On July 11, 2014, battalions from Ukraine’s 24th and 72nd Mechanized Brigades assembled outside of the town of Zelenopillya, located about 5 miles from the Russian border. Having achieved success against the Russian-led separatist forces in the breakaway oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk (the Donbass) over the previous two months, they were assembling before what was planned to be a final push to the border to cut off the supply lines of the paramilitary forces from their Russian sponsors.
What started as a fairly normal day soon took an unexpected turn. It started with the buzzing of Russian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) overhead and cyberattacks against Ukrainian command, control and communications systems. The Russians then launched an attack consisting of short-range BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket system rockets from across the border. The attack lasted only two or three minutes, but it was immensely destructive to the Ukrainian forces. The attack destroyed most of the armored vehicles, killed at least 30 soldiers and wounded hundreds more. The attack left the Ukrainian forces decimated and demoralized, and represented the high-water mark for the Ukrainian offensive.
Return of the King
Previous Dispatches From the Modern War Institute columns have examined the threat posed by Russian electronic warfare and cyber capabilities. This one takes a deeper look at the major casualty-producing system those capabilities support: artillery. While artillery was not a major casualty producer during the First Gulf War or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it caused roughly 80 percent of the casualties in the Donbass in 2014, signifying the return of the “King of Battle.”
Russia’s investments in artillery have given them a tactical supremacy over the United States. Advantages in indirect fires can be broken down into three basic categories: firepower/range, responsiveness and culture.
While the U.S. Army remains fixed on 155 mm cannon artillery with a maximum range upward of 22 kilometers, the Russian army has begun reactivating its heavy artillery forces, beginning with its 2S7 Pion, mounting an impressive 203 mm round with a maximum range of 37.5 km. The Russian army is also in the midst of reactivating its 2S4 Tyulpan heavy mortar, with an Earth-shattering 240 mm projectile capable of ranging targets at 9,650 meters (and up to 20 km with special munitions), making the U.S. 120 mm mortar look rather small in comparison.
While some critics may point to a relatively slower rate of fire for heavy artillery and mortars, the enormous power of these munitions, massed with multiple systems, can mimic the destructive effects of close-air support, as demonstrated with devastating results against Ukraine’s Luhansk International Airport in 2014. In addition to the sheer power of these systems, Russian forces will surely use their long-range standoff to wreak havoc on U.S. forces whose artillery would remain severely outranged.
While the U.S. maintains its artillery at the brigade level for centralized control, the Russian army is fielding its artillery directly to maneuver battalions, providing maximum responsiveness when short windows of opportunity present themselves on the dynamic multidomain battlefield. Additionally, the Russians have mastered integrating a network of UAVs, forward observers and fire direction centers directly with rocket and cannon batteries.
Russians have also used counterbattery radar with lethal effect, prosecuting rapid-fire missions, giving Ukrainian artillery minimal time to conduct immediate survivability moves after conducting their own fire missions, since remaining idle means certain death from a hail of dual-purpose improved conventional munitions and thermobaric top-attack munitions. This unparalleled responsiveness allows Russian forces to quickly fix and destroy an opposing force with minimal need for a lengthy decision-making process or complex schemes of maneuver.
The U.S. Army must be prepared for the return of the King of Battle and to fight a near-peer threat with a sizable artillery capability. As usual, acquisition and technology have a role, but so do tactics, training, culture and doctrine. What follows are a number of recommendations to counter a near-peer artillery threat.
• Camouflage and deception. Camouflage and deception were addressed in previous columns, but this applies to countering enemy artillery as well. Many unit locations are identified by UAVs, electromagnetic signature or cyber means. The first defense against artillery is employing better camouflage—not just to protect against physical observation, but in the cyber realm and electromagnetic spectrum as well. The Army must adopt a culture of camouflage.
• Training. Training at the combat training centers does not go far enough to simulate the real-world threat. Commanders and staffs do not immediately move command posts after being spotted by UAVs and when they do, they often move too slowly. Battalion staffs are rarely destroyed en masse from an artillery attack during exercises, ostensibly because they would lose valuable training. On the contrary, they are most likely to learn if they are out of action for 12–24 hours while being reconstituted following an attack in which they displayed poor camouflage or deception, or decided it was more important to pack up all their equipment after spotting a UAV overhead rather than grabbing radios and maps and leaving everything else in place. Additionally, scenarios should include jamming or compromising Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data Systems to ensure crews can provide responsive fires under even the toughest situations.
• Counterbattery fire. Counterbattery radars have proven to be high-value targets for both sides in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainians have become adept at using these systems, but their large electromagnetic signatures make them highly vulnerable. The U.S. Army has counterbattery systems; however, nearly two decades of fighting an insurgency have left counterfire as an understandably low priority. Commanders must reprioritize training for counterfire cells, giving soldiers a capable, often unpredictable, opposing force to plan and fight against, as compared to the highly predictable checklist-style training often described by counterfire soldiers. Furthermore, the counterfire fight should be pushed down from brigade to fires-battalion headquarters. Units that have done this during combat training center rotations have drastically reduced the time needed to return fire. This can be accomplished by creating a permissive fires environment with detailed battlefield geometry planning including airspace coordination areas and restricted operating zones that allow a cleared gun target line. This concept must be deliberately and consistently practiced.
• Technology and acquisition. The Army should consider prioritizing the creation of artillery units, specifically focusing on rocket and missile battalions and organizing them for use at the division, brigade and battalion levels, or it will continue to remain overly dependent on air assets that are vulnerable to adversary air defense systems. Additional, enhanced artillery assets at lower levels would provide artillery commanders the ability to achieve devastating mass to shape the battle, and maneuver commanders a rapid responsiveness capability to finish the fight. The Army must also consider reactivating its own heavy artillery and mortar forces, and introducing its own Multiple Round Simultaneous Impact capability to provide crucial massing effects on enemy platforms, as Army units may see limited close-air support in a real fight against a near-peer adversary due to the Air Force focusing on deep strategic targets.
To date, U.S. Army artillery has rarely been found wanting; rather, new innovations, such as the forward observer and forward direction center, coupled with multiple mutually supporting firebases, have proven tremendously successful throughout the campaigns of the 20th century. It is imperative, though, that the Army continues to adapt its artillery forces, focusing on mass, range and responsiveness in acquisitions and training, well before making first contact with a highly capable adversary on the 21st-century battlefield.