Thursday, March 18, 2010

Is precision-fire artillery less important than we thought?

I noticed an interesting comment in Defense News' account of GEN Peter Chiarelli's testimony to the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness Tuesday:

The vice chief also discussed the series of portfolio reviews the Army is conducting as it develops its next six-year spending plan. By looking at a portfolio of systems, for instance precision munitions, rather than looking at individual systems, the service can make more informed cost-benefit decisions about the capabilities it needs, said Chiarelli.

"There are probably systems that we have in the United States Army that have precision that don't need precision or don't need to be at the numbers we thought," he said.

"Not that precision isn't important, but does that mean that every system has to have a precision component? I would argue that's not the case," he added.

For example, a round from a 155mm cannon costs roughly $650 apiece, said Chiarelli, but if it is made into a precision round with an accuracy of 10 meters, the
round's cost goes up to $78,000 apiece.

I've really only included the first bit for context, as I'm not that interested in talking about the POM or whether portfolio review versus system review is a more effective or efficient process. The interesting bit is the last part, about the importance (or non-importance?) of precision artillery rounds.

The 155 round that Chiarelli referred to is Excalibur, which has proven itself to be both devastatingly effective and shockingly expensive... or at least, that's what I've always heard. (Just ask Gunslinger, who will rave about his experience with the munition.)

How exactly do you quantify the marginal utility of that extra $77K? Well, it turns out you might not really have to, seeing as precision artillery rounds and "dumb" rounds really are meant to perform different missions. Here's a clip from a 2004 article in National Defense entitled "Army has high expectations for smart artillery rounds" (which, interestingly, cites Raytheon's pre-production cost estimate of $29,000 per round for Excalibur, as compared with $4,000 for a standard 155 round):
A source of continuing debate within the Army is whether artillery should serve in a “precision strike” role, as opposed to its traditional “area suppression” function, for which pinpoint accuracy is not as important.
The article also mentions the 2002 cancellation of the Crusader self-propelled Howitzer, originally intended to replace Paladin -- that is, the system that was meant to fire Excalibur. If you'll remember, Crusader's cancellation is often cited as a move away from set-piece, big-war, firepoweritis and towards mobility, speed, and flexibility: Secretary Rumsfeld criticized Crusader as being too slow and too heavy to support the rapidly-moving shock forces so vital to his network-centric Revolution in Military Affairs. Back to National Defense:

Excalibur made headlines two years ago when the Defense Department cancelled the high-tech Crusader 155 mm howitzer, intended to replace the aging Paladin. At the time, Pentagon officials said advanced munitions such as Excalibur were more important than the guns themselves.

“The accuracy touted for Crusader really comes from Excalibur and not from Crusader,” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told reporters in 2002. Many artillery experts disagree, however, claiming that no matter how precise a round might be, artillery units need a fast vehicle that can keep up with the tanks and infantry carriers.

So after Crusader's cancellation, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz assured everyone that the good parts of the system were really a product of the round that was being fired, which wasn't getting cancelled. And that brings us back to today: we've got precision tube-fired munitions, but what's the point? Which is the more important mission - -or even, really, the fundamental, primary mission -- for artillery: precision strike, or are suppression?

Well, like pretty much all system/program decisions, this sort of hinges on what kind of wars you're trying to fight. But to say that big war requires one system and small war requires another is to oversimplify, seeing as the range of combat and stability tasks will be present to some greater or lesser extent in nearly every sort of campaign. A whole lot of precision fires were used during the theoretically hug-centric Surge, for example. But couldn't these missions be executed by air assets in most instances, and even occasionally (depending on geography) by naval gunfire? Isn't that what the Joint Force is all about?

If we're looking for uses for slow-moving or stationary gun batteries, it seems to me that the traditional area-denial, suppressive-fire role is a more natural one. I seem to recall reading that that's how H.R. McMaster used his guns in the much-ballyhooed COIN effort in Tal Afar, though I can't recall where. (Does anybody know where this was? I'm certain the piece talked about how 3rd ACR shaped its AO by firing high-volume missions on certain zones, denying open fields and whatnot to the enemy and channeling insurgents into a more concentrated area.) And artillery certainly played a role in shaping operations leading up to the battle of Fallujah. In a world where the threshold for infantry units justifying supporting fires has been raised so dramatically (as GEN McChrystal has done in Afghanistan), where troops in contact must give assurances that the area is free of civilians, isn't it far more likely that artillery will be used in scenarios where the AO has been largely cleared of noncombatants?

In 2006, then-LTCs John Nagl and Paul Yingling made the opposite case in an article in Field Artillery magazine (which, tangentially, basically makes the argument that the field artillery should focus on developing advisor skills as a secondary competency, considering what the two assert as its declining relevancy to modern operations):

Precision fires will play an essential role in future combat and are essential for America to maintain her dominance in MCO. In those comparatively rare instances when our enemies choose to mass and defend terrain, precision fires enable US forces to destroy targets with minimal losses to friendly forces or innocent civilians. Coupled with our superb maneuver and support forces, precision fires enable us to destroy our enemies’ capacity to defend terrain.

Precision fires also play an important but more limited role in COIN. Time sensitive targets in areas where friendly security forces cannot strike are ideal targets for precision fires in COIN. However, effective COIN makes such targets rare by denying insurgents sanctuaries outside the reach of friendly security forces. Precision fires have a more limited role in COIN due to the inherent difference between COIN and MCO.

In MCO, friendly forces use the maximum force allowable to destroy the enemy. The rapid and overwhelming application of force hastens the collapse of enemy forces with minimal loss to friendly units. In COIN, the opposite is true—units must rely on the minimum force needed to subdue insurgents. In fact, in COIN,“the more force you use, the less effective you are.”

In a COIN environment, the use of fires can affect intelligence collection adversely, and intelligence is the lifeblood of COIN. When we capture an insurgent, we can exploit his knowledge of the terrorist network; when we kill an insurgent, his knowledge of the terrorist network dies with him.

The use of fires also can affect civilian perceptions of security adversely. After the use of fires, insurgents often claim that the strikes were necessary due to the host-nation government’s inability to provide security or that the victims of the strike were innocent civilians. The truth of these claims is beside the point; by employing fires, we create an insurgent propaganda opportunity. Commanders must weigh these adverse effects carefully when employing fires in COIN.

So while writing "precision fires have a more limited role in COIN," the message is really that "fires, period, have a more limited role in COIN" -- Nagl and Yingling aren't making the case that precision fires are more useful, but rather that artillery isn't particularly useful at all.

Lester Grau, whose work on Soviet operations in Afghanistan is unparalleled in the English language, drew a different lesson while concluding that artillery used in the Soviet style was not particularly effective in COIN. In the conclusion of a 1997 article entitled "Artillery and counterinsurgency: the Soviet experience in Afghanistan," Grau notes as the sixth of his seven major historical lessons that "precision-guided munitions and other specialty rounds have an increasing role in counterinsurgency." This seemingly common-sense observation is followed, though, by the seventh lesson: "the biggest problem artillery has in counterinsurgency is finding a viable target." One might reasonably contend that under the policies GEN McChrystal has instituted at ISAF, the difficulty of finding a viable target comes from the very definition of "viable"; that is, it's hard to find viable targets because there aren't any, by ISAF ROE.

Back to GEN Chiarelli: is he right to suggest that precision artillery may be less important to future operations than we think? Understanding that 1) the effects of these fires are often replicable through the use of air power; 2) western commanders are increasingly constrained in their ability to employ any type of fires in urban areas or in the presence of civilians; and 3) that terrain denial and area suppression missions, which do not require precision fires but rather a high volume and rate of fire, can be used effectively to shape the AO and control enemy movement in either a COIN or MCO environment... I think it's worth considering.

14 comments:

  1. Very interesting stuff. I think the question has to be, what mix is needed of precision and traditional rounds? One or the other will never do.

    You're right to point out the area suppression role and how important it can be to COIN (even though ISAF ROE seem to make it just about impossible). Area suppression fires were important in Ramadi in 2006 and in Diyala in 2007-8. (They were also important in Diyala in 2003-4, but were condemned, rightly or wrongly, as stupid - one of the best early AM posts and discussion threads was about that. SNLII had interesting stuff to say.)

    As for cost effectiveness, it's true that almost anything an Excalibur or GMLRS round can destroy can also be destroyed by a Hellfire, Maverick, or JDAM (all of the systems above proved immensely useful during the surge, not just out in the rural belts where 3rd ID had JDAMs dropped like it was its job but also inside Baghdad and Ramadi - at one point GMLRS were fired onto Haifa Street, just outside the Green Zone). But every BCT has artillery handy (or should, if its FA battalion hasn't been entirely infantrified), whereas drones, AWTs, and fighter planes aren't always nearby. In that incident in Kunar where the 4-5 Marines died after being denied support, there were two problems, if I recall - aviation was a long ways away (real problem), and they were denied use of the artillery that actually could have helped them (made-up, avoidable problem).

    "A whole lot of precision fires were used during the theoretically hug-centric Surge, for example" - permission to use this phrase whenever I try to explain things about the surge to people?

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  2. permission to use this phrase whenever I try to explain things about the surge to people?

    Granted. Though credit for the sentiment to Gunslinger and SNLII.

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  3. SNLII is a jackass.

    The feud continues.

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  4. Wtf, mate? ^^

    -Deus Ex

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  5. Oh, I forgot to mention the cost-effectiveness reason that was what I actually meant to say above: isn't a GMLRS or Excalibur round cheaper, probably, than whatever it costs to have airplanes waiting around overhead to drop a JDAM? All that fuel and everything?

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  6. isn't a GMLRS or Excalibur round cheaper, probably, than whatever it costs to have airplanes waiting around overhead to drop a JDAM? All that fuel and everything?

    I have no idea what the answer is to this question. What I will say, though, is that we need to be talking about the life-cycle management costs of the entire weapon system, not just the unit cost of a round. All other things being equal (which they aren't, of course), it's much cheaper to simply produce more of one type of munition than to keep open a second production line. There are other mitigating factors, like international sales of Excalibur to Canada and Australia, too.

    But really you have to answer the doctrinal question first, I think: is the most effective and appropriate method of supporting ground troops through organic precision artillery, or through attached joint air/fires assets?

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  7. If Mike Few is reading, I'd be really interested in his comments on this subject. How did you use fires in Zaganiyeh?

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  8. I'm being that guy who posts a bunch of comments on his own thread, but I don't care!

    I seem to recall reading that that's how H.R. McMaster used his guns in the much-ballyhooed COIN effort in Tal Afar, though I can't recall where. (Does anybody know where this was? I'm certain the piece talked about how 3rd ACR shaped its AO by firing high-volume missions on certain zones, denying open fields and whatnot to the enemy and channeling insurgents into a more concentrated area.)

    I still haven't figured out where I read this, but I did recall an interesting bit from this article about Ramadi:

    Sean Macfarland and Niel Smith (erstwhile reader of the blog, I think) Anbar Awakens: The Tipping Point, Military Review, March-April 2008

    Because we were viewing the area using aerial sensors, our vision of the fight was indistinct, and we were unable to separate insurgents from the friendly tribesmen. We did not want to attack the friendly tribe by mistake, so we undertook actions to intimidate the insurgents by firing “terrain denial” missions. Explosions in empty nearby fields raised the possibility of suppressive artillery fire in the minds of the enemy. Complemented by the roar of fighter jets, the startled AQIZ forces became convinced that massive firepower was bearing down on them. They started to withdraw, separating themselves from their victims.

    Obviously this is a pretty narrow tactical anecdote, but it's sort of along the lines of what I was thinking about.

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  9. But really you have to answer the doctrinal question first, I think: is the most effective and appropriate method of supporting ground troops through organic precision artillery, or through attached joint air/fires assets?

    Weather, on more than one occasion, caused our supporting air assets to abort target engagement. Sometimes after multiple attempts. Our precision rockets had no such issue, but more importantly in mind, had a significantly lower CDE.

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  10. Rocket Jockey -- Weather, on more than one occasion, caused our supporting air assets to abort target engagement. Sometimes after multiple attempts. Our precision rockets had no such issue, but more importantly in mind, had a significantly lower CDE.

    Two very good points, particularly the first.

    On the second, I guess I'd say re-emphasize what I wrote in the original post: if theater-level decisions about ROE exclude the option of supporting fires when there is even the possibility of civilian presence, then collateral damage assessment (at least WRT casualties) is less relevant.

    Also, isn't there a meaningful distinction to be drawn between GMLRS/HIMARS and Excalibur/155?

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  11. Certainly... one distinction would be "bang for the buck". Excalibur, while very accurate, didn't always deliver the desired effects.

    According to the CJCS guidance as late as 2008, I believe GMLRS had the lowest CDE in DoD for it's type.

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  12. On that subject (and for those who don't do this for a living, as I gather Rockey Jockey probably does), check out some video of GMLRS badassness.

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  13. GMLRS is a badass system. Too bad you need to clear airspace up to and including the International Space Station... other than that it's one of my favorite weapons.

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  14. Clearance of fires doesn't seem to be a problem, imo, unless things have changed a lot since I ETS'd. For an extreme example, ask a BN FSO from OIF I what that was like, with platoons and companies requiring indirect or CAS - whichever was available - and needing it right now and the fire support guys trying to verify that there are no friendlies in the vicinity on a battlefield that is swarming with friendly elements changing locations quickly.

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