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

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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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