Why modern militaries still need artillery

Used to devastating effect in recent conflicts, artillery and long-range deep fires are a vital asset to the modern military arsenal. Harry Lye explores their utility and asks why they are still relevant in a world of uncrewed aerial systems and loitering munitions.

“Even today, in Ukraine, Russia’s use of traditional artillery coupled with UAV forward observation has created a lethal and efficient deep fire affect – if you can be found you can be killed,” UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said during a speech on defence reform to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), illustrating how adversaries have combined traditional weapons with new ones to deliver a devastating effect.

In a 2019 paper, RUSI land warfare research fellow Jack Watling described Russia’s employment of artillery in Ukraine in more detail. Watling wrote: “In the early hours of 11 July 2014, the Ukrainian 24th Mechanised Brigade was manoeuvring near Zelenopillya, about 10km from the Russian border. Shortly after taking up positions, the Ukrainians found that their communications and navigation equipment was being interfered with.

“At around 4:20am they noticed UAVs apparently observing the column. Then the firing started. Approximately 40 salvos of Russian rockets struck the Ukrainians within a five-minute period. The equipment of two understrength battalions was destroyed. This incident, though far from isolated, sent a shiver of alarm through Western militaries, for good reason.”

Delivering evidence to a Parliamentary Defence Select Committee hearing in November last year, Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), listed to MPs several ways adversaries had integrated drones into their armed forces, including the use of UAVs to make deep fires all the more accurate.

UAVs haven’t made artillery irrelevant, but in many cases, they have made artillery systems more effective and precise.

Suppression, strike and fire support

Franz-Stefan Gady, a research fellow for cyber, space and future conflict at IISS, told us that the proliferation of uncrewed aerial systems and loitering munitions would not make artillery and deep fires redundant.

“Artillery has four core missions in the modern battlespace: suppression of enemy fires or counter-battery fires, striking high-value targets, breaking up enemy force concentrations, and providing fire support for manoeuvre warfare,” Gady explained. “UAS cannot create the firepower necessary for enemy fire suppression or for breaking up enemy force concentrations.”

Recent conflicts over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the use of Turkish drones in Syria and Libya have shown just how susceptible land systems, from armoured personnel carriers to main battle tanks, is to aerial threats. Despite this, payloads and weather can limit the ability of UAS to deliver effect on a large scale in the way a concentrated artillery barrage can.

Gady added that UAS are most useful when it comes to striking high-value targets or delivering fire support for manoeuvres. He also cited the importance of artillery being deployable in almost all weather conditions, giving the system’s utility in areas where it can be challenging to employ the use of drones effectively.

Recent conflicts have shown that artillery needs to be protected from electronic attack and accompanied by short-range air defences.

Artillery also has the added advantage of being cheaper to field and operate than precision-guided air-launched weapons traditionally used by UAS platforms. Gady said that this cost factor makes artillery the more economical option for suppression of enemy fires or for breaking up enemy formations.

“A debate should certainly happen about the future utility of towed tube artillery,” he added, “although I would caution to hasten to conclusions about its obsoleteness. Such judgements require a close examination of operational requirements of artillery systems.

“For example, tube artillery may play less of a role in a peer-to-near peer conflict on NATO’s Eastern flank given its shorter range and vulnerability to counterbattery fire or airstrikes, yet it could be a much more important factor in mountain warfare operations in the terrain along the India-Pakistan or India-China borders, where it could prove crucial in providing fire support for manoeuvre or for breaking up enemy formations.”

He cited the example of India acquiring the air-mobile M777 155 mm 39-caliber towed howitzer, adding that the Indian Army had purchased the system with the specific aim of deploying it along the country’s mountainous border areas.

He added: “What recent conflicts have shown is that artillery needs to be protected from electronic attack (via electronic countermeasures) and accompanied by short-range air defences. Unprotected towed artillery, in particular, has shown to be extremely vulnerable to UAS-led airstrikes.”

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Need for UK modernisation

During the Parliamentary Defence Select Committee session last November, Barry also described how the UK and most NATO divisions could be outgunned by Russian artillery. “Broadly speaking, Russian brigades and divisions have three times as much gun and rocket artillery as their NATO equivalents,” Barry said.

“Whereas a British armoured infantry brigade would be supported by a single AS-90 regiment, a Russian motor rifle brigade would have two battalions of gun artillery and a battalion of multiple rocket launchers.”

Barry added that while allied forces of the US Army and Marine Corps and the French military deployed artillery in the fight against the so-called Islamic State, "British artillery was nowhere to be seen".

The core of the British Army’s artillery and deep fires capability comes from the AS90 155-mm 39-calibre self-propelled howitzer, and M270B1 guided multiple launch rocket systems, both of which require modernisation to be effective in high-intensity conflict.

In July last year, US Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy said that the UK was interested in either recapitalising HIMARS or looking to Lockheed Martin’s Precision Strike Missile to upgrade its long-range fires capability.

Whether in need of modernisation, or already being used in conjunction with UAVs, artillery and deep fires remain a crucial tool in the arsenal of modern militaries.

In a Radio 4 interview last year, Wallace also alluded to artillery and deep fires modernisation while discussing the importance of protecting armoured vehicles from aerial and electronic warfare threats.

“We will see an increase, potentially, of soldiers working in electronic warfare, signals intelligence, long-range fires - as we call it, long-range artillery, because the ranges are changing for the first time in many years,” Wallace explained.

“Because, otherwise, we would be back to one of those awful events, if you remember the snatch Land Rover scandal that happened in early on in Afghanistan, and I don't want to be back to that. So that's where some of the money will go.”

The UK is currently conducting an Integrated Review into Defence, Security and Foreign Policy that is due for publication in February and is expected to clarify the UK’s future direction of travel in terms of artillery and deep fires modernisation.

Whether in need of modernisation, or already being used in conjunction with UAVs, artillery and deep fires remain a crucial tool in the arsenal of modern militaries, as illustrated by India’s purchases of new systems and modernisation efforts underway in other countries.

// Main image: British soldiers train in Kenya. Credit: MOD