October 1, 2007  

The case for cannons

Success in current operations, new technology keep artillery in the fight

In May, soldiers from the Army’s 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, fired two XM982 Excalibur precision-guided, extended-range 155mm artillery rounds that con¬secutively penetrated the roof of a single house known to be a terrorist haven in the northern region of Baghdad.

Cannons historically have not been precise weapons, so the idea of putting two rounds through the same roof of one building was big news for the field artillery community. When news began to spread of the Excalibur mission, military and defense technology bloggers picked up on the discussions. Some applauded the event as a demonstration of the relevancy artillery will have in urban operations, while others dismissed the mission as a “stunt” that could have been achieved with a precision-guided bomb dropped by an airplane.

This debate about cannon artillery relevancy has been going on for decades as critics of artillery’s contributions to modern combat contend that what can be done with artillery can be done with alternatives, such as missiles or preci¬sion air support. However, U.S. military experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan proved that our ground forces are best serviced when they have our full arsenal of fire support. Soldiers and Marines need access to fire sup¬port that is instantaneous and not dependent on weather or time of day. Cannon artillery is the only option that fits these requirements.

Maj. Gen. David Ralston, outgoing commander of the Fires Center of Excellence at Fort Sill, Okla., made this point in a video interview posted on the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command Web site earlier this year.

“A lot has been said about artillerymen doing nonstandard missions, and we’re doing a great job in everything the Army’s asked us to do,” Ralston said. “There’s a lot of firing going on, too, a lot of standard missions the field artillery are doing. Now with precision, we’ll probably be doing more standard mis¬sions. The ground commander will own precision munitions. That is a great benefit.”

The use of conventional artillery in Iraq and Afghanistan has not been front stage, but soldiers and Marines prove on a daily basis the dominance of cannon artillery, even against so-called “irregular” foes such as the Taliban and insurgents in Iraq.

Acting on early lessons learned dur¬ing Operation Enduring Freedom, ele¬ments of the 82nd Airborne and 10th Mountain divisions now take along both 120mm mortar platoons and can¬nons. Early concerns about cannon mobility in the rugged Afghan terrain faded as more than 7,000 rounds have been fired in support of U.S. and coali¬tion forces. A large number of those rounds came from the 10th Mountain’s two 155mm howitzers emplaced near Nangalam in 2006. The howitzers shot more than 3,000 rounds between March and September in support of troops operating deeper in the moun¬tains to take out Taliban and al-Qaida operatives hiding there. Understanding the impact artillery was having, the Canadian Army purchased six new 155mm howitzers from the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed them to Afghanistan in 2006 to support ongoing operations.

In Iraq, artillery has been used in nearly all phases of opera¬tions. During the initial three-week campaign of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, cannons proved to be the most dependable form of fire support for units during their rapid advance toward Baghdad.

First-hand accounts credit cannons with playing a vital role in the success of operations in Iraq. According to a 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) Artillery Report, cannon artillery destroyed 526 enemy vehicles and 67 enemy installations, and killed 2,754 enemy fighters without a sin¬gle U.S. soldier or piece of equipment lost to enemy artillery fire.

The flexibility offered to the maneuver commanders by the variety of cannon munitions available to them in this initial phase also proved critical to the coalition force’s rapid advance toward Baghdad. Using a combination of smoke rounds and high-explosive rounds equipped with variable timed fuses, cannon artillery enabled infantry units to quickly and safely maneuver through hostile territory.

On its way to Baghdad, the 3rd ID used this combination of rounds “to screen river crossings and sweep clear building roofs and highway overpasses.” Because variable timed fuses are set to automatically burst about 20 meters above a target, they gave commanders the ability to clear the enemy from key locations without damaging roads, bridges or other infrastruc¬ture that could later be used by friendly forces as they made their advance toward Baghdad. No other type of fire support could provide this capability.

Artillery went on to play a pivotal role in the battle for Fallujah in November 2004. More than 6,000 artillery rounds were fired during the 10-day battle to support soldiers and Marines going house to house to rid the city of insurgents. A report filed by the Army Task Force 2nd Battalion, 2nd Regiment Infantry Fires Support Element, stated that: “Paladin Howitzers were able to provide timely and accurate fires throughout the fight, delivering 925 rounds in mostly danger close fires (that’s less than 600 meters from friendly soldiers and often within 100-200 meters from friendly forces). A big lesson learned [in taking Fallujah] is that even when respon¬sive, close-air support is not a substitute for artillery and mor¬tars. It can be very effective, but it is not as responsive as our artillery and mortars.”

More recently, numerous reports have been issued that demonstrate how cannons have deterred terrorists from U.S. and coalition bases and operational outposts near major urban areas in Iraq. For instance, in 2006, the Counter Battery Platoon of 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, was credited with cutting in half the number of insurgent mortar attacks near Forward Operating Base Mahmudiyah. This was a result of the battery firing more than 100 fire missions in support of operations in Baghdad in a seven-month period.

As the Army continues to transform into a modular force — by replacing division-based units with more deployable brigade-sized units known as Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) — leaders within the Army have recognized the importance of cannons. As a result, each new BCT will contain organic Fires Battalions that feature 155mm cannon artillery for heavy mechanized units, Stryker BCTs, FCS BCTs and 105mm light cannon artillery for light infantry BCTs.

Although artillery has proven to be a useful tool in today’s operations, Ralston said the artillery still has a “capability gap” that is being filled by promising developments, such as precision munitions and more advanced howitzers. These developments also will help support the Army’s move to modularity.

RETIRED COL. JAMES E. UNTERSEHER served 28 years in the Army and commanded an artillery battalion during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He is vice president of Army Programs at BAE Systems in Minneapolis, Minn., and is executive director of CannonArtillery.com.