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Down The Tubes: A View on the Future of Field Guns Using United Kingdom Artillery as the Example

John Wilson

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John Wilson was the Editor of the British Army Review from 2002 to 2011, and is a member of Military Operations’ Editorial Advisory Board.
Wilson, John, “Down The Tubes: A View on the Future of Field Guns Using United Kingdom Artillery as the Example”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 2, Fall 2012, pages 9-11.

At its height in both World Wars, the Royal Artillery represented nearly 30% of the British Army. When I first joined in 1966 the Regiment had 23 surface-to-surface artillery regiments.[i] That figure will soon be 7. Even that number may be hard to justify.

The future of British field artillery is obviously bound up with that of the Army it supports. We seem little nearer to reaching a measured position on defence in the UK. The last time we had a clear, coherent position was during the Cold War. Today, the British Army has no such measuring stick; Northern Ireland has gone as a background activity, let alone as an occasional force driver. The policing of the Empire has long gone, as has the clearing up of post-colonial detritus. Britain is an island and can largely rely on policing the skies and seas, together with the work of the security and intelligence services and the civil police, to provide security. The Army’s tasks are almost entirely discretionary, and there is almost no bottom limit on how small the Army could get. Small army, even fewer guns.

Now add in the changed nature of the warfare to which the government might commit forces. Since the Berlin Wall came down we have seen artillery used in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. There were a few minor engagements in Bosnia, largely in a counter-battery role – and some deterrent effect was achieved. In Iraq, in the invasion AS-90 was an effective part of the mix and played its conventional role well. At first in Afghanistan the 105mm light gun fired regularly in support of an often-beleaguered infantry, but much less now.

We are discussing British artillery – and guns only. Is there a future? Take the AS-90 as used in the invasion of Iraq. Will that sort of operation recur? Will we be asked to take on a relatively conventional force providing the conventional ground targets that artillery has traditionally engaged? Well, as ever, it is a political decision and looking at the evidence of the last couple of years it seems unlikely that we will do that; this government shows little appetite for foreign adventures – I will come back to Libya later. As far as one can tell there is no intention of forming a national contingency force at divisional level – that is, a force to rival that of Gulf Wars 1 and 2. So straightaway one could argue for an artillery force of not more than 24 guns and some MLRS launchers as the maximum requirement. We are clearly unwilling to provide more than a token force of, say, a brigade as our contribution to a coalition operation.

The most this brigade could do conventionally is remove a battle group in defence. Success in war usually comes in combinations, so any intervention force might initially face a relatively conventional enemy. The force could sit back and blast away from a distance with precision weapons, but there is merit in having an all-arms manoeuvre force as part of the force mix. A UK contribution that could not deal with a single battle group in defence would not be much of a force. And one of the future reaction force brigades has that capability, of which the AS-90 regiment is a vital element.

A large conventional force in defence (more than, say, one division) provides targets for technologically advanced Western forces; it does not present a challenge. Yes, I could point to Korea and see that guns might have their day in the sun there, but if the government would like to play in that fixture it shows little sign of providing a test match team; it prefers to spend our billions on obscure Olympic sports for a medal tally. And that is not a cheap shot: spending money on Olympic teams is more popular than spending it on defence. The government is reflecting a popular view, and, to some extent, leading it.

So, however galling it may be for those who point to possible theatres and threats, the government prefers not to get involved in that sort of warfare again. I agree that this seems odd when we have high-end weaponry like Type 45 Destroyers and new submarines, and F-35s and huge carriers in the offing – but that is the dysfunctional nature of modern politics. It does not alter the fact that we will not have ground forces of the type and numbers for a Korea scenario.

To Afghanistan. The early deployments of artillery in Helmand Province fired thousands of rounds per tour. That is now down to hundreds, and every engagement will have been analysed for the collateral damage effects. It is slowly dawning on us that killing and damaging the wrong (and sometimes the right people) people is counter-productive in the most damning way. One mistake wipes out so many positives. The nature of the enemy does not favour the use of conventional field artillery. Direct-fire weapons are preferred. Yes, artillery is still a 24-hour, all-weather system, but two things hinder greater use. First, it is insufficiently accurate. For years we have argued that it is an area system, but today we want a specific target attack, not a general area attack. And second, we have insufficient coverage. If the system could truly cover all areas where infantry operate in Helmand, then the case for artillery would be stronger. But the artillery coverage is only a bonus and the infantry have routinely to expect to operate without artillery and so the investment and confidence in the system is low.

There was one interesting minor departure: the use of the light gun in the direct fire role. With astute use of range tables (I assume we still have them in book form which is the effective way to use them for a specific target) and with a good layer using a good optical dial sight, it can be a surprisingly accurate weapon. One such gun was deployed for this purpose with good results. Selecting the right charge is important, which gives it the edge over conventional direct fire weapons. And the detachment is used to working with a spotter [that is, forward observer. See below – Ed].

The case for Guided MLRS (GMLRS) has been made; but it is expensive, and cost matters. At the moment of use pitting an expensive rocket against saving a soldier’s life is an easy decision. However, arguing the case in the abstract at resource planning meetings and justifying its deployment to sceptical and ignorant officials (in or out of uniform) is less clear-cut. That seems to argue for more precision from tube artillery and much greater range. The Light Gun has a range of 17,500m, FH-70 has a range of 24Km – a 40% increase in range over Light Gun – but:

  • Area covered by Light Gun fire: 962 sq km.
  • Area covered by FH-70 fire: 1916 sq km.

So, for a 40% increase in range, FH-70 doubles the coverage. (In both cases I am ignoring the minimum range.)

In 1982 137 (Java) Battery, equipped with 105mm Light gun, found itself at Fitzroy Settlement at the end of Operation Corporate (the Falklands War). An FH-70 firing from Fitzroy could have engaged every target fired by Light Gun during that war, without moving. And FH-70 has a burst fire capability; it has a flick rammer. A pair of FH-70s can cheerfully put 30 rounds of 155mm HE onto the target in one minute: 1320kg of ammunition.

It seems obvious that a 155mm round will always be preferred to 105mm calibre for a precision round. The casing can carry the guidance without over-much prejudice to the HE filling. Indeed a reduction in the explosive capacity and consequent reduction in collateral damage is probably desirable. We seem unwilling to go down this obvious route. We have stayed with the 105mm light gun, which is getting old. The case for the lightweight 155mm howitzer seems clear. AS-90 is too heavy – it lacks strategic (movement to theatre: airlift) and operational mobility (movement within theatre: helicopter lift). With the poor infrastructure of somewhere like Helmand (weak roads and bridges), it also lacks tactical mobility (movement between gun positions and platforms). The ultra lightweight 155mm – British designed, and the gun chosen by a principal ally (the US, for both Army and Marine Corps) – would seem to be the only way to go. For reasons that only a fully-charged bureaucrat could explain, we persisted in examining options from France and South Africa which were manifestly non-starters. So much time and money was wasted when the solution was staring at us that the moment passed; the money dried up; and we got nothing from perhaps 20 years of futile analysis.

So we are stuck with the light gun and the undeployable AS-90. Curiously, FH-70 still sits in sheds in a depot at Donnington. We could have used them in Helmand because of the advantages given above, but FH-70 was perceived as a “difficult” gun, usually by people who had never properly worked on it, and so they languish. I wonder why we bother to keep them, if we are never going to use them.

Forward Observer Officers (FOOs), or Fire Support Teams, are part of the field gun system. Training artillery observers has never been easy. It is a demanding role which requires a good understanding of artillery, a thorough grasp of the techniques of spotting and allied skills such as observation, acquisition, and communications; all linked to a thorough grounding in manoeuvre tactics and procedures. Throw in a good eye for ground and the ability to control aircraft; a full knowledge of Rules of Engagement and weapon control orders; and the moral courage to abide by them. It is a tall order. A good understanding of artillery is only one of several attributes needed, which suggests that the FOO need not be a gunner. Not least because the modern artillery captain has probably not done a full 3 years on a gun position learning his craft. Indeed he may not have come from a field artillery background.[ii] Add in the demand for ever more FOOs, and it is beyond the capacity of the Royal Artillery to meet it. The modern FOO may well be from the Army Air Corps, infantry or armour (or Royal Marines). There is no point in looking beyond those arms.

Quite where that leaves the Royal Artillery is up for debate. The traditional structure of a field regiment stems from the highly successful WW2 model: batteries split into troops each consisting of 3 guns, a reconnaissance and command post team and the FOO as the nominal troop commander. The battery commander, as ever, is deployed with the supported infantry or armour commanding officer (CO). The artillery CO is at brigade providing the artillery HQ. The trend is towards more skilled FOOs, which is unlikely to be achieved in the traditional model. Maybe we will see all-gun regiments, with observer parties of majors and captains concentrated in another unit. The model of 148 Forward Observation Battery (providing the specialist spotters for naval gunfire) and 4/73 Special OP Battery (originally a stay-behind unit, which has mutated to a specialist STA unit) looks more useful.

Army 2020 proposes a three-brigade model, plus commando and AH brigades, in the Reaction Force. The so-called brigades (seven of them) in the separate adaptable force element are not brigades at all. They are a sop to maintain command appointments and keep the various regions of Britain sweet. And an expensive sop, too.

Nor are the three brigades in the reaction forces part of a proper divisional force. Only one brigade will be at any reasonable level of readiness. So, soon, the argument will appear which asks why we need three brigades to maintain the one that will ever deploy operationally.

Brigades on sustained operations like Banner (Northern Ireland), Telic (Iraq 2003+) and Herrick (Afghanistan) should swiftly morph to the Northern Ireland theatre model: the 8th and 39th Brigades. Those brigade headquarters were permanent and units rotated through them on 6-month or 2-year cycles. We have not done this in Afghanistan, with all the disadvantages, especially a lack of continuity, that have showed themselves. This approach argues for one or two brigades and plenty of units. So, the automatic assumption that each brigade will continue to have an artillery regiment is unlikely. Especially as the traditional regimental model is no longer valid. Do not expect the seven field regiments in Army 2020 to last long.

To see how far things have changed we need look no further than Major General Tomlinson’s article in the British Army Review in 1983, entitled Handling Artillery Within the Corps:[iii]

“There exists throughout the Army much misunderstanding of the use of artillery in battle. Thirty years of small wars since Korea have caused British artillery to be used in penny-packets and on no occasion until the Falklands (and, in artillery terms at least, this was also a small war) was it necessary to concentrate the fire of all guns in range. Nor have there been occasions when guns have had to fire round the clock for days or weeks on end, as was common in 1914-18, 1939-45 and in Korea. The result is that we now have a generation of commanders who do not understand the handling of artillery on a large scale. They therefore question many of the principles, procedures and structures involved. Some formation commanders, including artillerymen, question the number of gunners needed at all; they compare artillery fire with tank fire and the numbers of men required by each; they question the need for artillery observation parties and they question the need for an artillery command structure. They find difficulty in understanding the fundamental differences between armoured infantry command and artillery command. They tend to fail to realise the all pervasive and truly shattering effect that artillery fire can have upon the enemy if it is properly handled, and that our own artillery also has a significant and beneficial effect on the morale of our own troops. Commanders also find difficulty in understanding the principle that artillery is commanded at the highest level and, in the British Army, its fire is controlled at the lowest level.”

Amongst other things, the author was making the case for BATES, a truly awful C2 system that was pursued long after the need had disappeared. Virtually none of the points he makes above (and he thought he was correcting heresies) now hold. Probably only the first sentence still applies.

I see no reason for a Western army to hold the traditionally large inventory of field guns, nor the ammunition stocks to support them. For Britain, that means six batteries of guns, plus GMLRS, are the way forward. Precision and control of the munitions is the key. And the full value will only be realised if the spotter/controller (FOO) is ‘up to speed’. He does not have to be an artillery officer, and there are benefits from attracting infantry, armour or aviators into that world. The other key word is ‘officer’. This is not a job for non-commissioned officers, irrespective of their spotting talents.


[i] Royal Artillery Regiments are of battalion size, typically with three gun batteries each – Ed.
[ii] Some Royal Artillery officers move between field and air defence artillery roles – Ed.
[iii] Tomlinson, M.J., Handling Artillery Within the Corps, British Army Review, 1983.