Arctic Artillery: Prepared for Future Competition and Conflict
Prepared for Future Competition and Conflict
MAJ Brian P. Bierwirth
Field Artillery units must be able to support maneuver forces wherever they are operating. U.S. Army Arctic units operate in an austere and harsh environment, which require different materiel and organizational solutions to remain an effective fighting force. To better enable the joint force in the Arctic, the U.S. Army should invest in modifying existing fires platforms in U.S. Army- Alaska (USARAK) to enable the joint force to fight and win in a multidomain environment in the Arctic region.
In January 2021, the U.S. Army released its new Arctic Strategy, titled “Regaining Arctic Dominance.”This strategy, along with the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) “2019 Arctic Strategy,” highlight the growing importance of the Arctic region. Climate change is currently reducing the levels of Arctic Sea ice, opening sea lines of communication and trade routes previously limited to the summer months or routes that have been unavailable year-round. Both the DoD and the Army recognize that the growing importance and economic benefits of the Arctic could lead to competition with both Russia and China. Russia has also been building up its own Arctic capabilities under the guise of defending the Russian homeland. This would appear to be in line with their large territorial claims to the Arctic Sea floor, which is estimated to have approximately 35.7 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. The Arctic geography also puts the United States at closer proximity to Russian territory through Alaska, providing a potential for direct confrontation between land forces.
Maneuverability in the Arctic is difficult. The U.S. Army Arctic Strategy notes that, contrary to initial assumptions, maneuverability is often greatest in the winter. The warmer summer months and thaws in the spring, however, limited mobility of heavy vehicles due to melting snow and permafrost. The Army currently stations a Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) (1/25 ID) at Fort Wainwright and an Airborne Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT(A)) (4/25 ID) at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) as the only Arctic positioned forces. Due to the weight of the Stryker, the U.S. Army also equipped both Alaska brigades with the M973 Small Unit Support Vehicle (SUSV) and has also begun the process of procuring an updated, similar vehicle to the SUSV. The SUSV is reliable over all terrain types and are amphibious without any prior conversion. Due to the amphibious capabilities of the vehicle, it is also in service in the U.S. Marine Corps. According to AFC Pam 71-20-2 “Army Futures Command Concept for Brigade Combat Team Cross-Domain Maneuver 2028,” maneuver requires the support of fires to be effective. As the Army looks to field these light, maneuverable, and amphibious vehicles for maneuver forces, the associated field artillery units in the Arctic must be able to match these capabilities to provide close support to maneuver forces. Current towed artillery systems and their associated prime mover vehicles are ill-suited to keep pace with the SUSV.
The U.S. Army requires long range surface to surface fires as part of the new Army Operating Concept, Multi-Domain Operations. U.S. Army units must be able to “penetrate and disintegrate” anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) “bubbles” before an adversary can bring their force to bear. As noted earlier, the Arctic climate and geography make the current planned use of High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) vehicles impractical for the Arctic environment. The Arctic regions suffer from poor infrastructure such as roads and airports, the two primary ways in which HIMARS units travel at speed. Using HIMARS within the Arctic MDTF consequently ties that MDTF to a fixed location, negating the ability of the MDTF to execute survivability moves or to exploit an opportunity on a pursuit. The vast distances in the Arctic necessitate a long-range fires system that is all-weather capable, something the air component and (to a lesser degree) the maritime component cannot provide as effectively. Air systems that deliver similar munitions do not have the same endurance (even with aerial refueling) to maintain persistent coverage required. The expensive costs both monetarily and politically of current naval cruise missiles also make use of those munitions prohibitive in a competition against an adversary in the Arctic.
A materiel solution would best enable the Army’s arctic artillery capability. As mentioned earlier, the main issue facing Arctic units is mobility. Being able to rapidly move about the battlefield is essential to support maneuver forces. To achieve this aim, modifications to the M119A3 should be adopted to facilitate better mobility for Arctic forces. This would require divesting the current M777A2 howitzers (three batteries at Fort Wainwright and one battery at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER)) in favor of the “arctic” variant of the M119A3. This reconfiguration would also support the current debate on whether a Stryker brigade is necessary or appropriate in Alaska, as most of the assets in an SBCT are too heavy to navigate softer terrain.
The “arctic” variant of the M119A3 (to be referred to as the X119 for simplicity) should have the option of being fielded with skis in place of wheels, and be buoyant enough to overcome marshy, boggy, or shallow water obstacles. The same ski equipment used by the aviation units stationed in Alaska that use skis on CH-47s could be trialed to determine if they are sufficient for use on the X119. These howitzers would be capable of being towed by the SUSV (or its replacement), and as such require an amphibious capability to maximize its use with the SUSV. Much of the howitzer is made of hollow tubing, notably the trails. To enable a cost-efficient buoyancy requirement, testing should be conducted on if lightweight foams could be filled into the trails and under the carriage to enable the howitzer to float. Such foams would also not add significantly to the weight for when the howitzer and vehicle has to traverse snow or ice, and requires no capabilities be added or removed depending on the environment. Since the Army has access to Arctic training areas in Alaska, the units stationed at JBER and Fort Wainwright should be supported by Army Futures Command with unit-based testing. This would encourage innovation and “buy-in” at the unit level, while harnessing the experience and expertise of the Soldiers who operate in the Arctic environment regularly.
The technology required to implement this course of action is available today. The Army has the helicopter fitted skis, capable of supporting a vehicle dramatically heavier than a howitzer. While the Army does not currently use foam materials for buoyancy, the relative ease in modifying existing howitzers is capable of being done at each unit location.
This change would also require an organizational change based on the current structure of the SBCT at Fort Wainwright and an airborne IBCT at JBER. Four batteries of M777A2 would have to be converted to an X119 configuration. However, this could be executed through an FDU “junior,” as the MTOE strength of an M777A2 battery is 105 personnel, while an M119A3 battery strength is 75 personnel. There would be no requirement for additional MOS changes, and the resulting decrease in overall manpower would enable field artillery personnel to be shifted to support other Army priorities.
As mentioned above, this fielding of the X119 would necessitate an organizational change. Many of the same challenges faced in the Arctic environment are shared by those that operate in mountainous terrain. While the focus of the X119 would be on the formations stationed in Alaska, 10th Mountain Division would also be affected due to their designation as mountain infantry. The overall impact to the organization in terms of manpower is the same (in this case, transitioning three M777A2 batteries to X119).
Doctrine would need to be revised for how to employ a new Arctic artillery formation. ATP 3-90.97 “Mountain Warfare and Cold Weather Operations” would need to be amended to account for the new capabilities of the X119. While ATP 3-90.97 gives good planning considerations for maneuverability and emplacement, it would need to be updated to ensure that commanders and staffs understand that the restrictive terrain of the arctic environment does not always necessitate an air assault or dispersed operations. There could also be an argument made that, based off the Army’s new Arctic Strategy, that bespoke doctrine for Arctic operations would be beneficial to develop prior to the Arctic becoming a more geopolitically competitive space. This doctrine would likely need to be developed in a combination of the Centers of Excellence (CoE), with the Fires CoE and Maneuver CoE collaborating to ensure there is mutual support. In a wider sense, the risks associated with removing the M777A2 capability from both 1/25 SBCT and 4/25 IBCT(A) reduces the ability of those brigades to shape deeper into their area of operations.
The X119 would look similar to how current M119A3s are trained, employed, and fought. In the situations where marshy or snow conditions are present, the X119 would be equipped with skis instead of wheels and be towed not by a HMMWV but the SUSV. The use of the foam materials within the body of the howitzers will enable the SUSV to navigate the same terrain it could with its integral second compartment. Although the overall firepower will have been reduced in the two current Arctic formations, the X119 and SUSV will enable better mobility and without reliance on aviation assets or developed infrastructure. This will enable more responsive fires in support of the joint force and reduce the signatures associated with higher caliber artillery systems. The logistic requirements are also streamlined as the ammunition is fixed (in that rounds and charges come packaged together), lighter, and in the case of the IBCT, all of the same caliber.
Due to the increased mobility of the X119, the units would no longer have to look at doing dispersed operations due to road networks or air assaults. The organization would be able to move artillery units into positions where the effects of all organic artillery systems can be massed. With respect to multidomain operations, removing the reliance on aviation to move artillery assets frees up those aircraft to support other missions where there is no viable alternative. It also reduces the threat and effects of air defense artillery (ADA)
This change will be most evident in the brigades stationed in Alaska. The overall structure of the brigades will remain the same, as each will retain their organic artillery battalion. However, the added mobility will enable the maneuver forces to be better supported by artillery. This additional amphibious capability of the X119 also will influence planning and operations at USARAK or a joint task force commander. The X119 and SUSV gives the commander an additional method of conducting a forcible entry. While not as capable as the vehicles typically employed by the Marines, the mere capability introduces uncertainty for an adversary.
CONCEPT OF CHANGE
The initial fielding and equipping of the X119 will be less lengthy than more traditional materiel solutions for the Army. This is mainly due to the fact that there are only two brigades (1/25 SBCT and 4/25 IBCT(A)) that have an Arctic dedicated mission, with the 10th Mountain Division potentially being a secondary priority with their focus on high altitude, mountainous terrain environments. Additionally, as the X119 is still essentially a modified M119A3 with respect to mobility, additional training on the operation of the system (with the exception of drivers training) is not required.
One of the main friction points will be the changed structure of 1/25 SBCT, as under this proposal the brigade will lose the range and destructive power of the M777A2. With the Army’s focus on long range fires and increasing lethality, the initial proposal to reduce the reach of the brigade commander will likely be met with resistance. Although the operation at the howitzer level will remain the same, new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) will take time to develop in order to ensure the field artillery battalion, with the X119, can maneuver and be more responsive to demonstrate the increased capability of the X119.
The fielding of the X119 is designed for Army units. However, due to its amphibious capability and its maneuverability with the SUSV, the U.S. Marine Corps may also be interested in the X119 system. This could cause the proposal for the X119 to have to be routed above the Army Requirements Oversight Council to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, which could increase the time it would take to get the system and capability in the fielded to the force. Although the Marines are divesting their towed howitzer systems in favor of rocket artillery, keeping the capability in units postured to support operations in the Arctic may bear further consideration.
Fielding the X119 would increase the mobility of the Arctic brigades and provide a lower visual and logistical signal when compared to the current structures, thereby increasing survivability. The materiel solution is modest in terms of cost, as modification of existing systems in the inventory can be done instead of beginning the research and development stage from the beginning.
A solution that would begin to move in the direction of the capability of the X119 would be fielding the M119A3 to 1/25 SBCT at Fort Wainwright. The M119A3 has increased mobility over the M777A2, and such fielding would enable 1/25 SBCT to begin developing the required TTPs for the X119 howitzer to support Stryker maneuver. This would also assist Army Futures Command in gaining data on how quickly the different training and fielding times would look in preparation for the X119 fielding. This could potentially demonstrate that while the amphibious nature of the X119 is a key system attribute, it may not be a key performance parameter if the M119A3 is sufficiently responsive and mobile to support the SBCT in an Arctic environment.
The Army is already looking to expand its capabilities in the Arctic. These modernization efforts must be applied equally across different warfighting functions, with special consideration given to the ability of field artillery units to support their maneuver brethren. Enabling Army formations to effectively operate in an environment of growing importance requires investment and attention now in order to maintain American dominance in the region.
MAJ Brian Bierwirth is currently a student at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. He has served in HIMARS, IBCT, and CAB formations and was the Senior British Observer, Coach, and Trainer (OC/T) on exchange with the British Army, with responsibility for the certification of British Army airborne formations and Royal Marine Commando formations. He has experience operating and training with the Royal Marines in northern Norway and is concluding his Master’s in International Relations- National Security Affairs through Troy University, where his focus has been on Russian aggression and security concerns in the Arctic and High North.
 Department of the Army, “Regaining Arctic Dominance: The US Army in the Arctic”, Chief of Staff Paper #3, (Washington D.C., Department of the Army, 2021).
 Department of Defense, “Department of Defense Arctic Strategy,” Report to Congress, (Washington D.C., Department of Defense, 2019).
 Peter F. Johnston, “Arctic Energy Resources: Security and Environmental Implications,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol 5-3, (Fall 2012), 14.
 Johnston, “Arctic Energy Resources,” 16.
 Connie Lee, “Army Looks to Replace Cold Weather Vehicle,” National Defense Magazine, February 13, 2019, Accessed September 20, 2021, https://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2019/2/13/army-looks-to-replace-cold-weather-vehicle.
 Department of the Army, “Army Futures Command Concept for Brigade Combat Team Cross-Domain Maneuver: 2028,” Army Futures Command Pamphlet 71-20-2, August 14, 2020, 65.
 Department of the Army, “Mountain Warfare and Cold Weather Operations,” ATP 3-90.97 (Washington D.C., Department of the Army, 2016), 3-1.