General George S. Patton Jr. said, “I don’t have to tell you who won the war. You know the artillery did it.
Patton was obviously exaggerating when he made this statement. Nevertheless, he knew that without artillery, the United States Army would have lost the war in Europe.
And, like Patton, Marine infantrymen – especially those who have experienced the horrors of artillery bombardment – also know the importance of tube artillery.
I do not know of a single retired infantryman or gunner who does not support the retention of sufficient cannon artillery in the Marine Corps force structure.
History teaches us that the wisdom of experienced veterans counts. We ignore their advice and recommendations at our peril.
After consulting with a number of my retired artillery colleagues, distinguished officers who supported the Marine Infantry in close combat in Vietnam and in Operation Desert Storm, I wish to share our thoughts on why cannon artillery is unique and why replacing it almost entirely with rockets and missiles is a huge mistake. I intend to do this by drawing attention to the versatility, lethality, flexibility, and distinctive advantages of cannon artillery.
Marine Corps Force Design 2030 is on track to recklessly emasculate cannon artillery across all divisions of the Marine Corps. Battles won in the past may be lost in the future. Without sufficient tube artillery, the Marine Corps runs the risk of losing hotly contested battles.
These are strong words and perhaps incendiary for some. But, they are consistent with Thomas Paine’s sage advice: “He who dare not offend cannot be honest.”
Cannon artillery is not just a force multiplier. It is truly the only all-weather, immediately on call and durable fire support available to maneuver forces in “all climates and all locations”.
Consider the following: cannon artillery and rocket artillery are not the same. They are complementary. They are not interchangeable. Rockets cannot replace direct support cannon artillery.
Rockets are best employed in the deep struggle for fitness and for the ban. Cannon artillery is essential in close combat to facilitate maneuver and for suppression and continued fire support, capabilities ill-suited or impossible for rockets.
Any Marine who has endured continuous artillery bombardment knows that prolonged exposure shatters their will to fight. Rockets hit and stop.
Mortar fire is also short lived, as the shells have to be pushed forward by the Marines. But cannon artillery is supported by trucks loaded with projectiles that can pound for long durations.
Cannon artillery provides maneuver forces with a flexibility not inherent in longer range and exponentially more expensive rockets, which necessarily limits availability for all but high priority fire support missions. Additionally, cannon artillery provides infantry with direct, indirect, and continuous fire support in terrain that is not conducive to long-range rocket fire. Urban, jungle, and mountain environments are prime examples.
Cannon artillery also provides maneuver forces with ammunition not available in rockets, such as illumination, colored smoke, and white phosphorus. These shells are always needed by the infantry, whether they are closing in or in contact with the enemy.
And one area that should not be overlooked is the distinct advantage of cannon artillery as a level of effort or, in other words, a force-saving system. The lethality, accuracy and affordability of cannon artillery makes continuous fire support, target marking, suppression or even reconnaissance by fire possible.
These types of missions are not feasible with rockets, the cost per turn of which will always limit availability.
Take for example the fighting in Ukraine. We have seen estimates that the Ukrainian forces were spending between 6,000 and 8,000 artillery shells every day.
The same estimates tell us that Russian forces spend four to six times that amount. These numbers are far beyond the ability of rockets to sustain.
Force Design 2030 is correct that the Marine Corps needs more rocket and missile artillery for deep combat and long-range interdiction, which complement aviation to shape the battlefield.
Force Design 2030 is flawed by gutting cannon artillery.
To maneuver on all types of terrain and get close to the enemy, you need cannon artillery.
One battalion for each Marine regiment for direct fire support has been and will continue to be the minimum requirement.
The usual relationship between the artillery battalion and the supported infantry regiment is a combat multiplier that builds trust and confidence that an ad hoc approach to task organization does not.
Remember Napoleon’s maxim that “morale is to the physical as three is to one”.
Relationships matter. Culture matters. Future battlefields do not lessen the need for cannon artillery or the need for habitual relationships. Marine Corps artillery must remain capable of providing close, continuous, and accurate fire support across the full spectrum of conflict and in all environments.
The Marine Corps cannon artillery is at a crossroads.
The future of cannon artillery, which is inextricably linked to combat and victory on any battlefield, hangs in the balance.
Now is the time for fellow gunners, especially those on active duty, to make their voices heard. The silence of young gunners and infantry counterparts in Leatherneck Magazine and the Marine Corps Gazette was deafening.
The next few years could be our last best chance to pull cannon artillery out of the abyss.
I want to thank Majors Gens. Ron Richard, Pat Howard and Les Palm and Brig. General Mike Hayes for their contribution.
Brig. General Jerry McAbee (retired) is a career artillery officer. He has extensive command and staff experience at all levels of the Marine Corps Artillery. He is a former commanding officer of the 11th Marine Regiment.
Have an opinion?
This article is an editorial and as such the views expressed are those of the author. 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.
Want more prospects like this sent to you directly? Subscribe to receive our Comment & Opinion newsletter once a week.