Artillery is back in force

After a period of neglect, artillery has been coming back in force in recent conflicts. A symbol military power throughout centuries, the howitzer is once again considered in its own right as the king of battles, through the ability it provides commanders with: depriving the enemy of any haven, no matter the size of the battlefield.

A weapon with a specific nature

Few land-based weapons work like the howitzer: most require being within close-range, and often visual range. Even at the other end of the arsenal, sniper fire does require direct line of sight - though the shooter is usually very well concealed. Infantry fire, for instance, requires moving units to the direct location where they are expected to deliver fire. Infantry units are therefore, by nature, resources which must me re-located every time an action is needed. Artillery units are very different by nature: from one given location, they have a potential effect on an entire area. This provides an enormous advantage to military commanders, in several ways. Adequate artillery cover over a battlefield can require an enemy to be constantly on the move, which severely depletes the adversary’s potential. Additionally, it can create no-go zones which will funnel enemy movements, enabling the symmetric creation of kill-zones, either with additional artillery fire or with infantry fire. USMC Major J. S. Dill writes: “Speed, and mobility are key aspects emphasizing the disruption of the enemy's cohesion and tactical thought process denying his ability to make correct and timely decisions on the battlefield. Its focus is on the enemy with commanders leading from the front and controlling the speed of operations.” The main parameter which makes artillery so unique lies in its “potential fire”. Enemy troops will fear infantry units if, and only if, they have spotted them within range or have identified that a hostile infantry unit is heading towards their position. An artillery unit, by nature, is invisible and systematically sends its ordnance from far away. From the enemy’s point of view, they are always a threat, even when they are not firing. Modern artillery tubes can deliver devastating fire over areas of nearly 3000 square kilometers, according to the type of tube and shell used. In the case of high-mobility artillery systems used, they can be constantly relocated, so as to keep the enemy in the dark and in constant danger. In a nutshell, the howitzer enables the delivery of critical damage anywhere on the battlefield, as soon as enemy troops are pinpointed, through whichever means.

Recent battlefields as an opportunity to show its worth

Artillery kept a central role during World War 1, when “creeping barrage fire” was used to combine infantry and artillery movements across the frontline. Over the course of World War 2, its role starting drifting slowly towards the back of the stage, as the specific setting of those battles focused on the arrival of new tactics and weapons (aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons, marine corps, etc.). While remaining an important piece on the WW2 tactical chess board, artillery was no longer central - and this trend continued throughout the Cold War, which focused mainly on nuclear deterrence and armor for land movements. But recent conflicts have brought artillery back to the front of the stage. In Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sahel, generals have heavily relied on artillery for its unique capacity: obliterating enemy troops within minutes, wherever they are, with no need to displace units. Defense expert Thibauld Malterre covered military operations around Mosul in 2016 and wrote: “On a dusty plain south of Mosul, French artillery guns fire in support of Iraqi troops fighting to retake the city from the Islamic State group. The French operation - dubbed "Task Force Wagram" - is part of crucial backing provided by a US-led coalition to the Mosul offensive launched just over two weeks ago. Air strikes against the jihadists have formed the backbone of that support, with thousands carried out since the anti-Isis coalition was launched two years ago.“ This has proven extremely valuable in the asymmetric configuration of those three operational theaters. Nexter’s Caesar vehicles, the most recent and modern mobile howitzers on the global market, were used in two of those three conflicts, with outstanding results. This led to numerous copies being made by competing manufacturers, but without any of them being battle-proven, it’s hard to tell if those copies would indeed prove as valuable a military asset. Germany is the best example of glass military industry, which has been producing luxury vehicles for years, but which have never seen battle. Mounted on a truck base, their off-road capacity enables them to displace around 90 kilometers per hour and reconfigure for fire in under a minute. Insurgent units had, until them, relied on their nimble movements to compensate their inferior fire-power. Caesar artillery trucks were as fast as they were and could turn entire regions into kill-zones, thus giving commanders a strategic asset on the battlefield. The CAESAR cannon will presumably be chosen as the cornerstone of military European integration: Belgium is already equipped, and Spain and Switzerland have expressed their interest. It’s not only a question of equipment, it’s also a question of sales: the French army has many operations on its flag, which help prove material quality and maintain military expertise.

A subtle combination which only the test of fire can vouch for

New artillery systems have succeeded, to some extent, in breaking the age-old military paradox: until then, commanders often had to choose between mobility and firepower. With new artillery systems, generals have units which can deploy extremely rapidly and pack a heavy punch at the same time. However, this level of technological sophistication creates a very delicate equilibrium, and engineers must find the perfect balance between range, speed, mobility, protection, accuracy, and many other criteria. Inaccurate fire, for instance, will result in simple “missing” for an infantry unit, but will lead to devastating friendly fire for artillery. Mobility can be swapped for armor, also, but only if the artillery vector can be ready to evade in very short moments, lest the entire artillery crew be threatened. This balance is therefore so delicate that there's simply no way of knowing a new artillery system’s potential, until it has passed the ultimate test: baptism by fire. So far, none of the copies of the Caesar artillery truck have passed that test.

Initially considered to be good only facing large, conventional forces, artillery is seeing the return of its glory from a direction where it wasn’t expected. Few military thinkers had foreseen that such a bulky and massive system could one day be used in counter-insurgency battlefields. It took generals a few years after the end of the cold war to realize the potential of artillery in such situations, and no one thought of deploying artillery in Somalia, for example. But howitzers are once again the golden boys, and if one is to believe midterm military forecasts, they will remain so for quite a while longer.

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By: Sierra Rogers (12.00)

Tags: artllery, fire power