardless of BCT structure. For Armored Brigade Combat Teams, an additional M109A6/A7 battery would generate several different options for the Brigade Commander or FSCOORD:, an entire battery for the counter fire fight, or one dedicated special munitions (FASCAM) battery. In Stryker and Infantry BCTs, an additional M777 battery is added to the Fires Battalion. The resultant battalion configuration of 2 x 105mm batteries and 2 x 155mm batteries would increase the Field Artillery capacity and lethality of the IBCT by amplifying the long-range lethality of the composite FA battalion. Other options are to add two sections per battery. The Fires Battalion would remain at three batteries with 24 tubes, increasing overall firing capacity within the BCT.
Modifying the MTO&E to include an MLRS or HIMARS battery to the current structure of the BCT Field Artillery Battalion further increases the capacity and flexibility of the Brigade Commander or FSCOORD. Possessing the ability to alter the adversary’s OPTEMPO without relying on an external direct support or reinforcing battalion/battery can shape the battlefield in favor of US forces or reduce the enemy’s capacity from a greater distance than can the existing organic field artillery assets within the ABCT. The ground maneuver commander then faces an easier problem to solve with direct-fire weapon systems. When compared against the force structure of adversaries, US Field Artillery is far outnumbered in respect to capacity as some divisions are supported by entire brigades of both rocket and cannon artillery.
As the second pillar, Capability is the one with the longest anticipated time for return on investment. Due to research and design, testing, production, and fielding timelines, changing the Capabilities of the Field Artillery is no simple task and cannot be fully explored in this document. For example the M109A7 Paladin upgrade, which featured an all-electrical turret system and hull upgrades to establish a maintenance commonality with the Bradley platform, took years to design and more to field the first models, which did not arrive to FORSCOM units until 2015. The M109 series also lacks an autoloader system; a feature that is already present on the German-built PzH 2000 and potentially on the 2S35 system that Russia is fielding.
Increasing cannon artillery standoff also falls under the Capabilities pillar. Currently the Army is designing higher-caliber cannon tubes to fire munitions at increased distance, up to 60 kilometers or beyond for standard HE rounds. Future munitions may range out to 100 kilometers, however current 155mm HERAP and Excalibur munitions have a maximum effective range of 30 and 40 kilometers, respectively. While munitions for the Army are still in design, fielded adversarial systems can already range as far as 70 kilometers and some allied munitions are able to affect targets up to 56 kilometers away.
The third pillar, Training, has the possibility to provide the greatest immediate impact on the relevancy of Field Artillery. Proficiencies are the base of any MOS. Low-cost, low-resource homestation training should focus on both digital and analog skillsets. As the Army has focused more on digital systems to maintain the pace of a near-peer fight, analog capabilities (manual gunnery computation, laying of howitzer systems) have largely atrophied. A return to the basics outside of a TRADOC environment will reinforce that manual processes are not the prominent method of delivering fires, however they are still an important skillset to know, practice, maintain and execute in degraded operational environment. As near-peer threats have technologies that can degrade digital communications, to include radio and satellite systems, this proficiency becomes increasingly important as reliance on digital systems soars.
Field Artillery units, especially those in ABCTs where the battlespace stretches over dozens of kilometers, should also seek to improve proficiency on over-the-horizon communications, such as the HF radio platform. The HF radio allows fire support elements to contact fire direction centers far outside the reach of standard FM radio systems. Even in small training areas where terrain can impede communications (such as Hohenfels Training Area, Germany), HF operations provide voice and digital communications over intermediate crests and hills that may prevent FM communications. Leaders in FA units should ensure that their AFATDS systems have the appropriate software for HF digital transmissions, and conduct training accordingly to establish and maintain the proficiency.
However with the increase in importance of multinational operations, developing increased working relationships with allied partners across the globe will strengthen the interoperability of the Fires community. Focus regional areas are the Baltic States, the Caucus, and allied countries in the Pacific. Countless training opportunities exist: exercises such as Dynamic Front, Combined Resolve, and Swift Response simulate force on force maneuver scenarios for allies from NATO countries and other partnered nations. Dynamic Front is a fires-focused exercise designed to increase lethality and readiness of joint fires, and has been conducted several times since 2017.
Interoperability bases its success on human, procedural, and technical aspects. Understanding the human aspect is the most important, from the command-level all the way to the Field Artillery Cannon Crewmember. Without first understanding the human dimensions of multinational counterparts and their respective cultures, the doctrine and technical aspects will fall by the wayside. Doctrine comes second, as understanding how the greater Fires community of any country will lead to being able to successfully execute the technical tasks between nations. Without being in a BCT or enabling unit conducting a Regionally Aligned Forces mission, it is difficult to simulate multinational training while at homestation.
1LT Sean Foley, a company Fire Support Officer with 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 2ABCT, 1st Cavalry Division, recently participated in Operation Hawk Strike 2020. A multinational exercise between Hungarian Defense Forces (HDF) and a blend of US Army aviation and infantry forces, Operation Hawk Strike focused on integrating Hungarian Special Operations Forces and Joint-Terminal Air Controllers with a US Infantry Company (including a dismounted Company Fire Support Team) following aerial insertions from UH-60 Blackhawks of 2nd Battalion, 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 3rd CAB.
The lessons learned from Hawk Strike 2020 are divided into three parts. First is to maximize the human dimensions of the relationship: that whenever possible, meetings should be held face-to-face. Intonation, body-language, and other cues prove vital to multinational communication. Key individuals from the HDF’s 2nd Special Forces Brigade who had experience in multinational operations and English fluency prevented numerous cultural and linguistic misunderstandings from interfering with the mission.
From a procedural lens it was vital to ensure that both nations deliberately reached a common understanding of shared doctrine and establish a common operating picture. While both NATO allies possess attack aviation and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, procedures diverged enough to necessitate multiple additional levels of rehearsals. Key to this process was the involvement of UH-60 flight leads, Mi-24 pilots, JTACs, and the Fire Support Team at all stages of the air mission planning process in addition to operational battle rhythm events. Due to the level of detail and the risks involved in the mission, it is imperative that all engaged parties comprehend United States and NATO doctrine such as JP 3-09 (Joint Fire Support), NATO STANAG 2484 (NATO Fire Support Doctrine), and AARTY-P5.
The third lesson learned was that US forces must endeavor to remain conscious of their supporting or subordinate role when assigned to such a mission with an allied counterpart. This aspect is especially important when multiple US units are operating in different command relationships in the same multinational exercise. Communicating with other US units is the apparent simple method instead of following the multinational operational chain of command. However, this runs the risk of spoiling multinational relations with the circumvented echelon and offending key leaders in allied armies.
Although all the mentioned ideas would have a profound impact on the lethality and readiness of the Army Field Artillery, they do not exist without drawbacks. The two largest costs are increased maintenance costs through fielding additional vehicles and ancillary equipment across the various BCT structures, and the personnel requirement increase throughout the Army. Adding or retaining personnel is a challenge that remains across the entire force. With the recent vision of the Marine Corps’ plan to reduce field artillery cannon numbers, the Army can begin developing budget and training plans to acquire both manpower (through inter-service transfers) and equipment from the USMC in the coming years. Inter-service acquisition will offset the costs of new equipment purchase and training new Field Artillery service members.
Improving the capabilities of existing systems is realistic over a five- or ten-year plan; however, immediate implementation is not. The length of the acquisition process is the major barrier to overcome. The M109A7 was fielded for the first time in 2015; however, the platform is already undergoing its first upgrade while the XM1299 ERCA is currently being tested as a potential replacement for fielding in 2023.
Multinational training opportunities are excellent sources of forging multinational partnerships. However, due to the costs of these exercises, infrequency at which they are conducted, and turnover that occurs within the US Army force structure, Artillery Soldiers may only be fortunate enough to participate in one exercise. Unforeseen circumstances, such as the COVID-19 global pandemic, can cancel or reduce large-scale joint exercises as happened with Defender 2020 and its associated scenarios. The goal of Defender 2020 was to simulate large-scale ground combat operations (LSGCO); its reduction left a large gap in planning that cannot be simulated at lower echelons. Canceling or reducing the scale of exercises can degrade the effectiveness and interoperability of the United States and its NATO partners. This is especially impactful for those on the northeastern flank of NATO (Poland and the Baltic States) who had the most to gain from Defender 2020.
Field Artillery remains far from irrelevant. However the “King of Battle” has to refocus on capacities to mass fire, capabilities to match and overmatch those of global near-peer adversaries, and training, both basic proficiencies and those which will strengthen the multi-national partnerships that will dictate success in future conflict. These key pillars will provide the way forward. Leaders at all levels must ensure that artillerists are focused on maintaining proficiencies and leaning forward on succeeding in the near-peer environment.
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