Artillery types

Debunking the myth that long-range fire can replace sea gun artillery

Force Design 2030, as currently designed, deprives Marine Corps infantry of close, persistent, all-weather artillery fire support.

The Marine Corps is reducing its cannon artillery (M777) from 21 batteries to seven while increasing its rocket and missile capability. This will achieve an objective strength of seven gun batteries, seven rocket batteries (HIMARS) and 14 missile batteries.

These adjustments favor deep combat over close combat.

To adhere to these reforms, it must be concluded that: rockets and missiles can replace cannon artillery and that direct close combat support artillery is no longer necessary. This erroneous logic draws the inevitable conclusion that the marine infantry no longer fulfills its traditional role of locating, approaching and destroying the enemy in combat.

In a recent webinar from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the US Naval Institute, General Eric Smith, Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps, defended the advantages of rockets over cannon artillery.

According to Smith, “Artillery is one thing, capability is long range shots and so we focus on long range shots, and longer range shots are better.”

He also claimed that cannon artillery lacked the survivability of rocket systems due to detection, attack by roving systems, and slow travel times.

The myopic emphasis on long-range fires runs counter to the Marine Corps operational concept of Marine Corps doctrinal publication 1-0, Operations, of “single battle” (deep, close, and rear operations) and promotes a fundamental and fatal misunderstanding on the operational level of the war-struggle.

Battles are characterized by the integration and shaping of deep and decisive close fires. Each weapon system represents a complementary capability with rockets and missiles ideal for deep critical shaping and cannons for decisive close combat.

Rockets and missiles are limited by minimum range, trajectory, terrain requirements, and limited ammo types. They cannot be used interchangeably with guns in close quarters operations.

In a perfect world, all enemy forces are detected and destroyed in deep combat before encountering friendly forces. In the real world, intelligence and target acquisition are flawed, communications links fail, weapons don’t hit targets, and commanders don’t always make the right decisions.

No matter how robust the system we design, we will never destroy all long range targets. The massive expenditure on artillery ammunition in the ongoing war in Ukraine demonstrates that even with advances in weapon range and target acquisition, fire alone is indecisive.

In March and April 2003, during the attack on Baghdad, despite a considerable effort with army aviation and rockets, there were still many enemy forces that had to be engaged in close combat with ammunition fired by cannons.

The 1st Marine Division handled over 1,900 counter-battery radars located enemy weapon positions in close combat.

Against an outclassed enemy force, three artillery battalions (nine batteries) were often required to support the single-headed maneuver regiment.

Seven gun batteries are simply insufficient to sustain large-scale operations with continuous, reactive fire in peer-to-peer combat.

In the close combat of a single battle, a minimum of one cannon artillery battalion to support each engaged maneuver regiment is required. Anything less runs an unacceptable risk of losing close combat and the absolute certainty of increased casualties.

Smith’s assertion that rocket systems are tougher than gun systems warrants further analysis.

Rockets and cannons are also susceptible to electronic, acoustic, thermal and visual detection. When fired, fuze systems have significant acoustic and visual signatures, making them more detectable by visual observation than cannons. Countless photos and videos are available that demonstrate this.

It’s no secret that HIMARS has to shoot and spin for survival due to his signature shot. The idea that advanced long-range, spotting, or sensing munitions cannot detect and attack rocket launchers is counterfactual. Drones are capable of targeting both cannon and rocket artillery, the assumption that drones will remain invulnerable to countermeasures has been proven wrong, as evidenced by Ukraine.

The Deputy Commander of Marine Corps Rocket and Cannon Travel Time Comparison is a red herring.

Movement times for artillery and rockets are the same in the training and readiness manuals.

These times are often beaten employing innovative tactics, techniques and procedures by well trained and cohesive crews.

Claiming that rockets can move faster than guns by comparing HIMARS to towed M777 guns ignores two decades of mounted trucks around the world artillery developments.

The main requirement for the development of the M777 was to limit its weight to 10,000 pounds for external lifting by the MV-22. This restriction also limited the M777’s ability to fire emerging ammunition at longer ranges without increasing its weight.

If the new tactical imperative is survivability through movement, there are truck-mounted C-130 transportable gun systems that move as fast or faster than a HIMARS and capable of firing ammunition at long ranges. The Chinese stimulation threat and our Japanese partner have truck-mounted artillery systems in their inventories.

Force Design 2030’s sole focus on the Chinese stimulus threat jeopardizes the Marine Corps’ unique battle concept and operational support in other theaters.

The Marine Corps must expand its openness to accommodate the many advances in cannon technology that continue to make cannon artillery an indispensable contributor to the modern battlefield.

Before we lose our critical gun capability, we recommend a re-examination of the assumptions that led to the elimination of a highly mobile close support artillery system.

As it stands, the decision drawn from Force Design simulations and war games was predetermined. The claim that seven gun batteries combined with seven HIMARS batteries are sufficient to support a Navy expeditionary force engaged in sustained operations has no operational basis.

The Marine Corps is best served by maintaining an adequate inventory of one cannon artillery battalion for each infantry regiment to provide the support our infantry expect when they must cross the last hundred yards to close in and destroy enemy or to repel that enemy in an attack on sea forces.

Replacing cannon artillery with rockets risks the lives of Marines and the success of close operations.

Colonel Stephen W. Baird (retired) was a career naval gunnery officer. He had extensive artillery and operational level experience, including commanding a direct support artillery battalion, deputy chief of staff of G-5 plans for I Marine Expeditionary Force, chief of Staff of the 1st Marine Division and the Chief of Staff of Marine Corps Forces Central Command during the Iraqi operation. Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Colonel Michael P. Marletto (retired) was a career naval gunnery officer. He had extensive artillery and operational level experience, including commanding a direct support artillery battalion, commanding an artillery regiment―11th Marines―during the attack on Baghdad and the Deputy Chief of Staff for G-3 Operations for I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) in Iraq. .

Colonel Timothy C. Wells (retired) was a career naval infantry officer. He had extensive infantry and operational level experience, including commanding a Marine Corps Embassy Security Region, commanding the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, the future G-3 Operations Officer / G-5 Plans Officer for the I Marine Expeditionary Force and G-3 Deputy Chief of Staff for Marine Corps Forces Central Command in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

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This article is an editorial and as such the views expressed are those of the authors. If you would like to react, or if you would like to submit an editorial on your behalf, please email Andrea Scott, editor of the Marine Corps Times.

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