Former Royal Artillery Officer weighs into debate on conventional vs. rocket artillery

Contributor:  Richard Williams
Posted:  01/21/2013  12:00:00 AM EST
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Tags:   artillery

About the author

Richard Williams completed a full career as a British Army Officer serving in the Royal Artillery, and more recently has been working in the defence industry as a Director with RKW 200 Ltd (Consulting).  He commanded 4th Field Regiment Royal Artillery, he was the Senior Instructor for all Artillery Training at the British Army Training Unit at Suffield in Canada, and the Chief Instructor at the Royal School of Artillery, Larkhill.  He was a member of the Directing Staff at what is now the UK Defence College at Shrivenham, the Commander of the Joint Services Ranges in the Outer Hebrides, the Vice President at the Army Officers Selection Board at Westbury, the Chief of Joint Operations and Plans at the NATO HQ in Heidelberg, and the Senior British Officer in the HQ U.S. Army Europe & 7th Army.


The debate of conventional artillery compared with rocket has been a classic British Army Staff College subject for a discussion topic over the years because there is no right or wrong answer. That’s because the question is not addressing a comparison of 'like with like'. However, it is an excellent way of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the different capabilities of the rocket and gun systems.

The most common approach when addressing this question is usually confused by assuming the weapons being compared for effectiveness includes the gun and the rocket launcher. In fact the comparison should be between the actual weapons (the shells and missiles) which actually produce the effects – the gun and launcher may be regarded as part of the weapon system but they are primarily the sophisticated means of delivery. The more crude means of delivery being used in recent conflicts include the Taliban using human beings as the delivery means that either physically place the bombs/IEDs by identifying the routes they believe the NATO troops are likely to take, or place the weapon on the suicide bomber who then walks or drives to the target. The IRA delivered their bombs with the use of motor vehicles in which they placed the device set to explode at a certain time to cause maximum effect, or set booby traps designed to kill the person trying to defuse the bomb. There are many other examples but they should all be considered as a means of delivery, and not the weapon.

If a comparison between rockets and guns was based on which one can deliver to and engage targets at the greatest range with the most destructive power, it would not be under question as the rockets would win hands down. The size of the rocket is not constrained by the calibre of the gun and can be made as big as required to carry the pay and fuel load to get it to the target and do the job. However, the rocket will always be considerably more expensive than the shell and the collateral damage is likely to be greater as so constrain its use in built up and populated areas. Furthermore, the signature it gives up when the missile is launched makes it easy for the enemy to detect and therefore it has to be moved regularly once firing begins, and the rocket system cannot provide sustained fire due to the continual movement and reload timings.  Although most gun systems do not have the range of a missile system, they are generally more accurate when using the cheaper dumb bombs and not using expensive precision munitions. They are also safer and more suitable when firing close to own troops or civilian populations, their weights and rates of fire can be varied, the gun system is not so easy to locate when firing, and the supported commander is usually more comfortable having shells landing around his troops during the close battle, than the larger, and sometimes less sophisticated missiles that do not always do exactly what is expected.   

Rockets launchers and artillery guns have very different characteristics which make them suitable for executing different roles on the battlefield. Neither is the 'jack of all trades' but they are the masters of the roles for which they were designed. The light (105mm) and medium (155mm) guns have been designed for use in the close support role with the airborne/commando/light infantry and the mechanised and armoured regiments. The guns have the mobility, flexibility, survivability, and sustainability to remain close to their supported arm and keep up with the pace of the battle while providing close, accurate and sustained fire while remaining reasonably well concealed, although gun detecting radars are making that more difficult. The rocket/missile units have a mobile platform from which to launch their missiles over longer range, they are usually very mobile but do not always provide much protection for the crew, they can provide much heavier weights of fire and are more effective suppressing, disrupting, and destroying targets in depth, thus effectively shaping and preparing the battle space for future operations. The large signature displayed when the missiles are launched makes them easy to detect, which puts constraints on where they can be deployed, and requires them to keep moving to avoid counter battery fire. Unlike tanks, neither guns nor rockets can fire on the move. Guns and rockets can be used to support the different roles, provided they are in range, when they are not required for their primary function. There are obviously major differences between these capabilities, and that can be seen without going into all the issues surrounding the logistic support for the rocket and gun systems.

These specifically defined roles to which I have referred have been blurred during the last ten years as a result of the increase in terrorism and the decline in the threat of high intensity manoeuvre operations. The consequence has been a decline, and possible absence for much of the time, of large numbers of suitable targets for the artillery, and the increased use of airpower in the absence of a credible enemy air defence system. However, because the more recent operations involving rockets and artillery guns have tended to be executed from the Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in the remote areas of Afghanistan, the problems of accuracy and collateral damage has been less of an issue, and at times ignored. Due to the large areas of operation the indirect fire systems are required to cover this often puts the gun systems out of range of the enemy when a heavy and concentrated weight of fire is required. The requirement for sustained fire from the guns has been infrequent, and the need to keep moving does not exist due to the absence of any Taliban sophisticated ISTAR capability or air/artillery threat. This has resulted in the dangerous belief by those who do not understand that it does not matter whether guns or missile are available; either will do and the air support is always available.

The ultimate conclusion of this situation is that the UK procurement system will start to look favourably at the cheapest option that provides a solution for the greatest number. In the short term, facing the existing terrorist threats that lack the sophisticated capabilities of C4ISTAR and air defence systems, the answer is probably rockets and air power, but sound military sense demands that both rocket and gun systems will be required if the UK is to be truly ready to face any serious and credible threat in the future.    

For context, rockets were first used by the British on the battlefield at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 – they were fired horizontally along the ground with the aim of tripping up the horses carrying the enemy mounted cavalry. It was subsequently discovered that if a piece of rope was tied between two rockets and launched at the same time, more horses could be upturned. These rockets looked like, and were just a much larger version of, the rockets currently fired on the 5th November. It was then soon realised that without the constraint of the gun barrel the rocket could be made as big as required to increase the pay and/or fuel load that would give it greater range and effect on impact.  The problem at the time was finding the targets to engage, and building the rocket that was accurate enough to land in the right grid square, and capable of carrying the suitable payload to deliver the appropriate effect to make it cost effective. During the interim period it was felt the cheaper (and easier) option was to continue with the manned bomber aircraft that could fill the void and execute the role of targeting and deep attack.  This changed during the nuclear era when the threat to the bombers from the more sophisticated air defence missile systems emerged. Land based and surface and sub-surface naval missile systems were seen as the more effective, credible and safer way of delivering such a weapon.  The end of the Cold War called for a change in thinking but by then missile technology was well advanced and it was just a matter of changing the payload to match the target to be engaged. The effects of these larger, more accurate and lethal rocket systems was clearly demonstrated during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where large buildings and armoured formations were decimated by missiles fired with supreme accuracy over large ranges.  This highlighted the very different philosophies in the design and development between rocket and gun artillery that should never be forgotten until solid evidence suggests otherwise. 

It is quite clear that the way ahead for the British Army in the immediate future will not be driven by the operational requirements model, but by funds available –  the inevitable British solution is/will be to do the best you can with what we can afford. 

Agree? Disagree? Send in your views to (Richard Williams did, that's how this article was conceived).

Richard Williams Contributor:   Richard Williams

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