Contributor: Hugo has 14 years experience at Command and the Staff across operational and capability branches.
On 11th July 2014 the Ukrainian 79th Airmobile Brigade was subjected to a 3 (and a bit) minute bombardment by (probably) Russian Army artillery rocket systems fired from inside Russia. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry admitted to 19 killed and 93 wounded in the attack, though other sources claimed up to 36 fatalities. No figures were released on the number of vehicles lost, but a survivor reported that a battalion of the 79th Airmobile Brigade had been almost entirely destroyed.
That’s a real demonstration of capability. The Russian Army’s Western Military District have two divisions of these things, that’s more than 20 launchers. I have no idea how many were used in this attack, but it probably wasn’t all of them. So should we be really concerned over Russia’s ability to destroy targets at reach? We’ve really underinvested in artillery through more than a decade of counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by some really significant cuts. Are we now short on capability? If there was a ‘conventional’ conflict between NATO and Russia would we lose?
In this first part of the “Rant Trilogy” I aim to address this conventional threat to the land forces by peer state actors like Russia…
The rhetoric is that in a land centric campaign Russian forces will win. They have more guns that fire more variants of rounds further than ours and can be cued for anti-battery fires faster than ours. Is that true? On paper the Tornado-G has a range of 40km, GMLRS (of which the Royal Artillery has 42 – again on paper) have a range of 70km. You might ask questions about reliability, the cost of the rounds and training etc, but is Russia not facing these challenges too, if not more so given the size of their economy and their 800 000 soldiers? You could even say that ours are pin-point accurate and therefore not an area weapon, but they used to be and it wouldn’t take much effort (albeit significant pennies) to convert them back? I’ll come back to that…
Let’s assume that rhetoric is true. Are we considering this from a too land centric focus? Do we need to beat massed artillery with massed artillery? One frequently posed position is that we are not thinking ‘jointly’ enough. We shouldn’t be concerned about a lack of long range artillery because we have F35 (or will do, one day) and UAVs and they can bomb stuff. But with the proliferation of GBAD, is that a good idea? Someone in light blue might tell you that it’s ok because the F35 is the most sophisticated air craft in the world and will probably beat all the GBAD. Probably?! Is that enough assurance?
So how do we reduce the cost? If we know that the result of them firing loads of rockets at us is pain we don’t want, we need to stop them firing the weapons. Let’s assume we are in conflict and therefore the Sun Tzu approach isn’t an option. We’re now into the realms of a pre-emptive strike. If ‘we’ represent a threat to Russia, and Russia looks at threat in the same way as us, then they’ll be looking at capability and intent. The ability to destroy a battery of Russian artillery exists. Cruise missiles, Reaper, SF, F35 – there are options that would work. The missing thing then is intent. Or in this case, permissions. Would ‘we’ (the military) get authority to destroy a load of Russian military kit before they fired at us? It would need to be based on pretty solid intelligence that they intended to fire it and that we knew exactly where it was.
Ukrainian army troops have reportedly identified certain types of drones whose appearance inevitably foretells rocket artillery strikes from Russian and Russian-allied forces. Pretty good indication to me.
This also assumes that Russia want the fight more than we do. I’ve mentioned the cost of a war in terms of people and stuff. But that all costs money. Russia’s economy is not huge. All this from a country with an economy “smaller that Italy”? Well for starters that’s rubbish. Russia might have an economy 1/12 the size of the US, but it’s much cheaper to build the exact same thing in Russia than the states due to labour costs, taxes etc. Cheaper yes, but not 1/12 of the cost. Even if that is taken into consideration Russia has the 6th biggest economy in the world. Back to the human cost, their Army of 800 000 is largely conscription soldiers who only serve a year and have very basic training. The US Army has half a million professional soldiers. Russia would run out of money (which equals stuff) and trained people faster than NATO.
So we’d probably win.
Next time I’ll look at whether the Air Force actually want to be focussed on Interdiction, or whether they’d rather bomb more strategic stuff that coincidently can’t shoot back. In which case their air superiority will be somewhere else. If the Russians decide to bomb us, do we have the GBAD to deter them?