Tanks or Indirect Fires? if We Can’t Afford Both, Which Should We Choose?

 In UK, Uncategorized

By Jed Cawthorne

This arti­cle is pri­mar­i­ly a response to the recent­ly pub­lished RUSI paper; ‘The Future of Fires: Maximising the UK’s tac­ti­cal and oper­a­tional fire­pow­er’ by Dr. Jack Watling.


It is also a follow-up to a pre­vi­ous arti­cle on fires capa­bil­i­ties within in the con­text of Strike Brigades, and a dis­cus­sion of the ques­tion whether we should allo­cate a larger pro­por­tion of lim­it­ed resources on what will be a rather small number of Main Battle Tanks (MBTs).

1200px-Challenger_2_Main_Battle_Tank_patrolling_outside_Basra,_Iraq_MOD_45148325If the cost of upgrad­ing Challenger 2 is so expen­sive that we can only afford 150 MBTs, is it worth it? Would we be better off invest­ing our lim­it­ed resources in artillery capa­bil­i­ties?

Ideally, we should not be in the posi­tion of having to choose between artillery and tanks.  The defence budget ought to allow an increase in the Army’s head­count, to retain and regen­er­ate  tracked armoured infantry brigades, as well as gen­er­at­ing new wheeled Strike brigades, and with both fully equipped with fire sup­port assets. However, with stag­nant GDP and polit­i­cal par­ties of all colours dis­tract­ed by Brexit, any future defence review will likely see fur­ther cuts, lead­ing to hard deci­sions on what to pri­ori­tise.

This is where the dis­cus­sion of our MBT capa­bil­i­ty comes into play. The Challenger 2 upgrade has been delayed time after time, and the older it becomes, the more that needs to be done to ensure it remains com­pet­i­tive. A deci­sion on the pro­gramme was due around now, but is now likely to be pushed either to late 2020 or early 2021, assum­ing the Treasury doesn’t decide that it has become unaf­ford­able. Instead of debat­ing whether 150 exquis­ite­ly upgrad­ed Challenger 3s, Leopard 2s or M1A3s would be the best value for money, per­haps we should address the more fun­da­men­tal issue of whether such a small number of tanks actu­al­ly makes any dif­fer­ence to our over­all level of nation­al secu­ri­ty, or to the capa­bil­i­ties of the NATO alliance, and the role of the Army across these tasks?

During the cold war, the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) was a Corps-sized for­ma­tion with close to 1,000 MBTs in four deploy­able divi­sions; how­ev­er, it was what we now call “for­ward based.” These did not have far to travel from their German bar­racks to poten­tial WWIII bat­tle­grounds. In such a sce­nario, heavy armour made per­fect sense, as it now does for Germany, Poland, and other NATO coun­tries that share land bor­ders with poten­tial ene­mies. The prob­lem now is that we are strug­gling to man and equip even divi­sions, of which only one is deploy­able. They are mostly based in UK, includ­ing their heavy equip­ment such as MBTs and Warrior IFVs. This means that before they can take part in any fight, they have to be deliv­ered into the­atre. If an asset cannot get to the fight in a timely fash­ion, then it is pretty much point­less.

I am not argu­ing that tanks are obso­lete, that they have no role, or no future. I am not argu­ing that they have no role in the land domain capa­bil­i­ties of the broad­er NATO alliance. However, I am argu­ing that the UK would be better spend­ing a finite budget on dif­fer­ent capa­bil­i­ties. I delved deeper into those argu­ments in my pre­vi­ous arti­cle: https://uklandpower.com/2019/07/02/the-importance-of-building-uk-strike-brigades-around-artillery/

So, where does the RUSI paper come into play in this con­text? It does not sug­gest that money spent on MBTs is money wasted,  but it does recog­nise the need for vastly improved our fires capa­bil­i­ties – con­ven­tion­al tube artillery, mul­ti­ple launch rocket artillery, defen­sive and offen­sive mis­sile capa­bil­i­ties, and air defence assets. It dis­cuss­es this in the con­text of UK par­tic­i­pa­tion in a NATO allied force in North West con­ti­nen­tal Europe, to resist poten­tial aggres­sion from Russian Federation forces. The paper com­pares and con­trasts UK capa­bil­i­ties with the artillery / fires of a Russian Brigade Tactical Group (BGT) and Division, noting that a Russian Motor-Rifle Brigade (mech­a­nised infantry) has a total of 81 artillery pieces, rang­ing from 152mm how­itzers to 300 mm rocket MLRS with a range of 120km; and each bat­tal­ion tac­ti­cal group is sup­port­ed by 18 self-pro­pelled guns (SPG). The British Army in return would strug­gle to deploy one of its two AS90 reg­i­ments, each of which has 24 mm L/39 cal­i­bre 155 SPGs and a bat­tery of 6 to 8 M270 227mm MLRS, assum­ing that it has suf­fi­cient heavy equip­ment trans­porters nec­es­sary to get these tracked vehi­cles to where they are needed. It is an excel­lent paper, well researched and pro­vides some useful insights. I highly rec­om­mend read­ing it, if you have not done so already.

Tornado SNew Russian 9K515 Tornado‑S mul­ti­ple launch rocket system with 300 mm rock­ets is one of the most pow­er­ful sys­tems of kind in ser­vice. It is report­ed to have a range of 120 – 200 km. 

Artillery capa­bil­i­ties pro­vide us with highly scal­able resources suit­able for a range of mis­sions, from small scale inter­ven­tions, such as evac­u­at­ing UK / allied cit­i­zens, to larger scale counter-ter­ror­ism oper­a­tions, lim­it­ed con­flicts against near-peer and non-state actors, to full scale peer-to-peer war fight­ing. Expensive pre­ci­sion guided muni­tions with small or even inert war­heads can be used to min­i­mize col­lat­er­al damage where required. Different types of pre­ci­sion guided rounds pro­vide anti-armour capa­bil­i­ties, but as Russian activ­i­ties in Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine have shown, a large ton­nage of tra­di­tion­al high explo­sive still has an impor­tant role to play.

So, spend­ing our meagre budget on improv­ing our fires capa­bil­i­ties does much to pro­vide us with a set of tools that can be lever­aged across a range of oper­a­tional types. The RUSI paper pro­vides inter­est­ing detail on the Russian use of artillery and rocket war­heads that are essen­tial­ly clus­ter muni­tions with large num­bers of small multi-pur­pose hollow charge / frag­men­ta­tion bomblets, and whether we should repu­di­ate inter­na­tion­al treaties that ban such muni­tions, so that we  have them should we ever need them, specif­i­cal­ly to defend against Russian forces with supe­ri­or num­bers of tanks, self-pro­pelled how­itzers and MLRS sys­tems. However with­out devel­op­ing or putting new types of ammu­ni­tion into pro­duc­tion, we could sub­stan­tial­ly improve our capa­bil­i­ties with pur­chas­es off-the-shelf ammu­ni­tion types.

BOFORS StrixBofors Strix IR guided top attack 120mm mortar round.

At the short­est range, the Bofors Strix IR guided top attack 120mm mortar round, used by the Swedish Army since 1994, pro­vides a useful indi­rect anti-armour capa­bil­i­ty out 4.5 km for a stan­dard round (or 7 km for an extend­ed-range ver­sion). During the Cold War, BAE Systems devel­oped the Merlin 81mm Millimetric Wave (MMW) radar guided round, which did not make into ser­vice, being some­what ahead of its time. I don’t know if the Strix is still in pro­duc­tion for Sweden, but given MBDA’s suc­cess in devel­op­ing the Brimstone mis­siles MMW seeker, and since as Bofors is a BAE Systems com­pa­ny, per­haps the time is right to invest in an upgrade?

From the same com­pa­ny, and used during oper­a­tions in Mali by France, is the BONUS 155 mm anti-armour artillery round. https://www.baesystems.com/en/product/155-bonus With a range of up to 35km, it is not exact­ly a long-range round, but its guided sub-muni­tion pro­jec­tiles are far more useful against an enemy armoured for­ma­tion, than stan­dard HE blast / frag­men­ta­tion effects. Although, as shown by cold war test­ing by the US Army, the amount of damage that can be caused by 152mm Russian / 155mm NATO HE rounds should not be dis­count­ed. The prob­lem is we are not likely to have enough guns to pro­vide the weight of fire needed. Even so, an ini­tial salvo from one bat­tery, might damage active pro­tec­tion system and com­mu­ni­ca­tion equip­ment anten­nas before the BONUS sub-muni­tions start falling. Standard HE rounds ben­e­fit from a Precision Guidance Kit (PGK), a nose-mount­ed fuse assem­bly that includes a GPS receiv­er, an iner­tial nav­i­ga­tion system and guid­ance fins. Even in a GPS denied envi­ron­ment (highly likely in a peer-to-peer sce­nario) the iner­tial nav­i­ga­tion capa­bil­i­ty pro­vides increased accu­ra­cy.

Screenshot 2020-04-21 at 17.00.35BAE Systems / Bofors 155 mm BONUS ammu­ni­tion. (Source: BAE Systems)

For the longest ranges from tube artillery, some­thing along the lines of the OTO-Melara Vulcano 155mm round with iner­tial, GPS and SAL ter­mi­nal guid­ance is avail­able, and would be useful for pre­ci­sion strikes against static tar­gets. https://www.leonardocompany.com/en/products/vulcano-155mm

Even with a new long-bar­relled 155mm / L/52 gun-on-a-truck (GOAT) such as the BAE Systems Archer on a MAN truck, or the KMW RCH155 module on a Boxer, get­ting long-range fires on target in sup­port of a Strike Brigade is likely to require a wheeled HIMARS type MLRS. The M31 Guided MLRS Unitary war­head round used by the UK in Afghanistan is nick­named “the 70km sniper” and has great util­i­ty in the counter-insur­gency role. In a peer to peer con­flict, how­ev­er, the GPS nav­i­ga­tion system is likely to be jammed, while the HE round is less effec­tive. The US is devel­op­ing a ver­sion of the M31 called the GMLRS-ER, or Extended Range, with a capa­bil­i­ty to reach out to 150km, this would be extreme­ly useful in the con­text of the RUSI Future Fires paper’s con­cept of a well-defend­ed artillery posi­tion pro­vid­ing fire sup­port to Strike Brigade com­pa­ny-sized battle groups as they con­duct oper­a­tions deep into enemy ter­ri­to­ry. However, if we don’t want to break our com­mit­ment to the ban on clus­ter-muni­tions, we would need these rock­ets to be fitted with the ‘Alternative Warhead’ devel­oped by Lockheed Martin and Alliant Techsystems. This AW is designed to have equal or greater effect against mate­r­i­al and per­son­nel tar­gets than a Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition (DIPCM) war­head, while leav­ing no unex­plod­ed ordi­nance on the bat­tle­field. A 150 km range AW-equipped rocket for MLRS/ HIMARS would pro­vide the required counter-bat­tery effects against Russian MLRS bat­ter­ies, as well as the cross-range abil­i­ty to sup­port mul­ti­ple battle groups with counter bat­tery fires against Russia’s numer­i­cal­ly supe­ri­or 152mm how­itzer bat­ter­ies.

M142 HIMARSThe Lockheed-Martin High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) is a wheeled MLRS that can be air­lift­ed by a C‑130 Hercules air­craft. In addi­tion to firing G/MLRS rock­ets with an increased 150 km range, it will also be able to fire the new LM Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) that can reach 499 km. 

The RUSI paper also notes that the Russian way of waging artillery-based war requires con­sid­er­able logis­tics, mul­ti­ple tonnes of 152 mm ammu­ni­tion, often deliv­ered by train to a logis­tics hub. An exist­ing system that might be well suited to this kind of target is the SAAB Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb (SDB). This basi­cal­ly utilis­es the DIPCM war­head from an M26 rocket and attach­es an adapter for the Boeing SDB 250lb guided glide bomb. The rocket launch­es the SDB to alti­tude where it opens its wings and assumes is glide bomb pro­file, reach­ing tar­gets at dis­tances of up to 150km. The SDB has a semi-active laser (SAL) seeker, so, if a nearby drone can illu­mi­nate the target, it becomes a pre­ci­sion strike tool, again adding a util­i­ty in lim­it­ed con­flict sce­nar­ios. A future ground-launched ver­sion of the UK’s SPEAR 3 jet pow­ered ‘mini-cruise mis­sile’ would have an even longer range, but would require us to spend on R&D, where­as the GL-SDB has been devel­oped, tested and is avail­able now.

So, if we were to invest in a 120mm mortar for Boxer, in a Boxer-mount­ed or truck-mount­ed 155mm gun system to replace the AS90 and added wheeled HIMARS launch­ers, there are sev­er­al exist­ing muni­tions types, and a number in final-stages of devel­op­ment new ammu­ni­tion types that would do much to address UK fires weak­ness­es out­lined by the RUSI Future Fires paper.

Boxer RUAG 120 mm mortar

To sum­ma­rize so far, invest­ing in indi­rect fires, with three 3 – 4 dif­fer­ent range capa­bil­i­ties (or Battalion, Brigade, Division and Corps assets) brings a huge poten­tial uplift in gen­er­al close fire sup­port, anti-armour, counter bat­tery and long-range pre­ci­sion guided capa­bil­i­ties. I would argue that all of these capa­bil­i­ties are far more valu­able, across a far greater range of scenario’s than a small number of high-end MBTs.

However, the RUSI paper also sug­gests that “a bat­tery of anti-tank guided mis­siles per bat­tle­group” is required. UK doc­trine and CONOPS has, right through the cold war, insist­ed on an anti-tank “over watch” capa­bil­i­ty rather than equip­ping indi­vid­ual IFVs with turret or RWS-mount­ed ATGW launch­ers. But, for a Strike Brigade with no tanks or wheeled assault guns / mobile gun sys­tems, this may need to change. The RUSI paper notes US / UK research sug­gests that, for a NATO mech­a­nized infantry brigade to take-on a Russian Motor-Rile Brigade, it would need 108 Javelin launch­ers. Perhaps it is time to mix and match infantry with RWS-mount­ed ATGMs and cav­al­ry units with longer range over­watch ATGMs?  Equipping Boxer Mechanised Infantry Vehicles with Javelin, and Ajax Reconnaissance vehi­cles with a ground-launched ver­sion of Brimstone 3 would meet this require­ment. At the last DSEI, MBDA showed con­cepts of what appeared to be a stretched 178mm Brimstone-derived mis­sile, with 8 con­tain­ers on the back of a Boxer.

AAA Boxer LRPF copyBoxer with Long-Range Precision Fires con­cept by MBDA. This is a ground-launched ver­sion of Brimstone 2 or 3 with 40+ km range. Such a mis­sile would pro­vide the Army with a superb beyond-line-of-sight ATGM capa­bil­i­ty. A sim­i­lar but less capa­ble “over­watch” capa­bil­i­ty was lost when the Swingfire anti-tank mis­sile was retired. (Image: MBDA)

The exist­ing Brimstone 2 can reach 40+ km from a heli­copter launch, so sug­gest­ing per­haps 24 to 30km from a ground launch­er does not seem to be over-reach­ing. A salvo of 32 ground launched Brimstone 2 from a bat­tery of 4 launch­ers, in autonomous MMW oper­at­ing mode, is equiv­a­lent to a strike by four Typhoons, but taking place within an A2/AD inte­grat­ed air defence bubble, it’s really going to ruin the day of a Russian Brigade com­man­der.

A “direct fire” ana­logue to the ATGW over­watch capa­bil­i­ty, Javelin on Boxer RWS mounts could be mixed with the less expen­sive Thales LMM. This is a light­weight super­son­ic mis­sile with a 4km+ range (8km from a heli­copter) and 3kg dual-effect shaped charge/blast-frag­men­ta­tion war­head. It should be more than capa­ble of neu­tral­is­ing BMPs and BTRs, leav­ing Javelin for deal­ing with actual tanks.

In con­clu­sion, it is impor­tant to empha­sise that the Main Battle Tank is not nec­es­sar­i­ly obso­lete or of no tac­ti­cal util­i­ty. However, in a resource-con­strained envi­ron­ment, that’s likely to get worse before it gets better, and where the British Army may need to brace itself for anoth­er round of cuts, the cash we do allo­cate to new or refreshed capa­bil­i­ties must be well spent. Almost two decades of counter-insur­gency war­fare have seen both the Royal Armoured Corps and Royal Artillery starved of fund­ing. Personally, I do not believe it is worth spend­ing £1.5 bil­lion on a Challenger 3 upgrade. While it might be more sen­si­ble to acquire a European MBT (Leopard 2A7V) or a US one (M1A3 Abrams), per­haps we should leave other European NATO states to con­cen­trate on heavy tracked armour, while we con­cen­trate on wheeled Strike Brigades with potent indi­rect fires capa­bil­i­ties? A strate­gic capa­bil­i­ty that can self-deploy any­where it is required in the defence of con­ti­nen­tal European NATO Alliance part­ners  (such as an Article 5 defence of the Baltic states) would be much more useful a capa­bil­i­ty for high-end, peer-to-peer war­fare. It would also offer util­i­ty in “out of area” global deploy­ments in counter-insur­gency oper­a­tions or lim­it­ed con­flict roles to counter rogue states. Modern artillery has far greater util­i­ty than a 70-tonne MBT, and could be used effec­tive­ly in a much broad­er range of sce­nar­ios, offer­ing better value for money, as well as increased oper­a­tional effec­tive­ness. The RUSI report sug­gests a bat­tery of ATGM mis­siles and a bat­tery of 120mm mor­tars to sup­port each bat­tle­group, plus a reg­i­ment of 24 155mm self-pro­pelled how­itzers at brigade level, or 72 guns at divi­sion­al level, sup­port­ed by a reg­i­ment (24−32) MLRS launch­ers. I might quib­ble about the mix, replac­ing some of the guns at the divi­sion­al sup­port group with more HIMARS type MLRS launch­ers, due to their range advan­tage. Whatever we do, it may be worth invest­ing in new muni­tions that pro­vide increased flex­i­bil­i­ty, accu­ra­cy and target effect:

  • 120mm mortar with Strix – anti-armour effect to 5 – 7 km
  • Ground launched Brimstone 2 – anti-armour effect to 24 – 28 km
  • 155mm BONUS ATGW rounds – anti-armour effect to 35 km
  • 155mm base-bleed rounds with Precision Guidance Kits – gen­er­al fire sup­port to 40+ km
  • 155mm VULCANO long-range pre­ci­sion guided rounds ‑pre­ci­sion fires to 70 km
  • M31 GMLRS with Alternative Warhead – counter bat­tery fires against SPG and MLRS bat­ter­ies, long range sup­port fires to 70 km
  • GMLRS-ER with Alternative Warhead – counter bat­tery fires against long range MLRS, anti-A2AD against radars and SAM bat­ter­ies to 150 km
  • Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb – long range pre­ci­sion fires against high value tar­gets to 150 km

We may not be able to invest in all of the above muni­tion types, but we can def­i­nite­ly invest in some – if we forego the expect­ed £1.5 bil­lion cost of an exquis­ite upgrade for an insignif­i­cant number (150+) of Challenger 2 MBTs. What makes this dis­cus­sion rel­e­vant and impor­tant is that UK-based MBTs are unlike­ly to deploy quick­ly enough to Europe to con­tribute a deci­sive effect.

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