The C4ISR future for big guns: Connecting artillery networks

Contributor:  Richard de Silva
Posted:  05/31/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Tags:   artillery

Operation Unified Protector and ISAF’s operations in Afghanistan have highlighted the difficulties faced in fielding C4ISR capabilities and of interoperating within a coalition environment. As artillery operations look set to continue to play a significant role in future theatres, the need to match intelligence to precision targeting is topping the list of immediate requirements…

One of the most interesting debates at the Future Artillery event this year focused on whether the forward observer (FO) would be needed for much longer in the field with the emerging use of unmanned aerial systems to provide birds-eye surveillance from the comparative safety of the sky.

In just one example of international development, use of UAV surveillance in this field is already set to see action with India’s armed forces following last year’s successful trials of its homegrown Nishant UAV, which has been undergoing long-term development tests and provides target tracking and correction of fire. Israel, the United States, Russia, and other big defence spenders are all benefiting from replacing the human factor with the mechanical.

Even so, general consensus at the forum seemed to be that FOs would still be required in the long-run as there are few sources of frontline information as tactically dependable as the soldier on the ground, despite the immediate dangers this will always present.

However, the discussion did highlight the point that the battlefield is something of a different world to the traditional theatre and gunnery operations is just one of the areas that militaries must adapt. As Filipino commander Colonel Emmanuel Martin neatly explained: “Artillery is becoming more complicated and our response to the environment must therefore become more sophisticated.”

The Commander of the UK Royal Artillery, Brigadier Richard Haldenby, emphasised just how important the step towards a ‘new age’ of artillery is if armies are to remain effective.

“We’ve learnt a number of things over our experiences in the last few years,” he told Defence IQ.

“One of them is the power of networked systems. Our observers and our people in Afghanistan have access to an unprecedented range of sensors, from UAVs, from mast-based systems, balloon-based systems, and indeed the feed from fast jets. They often bring us full-motion video, but also other information about what’s going on in the environment. I think one of the things we’ve really learnt to do is cross-cue those systems between those that have a very wide view to more detailed narrow view systems, and indeed to weapons systems.”

“The ability to cross-cue is perhaps the skill we knew we needed but we didn’t quite know how to get. Actually, it’s our young people who operate these systems who have learnt how to exploit it the best. I think the challenge that now comes is how we adapt it to manoeuvre warfare.”

“Helmand is a very static environment from the point of view of where we mount these things from. If we were in a fast-flowing manoeuvre battle of the future, how would we do this? Would it be masts on top of vehicles? Would it be optics mounted on vehicles? Would it be some other persistent surveillance system? I don’t know, but what I know is that if you can’t wire these things together, you’re going to face immediate problems with bandwidth and with being detectable on the battlefield. I think it’s not just about exploiting our own networked systems but about being able to exploit the enemy’s network and our ability to target that network.”

It is not just high-spend defence forces like the UK taking a new tact in gunnery. John Griffiths, commander of the Chilean Artillery School, outlined the broad approach in South America.

“We are working to build a force that can deal with the traditional threats as well as the non-traditional threats, and to have the capacity to interact with other armies.”

“One of the questions that has arisen is who drives artillery at the moment? Technology or the capacity of the commander? I would say both.”

This is where Canadian National Defence Force director of land requirements, Lieutenant Colonel Craig Landry, has identified a potential conflict of interest in the rapid universal modernisation of networked artillery systems.

“My experience comes from a recent deployment in Afghanistan,” said Landry.

“If you go into any operations centre in Afghanistan, you’re going to see flat screen TVs on the walls and on those TVs are direct feeds, showing coverage of possible targets out in the field. So my question is one of trust and culture. How do you discipline leaders at a very high level – 3 star, 2 star generals – to not want to reach down and manage issues that really should be sorted out at a tactical level? Just because you can enable something through the power of a networked system, doesn’t mean you should necessarily exercise that.”

This issue is of particular concern to Landry as his nation begins its journey to full artillery digitization, based on its Digital Gun Management System (DGMS).

“Our first step is a light-weight towed howitzer project. We’re procuring 37 M777s, and in the process of doing that, we’re digitizing the link between the gun and the command post unit to compute the firing data. That’s a big change for us, and it’s not just a change technically speaking, it’s a change in culture. It’s not where we do business. A lot of people don’t trust the technology, and the expertise is not necessarily built up.

“The experts tend to be the young guys – 17 or 18 year old kids – they have the skill set and the leaders don’t, so there’s some discomfort there as well. But as we have success going forward, people will gain confidence and learn how to leverage the technology.

“After people begin to trust the system, we need network administrators. This digitization sets up almost like a computer local area network (LAN) and we don’t have that expertise resonant within the artillery community, so we’ve got to build that. It’s going to take time. I’m thinking in excess of a year.”

“There are lessons we can draw from others, but for the most part we have our own unique configurations. We’re using distinct equipment from that the Australians or Americans are using, so we can borrow some lessons, but for the most part we’re on our own.”

Efforts to introduce the M777 may be of interest to forces in Saudi Arabia, who have announced that it is to equip new artillery, including two M777 regiments, and packaged with the US-standard C4I Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS).

AFATDS automates the matching of targets to weapons, as well as the planning, coordination and control of all fire support assets. Most notably, it allows interoperation between other services, as well as across multi-national weapons systems, as successfully proven in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Integration is the key point,” confirmed Landry.

“We’ve proven our system works in a lab environment but out in the field – using the Canadian land command system – is the challenge. It’s using the bits and bites in our own unique system, and we’re struggling with that.”

Of the lessons that can be learned from progressive allies is how to deal with outside pressures during the transition phase.

“We have done the implementation process in terms of fire control systems, so our battalions right now are fully computerised with TOPAZ,” said Colonel Jaroslaw Wierzcholski, chief of Poland’s Missile and Artillery Forces, referring to the Army’s new C4I capability.

TOPAZ provides every command post with a computer terminal and dedicated software, allowing commands to be delivered in a fully digital manner, dispensing with spoken orders.

Importantly, the system is fully modular and adaptable for a variety of artillery systems. It can be deployed on “virtually any tracked, wheeled and towed gun or mortars”, provided the relevant ballistic data has been input.

“For the near future we will look for a UAV to provide information from the perspective of close operations.”

Like Landry, Wierzcholski understands the impact that changes in the fundamental way of operating has on the people managing new systems, as well as the benefit of working within a joint force environment. Training artillery personnel is therefore as riddled with obstacles as it is with opportunities.

“You must be aware that there was a huge reduction of Polish Armed Forces. We downsized from 400,000 troops to 100,000 active and 20,000 in reserve, and starting from 2010, we have had no conscription. Since we have transitioned to a fully professional army, we have a training cycle of three years between basic and advanced, and every three years we change the tasks and purposes of that training.”

“But joint force training is very expensive. Based on our experience from the Iraq mission and the ISAF mission, we have been adapting our training facilities located in Poland to the current and future challenges.

“Due to the financial crisis, we have to reduce the budget. The ongoing process has slowed down, but hopefully in the next couple of years, we’ll have sped up and the training standards, simulators and trainers will [encompass] all potential operations in future.”

Richard de Silva Contributor:   Richard de Silva

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