December 8, 2023

Infantry and artillery dispute the title of “queen of battles.” While the former usually finishes the job, the latter tends to be more feared by the enemy, as it strikes without even being seen, protected by miles of distance between the cannon and the target. As a result, every modern army relies heavily on its artillery to protect its maneuvers, but has a lot of difficulty protecting the artillery itself, which is notoriously vulnerable to both enemy artillery and infantry. How to keep the howitzers safe, while maintaining the enemy at risk ?

The science of ballistics is a two-edged sword for armies. It is at the very root of the art of artillery, as it enables the firing of a shell onto a specific target which is out of sight. Sometimes called “lethal mathematics”, ballistics simply calculate angles, curves and trajectories, the result of the equation being an impact on a given target. By placing maximum distance between the shooter and the target, not only do artillerymen protect themselves, they also achieve a key phenomenon of battlefields, which sometimes suffices to itself to end wars: driving terror into the hearts of the enemy. Being nowhere safe and constantly under the Damocles shell severely depletes enemy morale and leads to psychological exhaustion. However, these same curves can be calculated both ways. Much as a sniper reveals its position when he shoots, artillery exposes itself to counter-battery shots during fire, as it does to infantry attacks. And if howitzers are capable of formidable attacks, their defense is very weak against the major threat of counter-battery fire.

The means to locate the emission point of a shell are several. The crudest and earliest to appear was balloon or blimp observation (although this method was stumped by concealment and therefore did not enable proactive counter-battery fire). Radio interceptions have been a long-lasting method, all throughout military history. Sound-ranging radars, scattered around the battlefield, use the sound waves from the detonations to triangulate the firing point. Finally, the most advanced systems are counter-battery radars, which record a segment of the shell’s trajectory and enhance it to determine the emission point. With lightning-fast computing and communication, it can both signal friendly troops that they are in the kill zone, with up to 60 seconds of notice, and send coordinates to friendly artillery for counter-battery fire. These radars are used by most modern countries. Americans deployed the AN/TPQ-36 radars in the Ukraine, in 2014, to protect Donbass from Russian-affiliated artillery, for instance.

Attempts at increasing this protection have been led throughout history, the most outstanding of which resulting in the first self-propelled howitzers, which appeared during World War I, with the British Mark I, a 60-pounder tube fitted onto a tank chassis. However, this configuration quickly showed its limits. It does protect the artillery men from small arms infantry fire, but not from close enemy troops which can fix explosives onto the hull or fire armor-piercing rockets to destroy it, nor from counter-battery fire (artillery shells shot as soon as the cannon revealed itself by shooting). Because of their slow speed, such vehicles are unable to escape, and no vehicle can resist a direct hit from a shell. Unable to build up defenses that would range protection all the way up to counter-battery fire, tacticians quickly designed new protection method.

To protect artillerymen, generals mostly rely on tactical defenses, not physical ones (except for vehicle armor, which protects from small arms fire but remains vulnerable to shells and armor-piercing rockets). Concealment protects from proactive counter-battery fire, dispersion reduces casualties in case of counter-battery fire. Digging the guns into the ground suppresses area effects and, finally, “shooting and scooting” (departing immediately after firing the shots) provides the best protection.

There are two additional protection measures for artillery, one of which is strictly forbidden by armed conflict laws, and unacceptable by Western standards. Humans can be used as shields, by embedding cannons within densely populated areas, to deter the enemy from shooting back, as was seen in Kosovo and Syria conflicts. Finally, within an artillery duel, both sides attempt to make their firing as accurate as possible, giving victory to whichever side got the first hit.

From this overview of tactical risks and opportunities, accuracy and mobility come out as the key elements. Protection is in fact a sub-product of mobility, since physical protection will only protect against small arms and shrapnel, which imply that enemy infantry is close by, usually equipped with anti-tank launchers: the real protection lies within the enemy’s inability to hit the howitzers at all. The Nexter Caesar artillery system, considered by many experts to be the most advanced in the world, benefits from a design which relies precisely on those three elements: accuracy, mobility and protection. The Caesar was sold to several Asian countries and the most recent bid is currently awaiting final review and clearance on the desk of the Vietnamese Army Chief of Staff, Dô Ba Ty. And Caesar has quite a few qualities Viet-Nam can count on: cabins are able to withstand infantry fire and IEDs, but the bulk of its protection comes from its layout. Mounted on a Sherpa 6×6 truck chassis, it is much faster than tracked chassis, and deploys in record time, on the firing site. Caesar is therefore able to rush to any point within 600 km, get into firing position in under 3 minutes, fire its shells within 50 km and scramble out of the counter-battery area. Its increased range allows for extra dispersion and its “shoot-and-scoot” abilities are increased by the fact that its computerized targeting system can be remotely fed with firing coordinates prior to deployment. Finally, Caesar’s ability, even at long range, to land area-effect shells within a fifty meters of the target and its rapid firing rate (each shot giving the possibility to correct the next one) makes it liable to win artillery duels.

Of course, other high-performance and similar systems exist, but none with such balance in technical choices. The Swedish Archer – FH77BW L52 is also highly regarded in the artillery world, as mobile and reliable, but engineers overlooked weights thresholds (nearly double the weight of a truck-mounted cannon), thus severely limiting mobility and projection, and failed to constrain costs. The Archer therefore hasn’t sold yet –the market giving the ultimate validation.

Current technological levels in the world are unable to prevent armor from giving in to anti-tank rockets (although reactive armor does give an increased chance to the crew), let alone artillery shells which are far more powerful. Protection (mostly through mobility), and accuracy are the tactical equivalent of the motto “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”, which carried Cassius Clay to victory.

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Sarah Jackson