'Back to basics' approach could help African joint fires

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With artillery systems offering vital support to African forces, there are calls for a new approach to sharing lessons

Source: Nigerian Defence Academy

As Nigeria continues its struggle to contain Boko Haram, further armed conflicts and civil strife bisect the continent, spreading from Central African Republic to South Sudan and beyond. In most cases, the enemy is a militant force armed with low-end weapons and, as such, the use of artillery fire is proving a potent weapon, allowing troops to remove the threat from a distance or to provide suppressive fire so infantry forces can advance. 

However, the capacity of these operations to make an overall difference to wider campaigns comes at a high cost, with commanders forced to be extremely selective when choosing to expend shells or other resources on small pockets of resistance. 

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Chris Foss, editor of Jane's Land Warfare, told Defence IQ that many countries across the world are now in a ‘reset’ phase when it comes to fires investment, particularly in terms of rolling out new close air support (CAS) or artillery options.

“If we’re talking about providing CAS, field artillery is still the only support you can guarantee, 24/7, in all weathers,” Foss said. 

“Air forces cannot do that. But armies have not traditionally been proactive in getting governments to understand their need to spend money on artillery fire. 

“Politicians tend to understand air power and so air forces are always good at getting their voices heard. But when it comes to the army, it’s a different situation. Tanks, they’ll understand. Recce vehicles and APCs, not much problem. But artillery often confuses them. And when you get to chasing targets with rockets at ranges of 50-70km, air forces will claim them as their target set.”  

But new systems are expensive and the artillery fund is never spent on just one platform. For those combatting low-end insurgencies, justifying new resources or deciding where to prioritise the existing budget is always a difficult challenge.  

“There’s also fire control and ammunition to think about, not to mention target acquisition,” Foss added. 

“Unless you can find the target, you won’t be able to hit it. If the target is 40km away, not only do you have to find it, you have to engage with it incredibly quickly.” 

It is therefore understandable why many forces are struggling to balance their capabilities to ensure fast location, fast response and accurate engagement. 


For African nations, the latter may be the most critical. One of the biggest threats in this part of the world is that of fratricide and collateral damage owing to fires activity. In West Africa, amid constant internal strife between the Ibos (Biafra) and the Nigerians, the risk of escalating tensions over a ‘friendly fire’ incident could well be the catalyst to spark a civil war. 

Jim Hilton, a former Royal Air Force officer and now air integration specialist, has been delivering regular training to Nigeria and other African forces on air power strategy and surface-to-surface fires. In his experience, he believes the best answer to this problem is to scale back to the basics and establish a firm foundation for fires skills and development within the region. 

“We need to stop fighting a low tech enemy with high-tech, costly systems and inappropriate structures,” he said.  

“That approach haemorrhages money. Instead, we should concentrate on the skills of the individual, whether a private soldier or a senior officer. If they get their role right and receive all their basic needs in return, they will provide a more effective return than attempting to purchase a piece of ‘silver bullet’ equipment.” 

Foss also acknowledged that there is a need to return focus on the human element in order to increase the chances of successful operations. 

“Man power is expensive and artillery is man-intensive,” he said. 

“But if a system breaks down, you still need people to lift a heavy shell, put it in a breach, put the charge in and fire the gun. So while some systems are being built on automation and other high-end technologies, most armies still want a person in the loop. That’s what will count in the end.” 


Source: SAITS

So with training and retention at a premium among today’s West African land forces, improvement should be expected from two key sources: multinational collaboration and dedicated industry support. 

“International forces can aid and support the development of advanced fires in Africa by championing joint training for the common effort – the battle against Islamic fundamentalism,” Hilton said.  

“The UK is investing in basic fires training in Africa but, once completed, they require continuation and development training. This is where private companies can take over the burden. Modern militaries haven't the manpower or the will to dedicate permanent fires training to Africa. They need to establish a central Africa country as the centre of excellence for fires where they can exercise at a battalion level in joint live fires. This would then lead to trust and interoperability between African nations to work together and the ability to call upon each other’s assets when needed.” 

As part of this effort, Defence IQ is hosting the Armoured Vehicles Africa and Future Fires conference in Accra, Ghana, this August. The event is officially supported by the Ghana Armed Forces and Ghana Army with the aim of allowing the industry to understand and address the gaps faced by regional armed forces, aside to providing a forum for strategic discussion.

Images: [Top] Nigerian forces undertake a howitzer training exercise. Source: Nigerian Defence Academy; [Above] Jim Hilton has provided joint fires training to the likes of Nigeria and Burundi. Source: SAITS