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Long-range firepower the key to victory

By Malcolm Davis

The 2020 Force Structure Plan identifies two key steps forward to modernise the army’s long-range artillery capabilities. The first is self-propelled howitzers (SPH) to be supplied by Hanwha Defence Australia with a contract to supply 30 K9 Huntsman SPH. The second key step is the introduction of long-range artillery and missile systems to extend the army’s battlefield fire support well beyond the land force’s traditional reach with towed artillery.

A good example of such a capability is the US M142 high mobility rocket artillery system (HIMARS), an operationally mature system that is also used by Singapore, Jordan and the UAE. HIMARS is a smaller version of the tracked multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) on a wheeled chassis, allowing greater tactical mobility. Like MLRS, it can also fire a single army tactical missile system (ATACMs) which gives it a 300km range or can strike targets out to 70km with six extended range guided rockets.

The key issue facing the army is how it will use the longer-range firepower. The two systems – K9 Huntsman, and future battlefield rockets are complementary capabilities for supporting mechanised forces such as the army’s MBTs and future LAND 400 Phase 3 AFV, along with lighter vehicles such as Boxer and Hawkei. Boosting the army’s tactical mobility is vital to ensure it can quickly deploy infantry to seize and hold ground. But combat forces must be supported by accurate long-range indirect firepower to deny an adversary the ability to close with and engage friendly forces.

Part of this battlefield capability is the addition of sensor and strike platforms such as the AH-64E Guardian attack helicopter to replace Aussie Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters, and the MQ-9B Sky Guardian high altitude UAV, with both acting as the eyes for the SPH and battlefield rockets. The key is finding the enemy quickly and striking with surprise from long range, while having sufficient mobility to move rapidly to avoid an adversary’s counter-battery fire.

If the army can develop such a highly mobile force, properly networked – a challenge now that the battle management system project has failed so comprehensively – then it will take a huge leap forward in developing a more lethal and agile fighting force. With the failure of the battle management system project, the issue of digital connectivity must be addressed urgently, or many of the systems now being acquired won’t be nearly as effective as they need to be.

Secondly, there is the issue of combat mass. Only 30 K9 Hunstman SPHs are to be acquired, and long-range battlefield rocket capabilities limited to a piecemeal acquisition would only reinforce the risk of brittle forces. The lack of mass is endemic across the ADF and emerges from “last war” mindsets on capability development and force planning that still dominate Defence thinking in many areas.

Our potential adversary in any future war is more likely to be a major power rather than a non-state irregular force, and as the 2020 Defence Strategic Update observes, our strategic focus is now the Indo-Pacific region. The army’s role in any future conflict in our region needs clarification. If the threat is real, then more strategically mobile land forces with greater long-range firepower will be essential. Long range battlefield rockets would help us keep an opposing land force in a defensive posture, ensuring our forces can maintain the tactical initiative.

Originally published by: The Australian on 01 Jun 2021