What can we as artillerymen, do better?

Posted By: Andrew Shaughnessy Professional Content,

What can we as artillerymen, do better?


As the emerging threat landscape continuously evolves, American artillerymen must constantly develop new Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) to be ready to dominate on a future battlefield. As hostile actors increasingly develop or purchase Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), this emerging threat must be at the forefront of conversations related to the survivability of the firing battery. While there are arguably many things that we as artillerymen need to aspire to do better, the UAS threat means that artillerymen must get more proficient at hiding. Potential adversaries like Russia have demonstrated that UAS can be an effective tool to hunt for targets and observe for artillery fire. Given the impracticality of providing every firing battery Short-Range Air Defense (SHORAD) systems, passive defenses like deliberate concealment become necessary. Firing batteries must become better at leveraging cover and concealment, both natural and artificial, to protect themselves against the rising hostile UAS threat.


The UAS threat to the Firing Battery


A major premise of Army artillery doctrine is that the greatest threat to firing batteries comes from an adversary’s indirect fire systems.[1] With potential adversaries increasingly relying on UAS to observe for artillery, the UAS threat is now inherently linked with the indirect fire threat. With firing batteries often having large visual and thermal signatures, they would be highly susceptible to being detected by an adversary’s UAS target acquisition systems.

The July 2014 Battle of Zelenopillya during the War in Donbass is a possible representation of the type of threat American artillerymen would face against a peer adversary. Relying on UAS to observe for artillery, Russian forces were able to use massed artillery fire to destroy two Ukrainian mechanized infantry Battalions in a matter of minutes.[2] The real-time responsiveness of UAS observation, combined with massed rocket artillery fire, proved to be a devastating combination. Ukrainian service members have noted that massed artillery fire, responsible for 85% of their causalities, predictability happened ten to fifteen minutes after spotting certain UAS platforms.[3] Furthermore, Russia has made UAS artillery spotting a major component of its artillery modernization campaign and has effectively integrated these platforms at multiple echelons.[4] Russian capabilities include the use of small tactical UAS like the Orlan-10 and Granat-1 as well as thermal imagining to enable night targeting. Russian state news agency TASS has also reported the Russian military has been developing UAS platforms launched as projectiles from the Smerch artillery launcher to observe for follow on fire missions.[5] UAS is no longer peripheral but central to how Russia employs its artillery forces.

Other potential adversaries have noted this success and begun developing similar capabilities. China’s People’s Liberation Army Ground Force and Rocket Force employ UAS for targeting and to observe artillery and rocket fire.[6] China has also developed UAS platforms launched by cannon artillery to hunt for targets and transmit target locations back to the original firing battery.[7]

Nonstate actors such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and the Houthi Rebels have also demonstrated a willingness and ability to weaponize commercial UAS platforms.[8] With commercial UAS platforms now widely available, this signifies that virtually any future operating environment will include a UAS threat. Whether it be from artillery spotting UAS from countries like Russia or weaponized commercial systems from non-state actors, the UAS threat is now a pressing challenge for American artillerymen.


Responding to the emerging UAS threat


While the Army is increasingly investing in counter-UAS systems, there is currently no universal solution for the UAS threat. The nature of the UAS threat is diverse, with a variety of different systems operating at different altitudes, requiring different responses.[9] Attaching SHORAD capabilities to firing batteries would mitigate some of the danger posed by hostile UAS platforms, but the Army cannot conceivably support every firing battery. Furthermore, with realistic ammunition and system constraints, attached air defenders may not be able to engage every observed UAS. Furthermore, adversaries would likely adjust their TTPs, knowing that a potential target is in the vicinity of wherever their UAS was engaged. While active defense measures such as engaging threat UAS need to be part of a firing battery’s TTPs, existing limitations to counter-UAS capabilities mean that we must embrace concealment as part of the passive defense approach for the time being.

While firing batteries already leverage camouflage nets to conceal their howitzer positions, the quality of concealment performed by howitzer sections varies widely. For many howitzer sections, it would be reasonable to say that emplacing camouflage netting is done to “check the block” during an emplacement rather than genuinely conceal a howitzer from above. While there is no quantifiable data to substantiate that many units do a poor job of concealing howitzer positions, anecdotal evidence supports that many units do not invest adequate effort into concealing howitzers. If we as artillerymen want to protect ourselves from the very real threat posed by hostile UAS, we need to take the concealment of howitzers and vehicles seriously.

Recognizing the pressing reality of the UAS threat, the Army published ATP 3-01.81 (Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System Techniques) to provide some TTPs on how to mitigate it. Passive defense measures are primarily around attack avoidance as well as protective measures from indirect fire.[10] Most of the suggested measures are already implemented by firing batteries to include the use of camouflage and concealment, dispersion, and hardening. Hardening and dispersion are standard practices when emplacing a battery, but only serve to minimize the damage done should a unit receive indirect fire. In a hypothetical confrontation with an adversary like Russia that favors massed rocket artillery fire, these techniques would offer minimal protection. While units must continue to disperse themselves and harden positions, they also need to place a greater emphasis on concealment.

Firing batteries should seek to offset the UAS threat by emphasizing quality camouflage and concealment as well as minimizing electromagnetic emissions. This would include tying into terrain features such as emplacing in tree lines, using natural foliage to augment camouflage netting, and positioning nets to disrupt the shape of vehicles and howitzers as much as possible. With some UAS capable of detecting thermal and electromagnetic signatures, firing batteries must minimize emissions as much as possible. ATP 3-37.34 (Survivability Operations) goes into extended detail on the principles of both visual camouflage and concealment as well as minimizing detectable electromagnetic signatures.[11]

Good firing batteries already do this. The rise of the UAS threat means that it must be the expectation that all firing batteries do this. Commanders may need to consider prioritizing concealment over other concerns when they are potentially in conflict. In an environment where the S2 assesses the hostile UAS threat is to be high, commanders should consider less frequent survivability moves to allow for more time to conceal howitzers and to limit the risk of detection while moving. While the counter-battery radar threat is still very real, if the S2 assesses the risk of UAS detection to be greater than the counter-battery radar threat, commanders should consider leaving batteries emplaced in firing points for longer periods. While it may be tempting to try and displace a firing unit as soon as a threat UAS is observed, the ability of a UAS to loiter and follow a moving battery means that this is suboptimal to avoiding detection in the first place. This will prove especially challenging to Paladin and rocket artillery units who are predisposed to favoring dispersion and frequent survivability moves over concealment. For these types of units, leveraging favorable terrain that can afford concealment without hindering mobility is essential.

In garrison, units need to place a higher emphasis on maintaining the serviceability of their camouflage netting. In training environments, commanders should consider requesting that friendly UAS overfly positions and provide feedback as to what they can see or detect. This can provide accurate feedback on the quality of concealment and help refine unit TTPs.


A new threat, old solutions


In 1944, the War Department published FM 5-20 D (Camouflage of Field Artillery) that covers TTPs on how to best conceal howitzer positions.[12] The recommendations of FM 5-20 D, advocating for the proper use of camouflage netting while leveraging terrain features, still ring true today. While the UAS threat may be very new, the first line of defense against it has existed in the field artillery for many decades. We as artillerymen need to get better at hiding our howitzers again. Too often, this is secondary to other concerns on a firing point such as establishing deliberate fighting positions or preparing for the next displacement. With threat UAS proliferating and potential adversaries integrating them with their artillery, the modern artillerymen must take it seriously. While contingent on the specific environment at hand, there are now scenarios where deliberate camouflaging and concealment of positions needs to take precedence over all other forms of position improvement. The rise of the UAS threat, and the risk of hostile artillery fire that comes with them, means that artillerymen must leverage cover and concealment as the first line of defense.

Author : 1LT Andrew Shaughnessy commisioned out of Georgetown University in 2016, and is a recent graduate of FA CCC. He has previously served with 3-320th FA, 3rd Brigade Combat Team (Rakkasans), 101st Airborne Division. 

[1] Department of the Army, ATP 3-09.50, “The Field Artillery Cannon Battery,” May 2016, 5-8

[2] Robert H. Scales, “Russia’s Superior new Weapons,” Washington Post, August 5th 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/russias-superior-new-weapons/2016/08/05/e86334ec-08c5-11e6-bdcb-0133da18418d_story.html

[3] Sydney J. Freedberg JR, “Russian Drone Threat: Army Seeks Ukraine Lessons,” Breaking Defense, October 14th 2015, https://breakingdefense.com/2015/10/russian-drone-threat-army-seeks-ukraine-lessons/

[4] Lester W. Grau and Charles K. Bartles, “The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces,” Foreign Military Studies Office, (2016): 373-377. https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Portals/7/Hot%20Spots/Documents/Russia/2017-07-The-Russian-Way-of-War-Grau-Bartles.pdf

[5] TASS, “Russia’s new rocket-launched drone to pierce air defense more easily-expert,” TASS, September 29th 2018, https://tass.com/defense/1023681

[6] Elsa Kania, “The PLA’s Unmanned Aerial Systems: New Capabilities for a “New Era” of Chinese Military Power,” China Aerospace Studies Institute, (August 8th 2018): 12-22, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/CASI/Display/Article/1596429/the-plas-unmanned-aerial-systems-new-capabilities-for-a-new-era-of-chinese-mili/

[7] Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, “China shows off cannon-fired drones,” Popular Science, January 27th 2015, https://www.popsci.com/china-shows-drones-fired-cannon/

[8] New America, “Non-State actors with drone capabilities,” New America, accessed April 1st 2020, https://www.newamerica.org/international-security/reports/world-drones/non-state-actors-with-drone-capabilities/

[9] Department of the Army, ATP 3-01.81, “Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System Techniques,” April 2017, 1-1 to 1-3

[10] ATP 3-01.81, 2-4 to 2-5

[11] Department of the Army, ATP 3-37.34, “Survivability Operations,” April 2018

[12] War Department Field Manual, FM 5-20 D, “Camouflage of Field Artillery,” February 1944, https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/ref/FM/PDFs/FM5-20D.PDF