Foss Unglossed on tracks versus wheels
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This four-part special DSEI Opinion Newsletter series is presented in partnership with Otokar
Foss Unglossed:
For comprehensive insurance, it has to be tracked
By Chris F Foss
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of chairing a conference in person for the first time in what seems like a very long time, but it also felt like we are still stuck in the same debates when it comes to artillery.

What made me think that was a conversation I had with a very experienced retired US general over our lunchtime chicken supreme.

This highly experienced professional believed that we have somewhat lost our way in understanding what modern armed forces need artillery for and what’s needed to make that possible on future battlefields.

To some extent, I believe recent operational experiences have clouded the debate, and we have lost the understanding of where artillery fits in a high-end conflict (a seemingly remote possibility but one that ultimately armies have to prepare for).

In high-end conflicts, artillery is the only capability able to provide area suppressive fires 24/7 – something that much more glamourous airpower cannot achieve effectively.

That takes a lot of ammunition and resupply and, as my lunchtime companion pointed out, it also means being able to survive long enough to provide the service – in his opinion, that means the ability to ‘shoot and scoot’.

So what does that mean for artillery? For one, it needs to be big enough and heavy enough to carry enough rounds to splash down-range. For another, it means being able to ‘shoot and scoot’ whatever the terrain.

To put things in less colloquial terms, the inescapable facts are that tracked self-propelled artillery systems, although much heavier, have greater cross-country mobility, have lower ground pressure, provide their occupants with a higher level of protection against not only NBC attack but also small arms fire and shell splinters. Also, as the crew do not have to leave the system, they can come into action and carry out a fire mission more rapidly.
For me, that means that wheeled self-propelled artillery vehicles, let alone towed field artillery (and to be clear in the rest of this article, whether wheeled or tracked, I’m referring to self-propelled systems), can’t make the grade for high-end warfighting. Yet all the experience in the lower-intensity operations that are currently the norm on the face of it prove that wheeled systems can do what’s required.

But that loses sight of the fact that armies should be built for the exception rather than the every day. They are insurance policies against what are hopefully the most unlikely events.
Those who argue that artillery is now about using small numbers of guns providing precision effects lose sight of that need for the ultimate insurance policy. Wheeled systems and precision munitions have their place but as a subset of the broader toolset of artillery.

To be effective, the field artillery needs continuous investment, not only in the actual weapon but also in the ammunition, resupply vehicles, target acquisition, and training elements.
Unfortunately, the backwards and forwards of the current debates and trends stop that from happening. There is often an ad-hoc approach for artillery as different elements come under various programmes and budget lines.

To see the effect of that, you just have to look at the US Army. It started the ambitious Crusader 155mm tracked self-propelled artillery system programme, which, if fielded, would have been the most advanced system of its type.

This was cancelled, and funds invested in the very ambitious Future Combat System which included the tracked 155mm Non-Line of Sight Cannon and 120mm Non-Line of Sight Mortar, but these were subsequently cancelled, as was the whole FCS.

Today, the US Army is investing in yet more updates to the M109A6 Paladin to bring it up to the M109A7 standard followed by the 155mm/58cal Extended Range Artillery Cannon project which, when fielded, will provide the US Army with a step-change in capability, especially in the critical area of range.

I am not saying that countries shouldn’t be ambitious in their approach to artillery. They should have the courage of their convictions and not let short term needs and faddy trends let them lose sight of what artillery provides as a unique capability in high-end warfare.

On a final note there are those who argue that tracked artillery is more expensive, yes, that has to be considered. Still, to push the insurance analogy further, there is a big difference in price (and potential cost) between third-party and comprehensive car insurance.

That’s why I’d like to see armed forces taking out the right insurance policy and investing in tracked artillery.

I'd love to hear what you think about this newsletter series. Let me know by sending me an email here!

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