Closing the FIRES Gap; C.R.O.P.: A Baltic Fires Proposal

Posted By: Daniel Jernigan Professional Content ,

Proposal:  Great military minds from Fredrick the Great to General Patton, have all given special emphasis to the importance of a strong artillery. Today it is no less necessary to maintain a strong fires capability. Given the strategic shift toward large scale combat operations, US army artillery must change to meet new stronger threats. The capability gap found in the fires war fighting function is a serious one that will require substantial but necessary enhancements. My Proposal is that the Army use “Organizational” and “Materiel” solutions to increase the artillery arsenal, increase rate of fire, and equalize the current Russian fires overmatch.

Issue:  Years of focus on Iraq and Afghanistan have affected the training, equipment priorities, and institutional orientation of the US Army Field Artillery branch.[1] Gone are the days however, when terrorism was central to US National Security, and focus was squarely on counterinsurgency. The 2018 National Defense Strategy clearly states that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern.”[2] Multiple competitors have made considerable advances to their Fires capabilities, but none so intimidating and threatening as Russia.

In 2019, the Rand Corporation conducted a research study that highlighted US artillery capability gaps. Their analysis of the “Baltic Scenario” revealed Russian artillery capability with longer ranges, greater rates of fire, and more numbers than the US can currently employ.[3] In this scenario it is assumed that Russia would employ a force consisting of 50 to 60 battalion tactical groups (BTGs), all with their own organic fires elements, plus a massive amount of combat multipliers.[4] It is important to note here that BTGs can be augmented with any number of extra cannon and/or rocket artillery.[5] They would also employ 15 fires battalions and an extensive tactical ballistic missile, long range rocket, and anti-ship missile capability.[6] Naturally, forces will be broken up and assigned to various missions. For this specific scenario, it is assessed that the “main attack” into the Baltics would begin with 9 brigades supported by two others.[7] The Rand study outlines a Russian order of battle consisting of 12 battalions of tube artillery, 9 battalions of heavy rocket launchers, 24 battalions of medium rocket launchers, and 5 battalions of short to very short range ballistic missiles.[8] Each division sized element will also have an IFC or Integrated Fires Command that can and will integrate massive amounts of additional fire support into DTGs and BTGs.[9]

As for the NATO coalition, it would initially consist of forces from the Baltic states plus other NATO forces that would move into place in the expected “warning period” prior to the beginning of hostilities.[10] The expected artillery strength of this force would be a sparse 7 battalions of tube artillery, and 3 battalions of rocket/missile artillery.[11] The most dangerous phase of this conflict will be the initial period of fighting, the period when Baltic and initial NATO forces are being overwhelmed by Russian forces and NATO is scrambling to send reinforcements into a largely contested battlespace.[12] Russia will most likely encircle Tallinn and Riga and close the Kaliningrad gap to block NATO forces coming from Poland.[13] At this point, with insufficient combat power to push further, they will likely switch to the defense and focus on inflicting massive damage with their incredibly large and advanced fires capability.[14] This scenario, with these assessed strengths, inflict unacceptably high losses to NATO forces.[15]

The capability gap driven by this assessed operating environment is associated with Army Directive 2017-24. The directive established a future long-range precision fires cross-functional team pilot to address the first of the CSA’s six Army Modernization Priorities.[16] The artillery range gap is clearly important but solving the issue will require more than just range improvements. The cross functional team mentioned above currently has three focus areas, “deep fires, long-range precision fires missile, [and] extended range cannon artillery.”[17] These developments are exciting, but the army will have to address Russian overmatch in terms of system numbers and rate of fire as well.

With systems capabilities and task organizations as they currently are, a Russian cannon artillery battalion (2S19) is collectively capable of a 54-72 rounds per minute (rpm) sustained rate of fire.[18] This assumes a Russian capability of a 3 (rpm) rate of fire. By contrast, a US cannon artillery battalion is capable of only 18 rpm sustained rate of fire (M777 & M109).[19] The picture continues to grow more abysmal. As the Rand Corporation study concluded and with rates of fire applied to the results of the study, the artillery capability gap is shown to be much larger. The Baltic scenario initially has mid-range cannon artillery assessed to be 7 to 1 in Russia’s favor.[20] The study assessed NATO forces to initially have 7 BNs, 126 tubes. If these assessments are correct, then Russia will employ approximately 882 tubes.[21] Given the “robust network of Russian air-defense systems,” it would be irresponsible to assume that the air force could attrit enemy fires by any reasonable amount.[22] This leaves the majority of this fight to the army. The entire NATO force is firing 126 rounds per minute across the entire battlefield while Russia saturates NATO forces with a staggering 2,644 cannon artillery rounds a minute.

When it comes to multiple launch rocket systems, the overmatch is not much better. United States’ MLRS systems can fire 12 rockets in less than 40 seconds and can take as much as 10 minutes to reload. The HIMARS system can only fire half that number of rockets because it can only hold 1 pod (6 rockets). The Russian rocket launching counterpart, the BM-21, is a fierce competitor. The Grad (BM-21) can fire 40 rockets in 20 seconds with a 7 minute reload time.[23] Some variants can fire 50 rockets in a similar timeframe.[24] Now I would be remiss if I were not to comment here on the disparity between the two rockets in question. While the Grad system has a much higher rate of fire, they also have a much smaller, 122 mm, rocket, as opposed to the 227 mm MLRS rocket.[25] Therefore, a one for one comparison will not yield an equal destructive capacity. Still, the Rand study assessed overmatch for rockets at 5 Russian launchers to every 1 US system.[26] Russia has 324 more launchers and each launcher can fire more than double the amount of rockets in one salvo.

In sum, Russian rocket launchers, Grads (BM-21) outnumber US MLRS systems five to one.[27] Russian medium range cannons, 2S19 MSTAs, outnumber US 155mm cannons seven to one.[28] Russia’s mid-range rocket launcher, Smerch, outranges US GMLRS rocket by 20 to 30km.[29] Russia’s Iskander missile launcher outranges ATACMS Missiles by around 200km.[30] The overmatch in quantity, and lethality drives the proposed solutions analysis in the following sections.

Possible Approaches: The studies and wargames that have analyzed the Baltic scenario have produced recommendations that essentially boil down to this: More range for rocket and missile systems and the ability to impose more effects faster on the enemy, whether through the development of more systems or by modifying current systems by improving rate of fire. There are a range of possible approaches across the DOTMLPF-P domains that contribute to a solution. The army could use a doctrinal or training approach. Doctrine can be written to encourage incorporating the artillery systems of NATO partners and interoperability training can be increased. While this option may be cheaper than a materiel or organizational solution, there are also substantial questions regarding how much the US can and should rely on NATO allies in a LSCO scenario. It is no secret that there is a power asymmetry between the United States and Europe.[31] Further, the hope that NATO military partnerships can improve in the future, isn’t promising either. The forward presence of US forces, training or operating with allies is a critical means of interoperability, however, the end of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan will bring with it the end of “the alliance’s workshop for building and maintaining interoperability across a range of military operations.”[32]

Materiel or organizational approaches may be the only options that offer a tangible solution in which the US could remain independently confident of success in the Baltics. This could mean developing a new artillery system that has range and rate of fire improvements sufficient to close the capability gap, big “M.”[33] The little “m” solution is another possibility, which would not develop a new system, but rather increase quantities of artillery systems or modify existing systems with improved range and rate of fire. If either of these options are chosen, then admittedly, there will be significant second and third order effects. If more systems with improved capabilities were added to the US arsenal, there would be cascading effects across the DOTMLPF-P spectrum. Solutions analysis would need to be conducted to assess strategic responsiveness, feasibility, and realizability, to determine a reasonable well researched recommended solution.[34]

Recommended Solution: Given current national strategic guidance, the army must make materiel (little “m”) and organizational changes to solve this capability gap. My recommended solution is fourfold. First, create a rocket munition that is a smaller version of the M26 rocket and a 25-rocket capacity pod that fits MLRS and HIMARS systems. Second, increase the rate of fire in US cannon systems from 1 rpm to 6-10 rpm by prioritizing and perfecting the auto loader technology that is now only a prototype.[35] Third, task organize cannon artillery battalions to make a 3 x 9 configuration (similar to the updated MLRS configuration). Lastly, more artillery battalions will have to be postured to be able to effectively react within the expected “warning period.” My assessment is that an additional 5 cannon artillery battalions, and an additional 12 MLRS BNs will be required. For the sake of brevity, the proposition in its totality can be called C.R.O.P.: Cannon density of fire, Rocket density of fire, Organize FA BNs to 3x 9, and Preposition FA BNs/equipment strategically.

Second-Order Effects: Developing munitions, modifying capabilities, increasing the number of artillery systems, and relocating units is a tall order and is bound to have a ripple effect across the other DOTMLPF-P domains. New munitions, systems capabilities, and structure will require TRADOC to test the validity of the changes and then update field manuals, ADPs, TCs and other doctrine accordingly.[36] This is a lengthy process involving “development, staffing, and legal reviews,” and can take 18-24 months.[37] The TRADOC Fires Center of Excellence will be affected in that it will need to determine the “individual and collective training” necessary to safely and effectively implement the modifications.[38] Introductory training, like the basic officer’s course and AIT, will likely need to be either extended, or other subject matter will need to be cutout . CROP would change the way we fight with fires. The tactical and technical mindset will need to be shaped in leaders to think in a way that uses new capabilities to their fullest. This is where leader development and education, through NCOES and OES systems, can help leaders adjust to their changing profession.[39]

CROP does not propose that new units are created, but it does propose that existing units need to grow. As far as facilities are concerned IMCOM will need to be activated to modernize and extend unit facilities to suit greater amounts of vehicles, weapons, and people.[40] Every new gun or launcher will require new soldiers for the crew, leaders, and support personnel. This will be difficult for a force and a branch with a history of recruitment and retention issues.

Stationing research and study will also be rather intensive if CROP is implemented. There are three options regarding the “P” in CROP. Permanently station the additional battalions in the appropriate area, have FA units come and go on a rotational basis, or some mixture of the two. Stationing will be discussed in more detail below. Whichever route is decided, the Military Value Analysis process will have the daunting task of integrating another 17 BNs into overseas work facilities, medical facilities, housing etc.[41] Lastly, CROP will have second order effects with regard to policy. Assignment policies, army regulations, and DoD, DoS, and congressional policies, will need review and updates. Since CROP will require overseas assignments, multi-national policies will present a host of special considerations. Status of forces agreements have a myriad of rules like limits on dependents and noise and driving restrictions just to name a few.[42]

Operational Concept: Before explaining how CROP will be used operationally, it is necessary to define, in clear terms, the capability gap that is to be filled. In the initial stages of a NATO/Russian conflict in the Baltic region, before US and NATO reinforcements are able to fight their way in, there will be an unacceptable over match of Russian artillery in terms of numbers and rate of fire. As was described above, CROP proposes 5 additional cannon battalions, with an 8 (rpm) rate of fire per system, and 12 additional MLRS battalions, capable of a 50-rocket salvo per launcher. Battalions can operate in Europe on a rotational basis to save money and increase flexibility.[43] Army pre-positioned stock will also need to be increased to accommodate the additional FA BNs.

US army BCTs currently stationed in Europe are the 2nd Cavalry Regiment and the 173rd Airborne Brigade.[44] Since 2017, 1 x ABCT has also been present in Europe on a rotational basis.[45] The Rand assessment of artillery initially available to respond to Russian aggression, was seven tube artillery battalions and 3 rocket battalions.[46] This is US and other NATO forces collectively. The proposed 17 FA battalions will be in addition to this. The ten artillery battalions assumed to be capable of deploying within the warning period are either permanently stationed in Europe, apart of an already established rotational unit, or units that are poised to deploy quickly and use pre-positioned equipment.[47] The “P” in CROP proposes that 50% of the additional FA battalions will be rotational, attached to already rotating BCTs, and the other 50% will be assigned a contingency mission allowing them to quickly deploy and assume control of pre-positioned stock if necessary.

With this structure in place, and with the materiel modifications increasing rate of fire, the commander with a pulse on European intelligence has options available that are actually capable of addressing a top tier competitor. This commander can assess that the warning period has begun, that Russian aggression is imminent, and would have the fire power necessary to address the threat in theater before the warning window closes. There are two reasons for not permanently stationing additional FA battalions. The first is that it is cheaper. The government would save money on family housing and leasing costs in Europe, overseas cost of living allowance, dependent school system, and permanent change of station moves.[48]

Secondly, it is flexible. Commanders can assess the imminence of the Russian threat and decide if they want to assume the risk of having a less than desirable fires presence in the case of unexpected Russian aggression. If the CROP proposal is used and the Baltic scenario plays out, then the commander will have a cannon and rocket density of fire that will match that of the Russians. Additionally, the added fire power will assist in combating the IAD threat which will allow air assets the ability to shape the enemy, further increasing US fires capabilities and NATO power and survivability.

Concept of change: Perhaps the CROP proposal makes sense conceptually, but how does it stand up to a Force Integration Functional Analysis? How will the HQDA G3/5/7 force integration directorate synchronize all the changes and integrate it all into the force? CROP proposes drastic but necessary increases to force structure and materiel modifications and additions. In order to better understand the consequences of CROP’s implementation, or failure to implement, this essay will now assess the suitability, feasibility, and acceptability of the proposal along the force integration functional areas.

While execution can be quite cumbersome, force integration is conceptually very simple. Proponents of each of the DOTMLPF-P domains will conduct their assigned actions to fully integrate the new capabilities associated with CROP.[49] Primarily, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisitions, Logistics, and Technology(ASA AL&T)), Army Materiel Command (AMC), and HQDA G-8, will all have a part in the materiel integration.[50] The ASA (AL&T) will develop the new rocket munition, 25 rocket pod, and autoloader cannon modification, HQDA G-8 will distribute the new equipment, or AMD will redistribute current equipment after modifications are made.[51] After this, HQDA G-3/5/7 and G-1 will document the new materiel and personnel requirements as TOE or TDA and determine policies for MOS, retaining, and recruiting.[52] TRADOC will evaluate and if necessary, update or develop new doctrine, initial training of new recruits, and leader development.[53] IMCOM will modify, build, and maintain the facilities required for the additional personnel and equipment.[54]

There will inevitably be hitches in the integration plan. Those that are most likely, involve manning and deploying. CROP will bring more weapons to the army, meaning that it will need more soldiers and leaders to man and employ the systems. This is a noteworthy challenge because, as stated above, the army, and the artillery have struggled with recruitment and retention. Unfortunately, there is no way to mitigate this apart from military service policy reform or lowering standards. The majority of trouble will most likely come from the effort to get the right equipment and trained personnel physically to Europe. The CROP proposal does impose yet another requirement army wide, it is also developed in a way that addresses the gap in the most prudent, frugal, and flexible way. CROP will undoubtedly cost a substantial amount of money but what must be considered are the grave consequences of an unprepared fires war fighting function, if an increasingly hostile Russia chooses to strike the NATO allies on their border. Additionally, the recent withdraw of forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, may free up the funds and attention necessary to enhance the feasibility of this proposal.

Sustainable readiness and this capability: The CROP proposal will have significant implications for sustainable readiness. CROP will affect readiness in different ways at different stages of implementation, namely, pre and post fielding and integration. As new equipment is fielded and being integrated the units involved will have to be totally dedicated to the effort and thus will not be in a ready level and not be available to service known or contingency missions. Naturally, planners would mitigate this by cycling BCTs through integration one at a time in order to avoid tying up too many units simultaneously.

After fielding and integration of new equipment and capabilities are complete, a new strain on sustainable readiness will emerge. CROP proposes that 8 FA BNs will have to attach to each ABCT EUCOM rotation, adding another substantial known demand to the army’s already very full plate. It also proposes that 9 FA battalions will be put on standby in order to quickly deploy, control prepositioned equipment, and fight, which adds to the army’s contingency demands. In order to ensure feasibility of this solution, it is important that all options be explored. For instance, national guard and reserve artillery units will have to be tasked. Also, the unpopular truth is that if the national strategy is in fact shifting away from counter insurgency and toward decisive action, then perhaps it is time to redirect soldiers and funds accordingly. Recent Middle East policy actions have indicated a move, albeit partially, in this direction.

Hasty Solutions: The solutions proposed in CROP, are robust and effective, but also costly and rigorous to maintain. When this is the case, policy makers often try to turn to the hasty solution or quick fix. But would these other solutions really be what’s best for US soldiers, or would they be mere platitudes, only wishing the problem away? A reasonable critic of CROP would ask where NATO was in all of this. Could we not just ask all our NATO allies to pitch in more? Scholars have recently called attention to the European asymmetry of power that has, in their opinion, been caused by decades of European NATO members freeriding and taking advantage of being under the United States’ defense umbrella.[55] This is of course evidenced by the consistent failure of allies to meet NATO’s 2 percent defense spending goal.[56] It is for this reason that it would be ill advised to pursue a “burden sharing” solution.[57] The recommendation of this essay remains. The United States army must take its fate, and unfortunately, all of NATO’s, into its own hands. The army must grow its fires capability and posture its forces to deter, and if necessary, fight our dangerous adversary east of the Baltics.

[1] John Gordon IV, Igor Mikolic-Torreira, D. Sean Barnett, Katharina Ley Best, Scott Boston, Dan Madden, Danielle C. Tarraf, Jordan Willcox, Army Fires Capabilities for 2025 and Beyond, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2019), pg: 03.

[2] Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge, (Department of Defense, 2018), pg: 01.

[3] John Gordon IV, Igor Mikolic-Torreira, D. Sean Barnett, Katharina Ley Best, Scott Boston, Dan Madden, Danielle C. Tarraf, Jordan Willcox, Army Fires Capabilities for 2025 and Beyond, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2019), pg: 169.

[4] Id. pg: 12.

[5] TC 7-100.4: Hybrid Threat Force Structure Organization Guide, Department of the Army, Washington DC, 4 June 2015) Pg: 3-15.

[6] John Gordon IV, Igor Mikolic-Torreira, D. Sean Barnett, Katharina Ley Best, Scott Boston, Dan Madden, Danielle C. Tarraf, Jordan Willcox, Army Fires Capabilities for 2025 and Beyond, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2019), pg: 12.

[7] Id. pg: 13.

[8] Id.

[9] TC 7-100.2: Opposing Force Tactics, Department of the Army, Washington DC, 9 December 2011) Pg: 9-9.

[10] John Gordon IV, Igor Mikolic-Torreira, D. Sean Barnett, Katharina Ley Best, Scott Boston, Dan Madden, Danielle C. Tarraf, Jordan Willcox, Army Fires Capabilities for 2025 and Beyond, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2019), pg: 14.

[11] Id. pg:16.

[12] Id. pg:19.

[13] Id. pg:16.

[14] Id. pg:17.

[15] Id. pg:19.

[16] Army Directive 2017-24, Secretary of the Army, (Washington, 06OCT2017) https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN6101_AD2017-24_Web_Final.pdf.

[17] Long Range Precision Fires, Provided by Fires Center of Excellence, (17 JAN 2018) https://www.army.mil/standto/archive/2018/01/17/index.html.

[18] Worldwide Equipment Guide, ODIN, TRADOC. https://odin.tradoc.army.mil/Search/WEG/2S19

[19] John Gordon IV, Igor Mikolic-Torreira, D. Sean Barnett, Katharina Ley Best, Scott Boston, Dan Madden, Danielle C. Tarraf, Jordan Willcox, Army Fires Capabilities for 2025 and Beyond, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2019), pg: 80.

[20] Id. pg: 169.

[21] Id. pg 16.

[22] John Gordon IV, Igor Mikolic-Torreira, D. Sean Barnett, Katharina Ley Best, Scott Boston, Dan Madden, Danielle C. Tarraf, Jordan Willcox, Army Fires Capabilities for 2025 and Beyond, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2019), pg: 150.

[23] Worldwide Equipment Guide, ODIN, TRADOC. https://odin.tradoc.army.mil/Search/All/bm-21

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] John Gordon IV, Igor Mikolic-Torreira, D. Sean Barnett, Katharina Ley Best, Scott Boston, Dan Madden, Danielle C. Tarraf, Jordan Willcox, Army Fires Capabilities for 2025 and Beyond, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2019), pg: 169.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id. pg:22.

[30] Id.

[31] Polyakova, Alina, and Benjamin Haddad. “Europe Alone: What Comes After the Transatlantic Alliance.” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 4 (August 7, 2019): 109.

[32] Deni, John R. “Maintaining Transatlantic Strategic, Operational and Tactical Interoperability in an Era of Austerity.” International Affairs 90, no. 3 (May 2014): 583–600. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2346.12128.

[33] Consolidating and Understanding JCIDS Guidance, Fort Leavenworth, KS: DLRO, June 2019. Consolidated doctrinal extracts, pg: 11.

[34] Id. pg: 9.

[35] Ashley Roque, Rapid Fire: US Army eyeing revamped ERCA autoloader and alternative solutions, (OCT 07, 2020), https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/rapid-fire-us-army-eyeing-revamped-erca-autoloader-and-alternative-solutions

[36] Force Integration: The Process and Challenges, The Field Grade Leader: Organizational Leadership in the US Army, James Kennedy and MAJ Cecil E. Wolberton, 23 December 2018, pg: 03.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Id. pg: 04.

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] W. Michael Hix, J. Michael Polich, Thomas F. Lippiatt, Army Stationing and Rotation Policy, Documented Briefing / Rand Corporation, (Santa Monica, Calif: RAND, 2003) Pg: 2 and 3.

[44] Judson, Jen, Should the US Permanently Station Troops in Europe? New US Army Europe Chief Weighs In, (Defense News, June 27, 2018) https://www.defensenews.com/land/2018/06/25/new-us-army-europe-commander-weighs-in-on-european-force-presence-debate/

[45] Judson, Jen. Hodges: First Rotational Armored Brigade to Reach Europe in January, (Defense News, August 8, 2017) https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/ausa/2016/10/07/hodges-first-rotational-armored-brigade-to-reach-europe-in-january/

[46] John Gordon IV, Igor Mikolic-Torreira, D. Sean Barnett, Katharina Ley Best, Scott Boston, Dan Madden, Danielle C. Tarraf, Jordan Willcox, Army Fires Capabilities for 2025 and Beyond, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2019), pg: 16.

[47] Id. 14.

[48] W. Michael Hix, J. Michael Polich, Thomas F. Lippiatt, Army Stationing and Rotation Policy, Documented Briefing / Rand Corporation, (Santa Monica, Calif: RAND, 2003) Pg: 25. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/documented_briefings/2005/DB421.pdf

[49] Force Integration: The Process and Challenges, The Field Grade Leader: Organizational Leadership in the US Army, James Kennedy and MAJ Cecil E. Wolberton, 23 December 2018, pg: 02.

[50] Id.

[51] Id.

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] Id.

[55] Polyakova, Alina, and Benjamin Haddad. “Europe Alone: What Comes After the Transatlantic Alliance.” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 4 (August 7, 2019), pg: 110.

[56] Barnes, Julian E., and Helene Cooper. “Trump Discussed Pulling U.S. From NATO, Aides Say Amid New Concerns Over Russia.” The New York Times, January 14, 2019, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/14/us/politics/nato-president-trump.html.

[57] Polyakova, Alina, and Benjamin Haddad. “Europe Alone: What Comes After the Transatlantic Alliance.” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 4 (August 7, 2019), pg: 110.