“The Sound of the Guns”

Guns in this context means artillery.  Howitzers, heavy mortars, long rifles, etc.,  weapons gnerally above 100 mm. in tube diameter.  Some ordnance man will probably want to argue over that definition.

"Ride to the sound of the guns," is an old exhortation in the military, an appeal to agressive action since the crashing report of the cannons generally shows a leader where the center of the action lies.  Murat is often credited with this appeal.

"Horse, foot and guns," has been the formula for creating a balanced fighting force for hundreds of years.  "Horse" – the cavalry and now the main battle tanks (Abrams) of the armored force,  "Foot" – the "poor bloody infantry" of the Army and Marine Corps, the place where the business of closing personally with the enemy on foot to kill or be killed takes place.  "Guns" – artillery, the King of Battles, the big killer on the battlefield.  Artillery weapons throw massive amounts of ordnance "down range" at the enemy in all kinds of weather, without regard to darkness or daylight in support of the "Horse," and "Foot."

For the last hundred and fifty years, more or less, the artillery has fired its support missions from ranges that precluded a sight of the targets from the guns.  Weapon ranges now are measured in tens of miles.  The fires of the guns are directed with stunning accuracy by computer driven trigonometric calculations informed by "Forward Observers" accompanying the "Horse," and "Foot."

In Viet Nam, we were almost never operating in the field beyond the reach of some friendly battery of artillery, often several batteries.  When we got in trouble as we often did in that vast, jungled country, the artillery was always there, on the radio, to answer the call and to save us with their supporting fires.  Any experienced ground combat veteran is eternally grateful for the help that Army and Air Force air renders on many occasion, but the pervasive and unending support of the artillery can not be equalled by anyone or anything else.  I remember occasions in which Army artillery units interrupted talk on the radio network of ground units engaged in fire fights to say, "verify your position, we are ready to fire on your targets.  Nobody had asked them,  they were just there, waiting.

The other day there were six marine snipers killed on a patrol in the Euphrates River Valley.  According to what I know, their radio traffic stopped in the middle of a transmission because they were all gone or captured.  As an experienced retired officer said on TV today, "sadly, things like this happen from time to time in combat," but the question is, should it have happened THIS TIME?

What should now exist the Euphrates River Valley is a chain of entrenched artillery fire bases with at least a four or six gun battery in each who are in position to support all infantry and armored forces operating in that valley.  Without fire support like that, the infantry is operating "naked" in a space in which the enemy rules the battlefield.  Six marine snipers?  Men out of the Iliad they may be, but they are not bullet proof.  The ambush they experienced should have been immediately followed by an appeal over their radio for a "box barrage" around them.  These days, it is not even necessary to be able to read a map in order to tell the artillery where you are,  GPS will do it for you.  The kind of fire support that veterans of Viet Nam were accustomed to might well have saved at least some of these brave men.

Perhaps I am wrong.  Perhaps there is such fire support available in the Euphrates Valley.  What I know of actual numbers of artillery tubes present in Iraq makes me doubt that it exists.  Why would I doubt that?

Secretary Rumsfeld does not like artillery.  He thinks it is outmoded and the ground forces’ desire for it evidence of their backwardness.  He has repeatedly denied or influenced generals to deny requests from field commanders for the presence of more "tube" artillery in their forces.  This has happened in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  A number of artillery units are in Iraq without their guns, acting as gate guards, perimeter security and the like.  As a result our forces are operating without the fire support needed to make these wars, truly "unfair," and "unfair" is what you want.  This is not a football game.  The more unfair, the better.  What are we trying to do, see how close we can come to losing?

Unfortunately, if you ask a lot of senior generals about this they will absolve Rumsfeld and his "boys."  Too bad, but a lot of them are the product and evidence of the process that created them.

OK, America, if you want those dead marines really memorialized, see that their comrades get the fire support that they need. It will be a real fight and a lot of "smoke" will be blown.  Be ready.

Pat Lang

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30 Responses to “The Sound of the Guns”

  1. rba says:

    Colonel, who do you call to get enough people over there? DoD won’t budge, the Senate is having problems even getting information, and the non-imbed media can’t really get that close.
    How much longer before SOMEONE on the general staff speaks up?
    [USAF, ’66-’70]

  2. hfiend says:

    They use more than trigonometry now a days my friend.

  3. ismoot says:

    ok. What do they use? ? can always use help in improving my attempts to explain things. If you mean they use computers, well the computers do trigonometry. pl

  4. ismoot says:

    I don’t think they will ever speak up. It has been bred out of the senior officer corps.
    The mainstream media are mostly “on board.” I would recommend trying your congressman. pl

  5. Geoff says:

    They use Trig but I’d say, as a physics major, that they use more precise computations incorporating Einstein’s theory of relativity. To be fair you mentioned GPS which is possible only because of this theory. GPS’s incorporate relativistically corrected time calculations, with trig, from orbiting satellites which reduces error drastically when compared to hand or computer trig calculations.
    Now, in a war zone I would imagine that they would, if they had to, use basic trig as they did in WWII and I believe in Vietnam. However, the error can be quite large (my physics text says up to 1 km which seems a little large to me but I’m an undergrad so whatever, heh), errors large enough to make the unintended target become a wedding or a neighborhood.
    So, could it be possible that they have abandoned this less accurate but quicker when in a pinch, ‘off the cuff’ computation for fear of damaging their campaign to win the hearts and minds when and if an ordinances goes awry?
    BTW, I did not mean to be patronizing and I hope you didn’t take my comment that way.

  6. manowar says:

    I was just reading (Soviet-Afghan War, Ed: Lester W. Grau) where the Russians used similar 360 degree fire bases to cover their troops and where not possible, leap-frogging artillery elements in their convoys. Their success however, appeared limited due to an inflexibility in methodology as to rounds per area etc and also poor target acquisition systems. (One nasty touch noted within was the unloading of a second barrage directly upon the area of the first, for those thinking lighting might not strike the same place twice).
    As to our Marines, I’m not certain that both public and media understand the larger issue of Rumsfeld’s transformations. Sadly, I remember the M16 fiasco in Viet Nam and it was only the additional dead and letters home that finally remedied the situation, much like the present lack of armored vehicles. His intended changes seem much more detrimental in the long run than mere malfunctions or shortages, e.g. private contractors.
    One would think there might be some kind of public debate or at least examination before implementing wholesale strategies that eliminate proven tactics with their proven weapons’ systems.
    Finally, as per “rba”‘s initial post, one of the most disheartening things to hear from our valient leader is his oft-repeated refrain that should he only hear from his generals that additional troops be required, he would immediately provide them. Where in the hell have the senior staff been?

  7. hfiend says:

    Off topic, one; Juan Cole’s Guest blogger, Tom Collier, is especially discouraging.
    Two; I can’t seem to stay logged-in to typepad so Geoff=hfiend, and hfiend=Geoff…

  8. manowar says:

    I had a dear friend who was an artillery officer in Viet Nam, and while I’m not sure of the methods used in target acquisition, I remember him telling me that it was rather difficult to make a small mistake, but far much easier to make a big one, 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

  9. hfiend says:

    I’ve made that mistake b-4 in math class; the difference between sine and cosine. In my case it only cost me a few points. I don’t want to think what it cost people in a combat zone.

  10. BadTux says:

    Rumsfeld reminds me of the genius who decided that the F-4 Phantom was going to be an all-missile fighter because dogfighting was a thing of the past. The problem was that the only missiles we had that actually worked at the time were IR missiles, which required a lock from the rear and were relatively easy to fool when doing a shoot-down in a jungle situation. So the poor Phantoms ended up carrying gun pods, which hurt their range and maneuverability, at least till the first gun Phantoms arrived in the late 60’s. Thank god we didn’t face a first-rate air force in Vietnam, or our Phantoms would have been duck soup due to this idiocy on the part of what Hack used to call “perfumed princes in the Pentagon” (damn I miss Hack). As it was, our kill ratio in Vietnam sucked, we lost 430 Phantoms (unknown what the ratio of MiG to SAM kills was on those Phantoms, it wasn’t always clear what killed a Phantom) and managed to kill 143 MiG’s with those Phantoms. If we’d been going up against a professional air force rather than the rather hastily trained North Vietnamese, who never mustered more than a hundred front-line Mig-21’s anytime during the war… [shudder].
    So here’s Rummy, an air head for cryin’ out loud, claiming that we don’t need organic artillery because we have these fancy aircraft flying around with smart bombs under them… well, airpower has a limited linger time (except maybe B-52’s, but as far as I know we don’t have any B-52’s lingering over Iraq anymore like they did during the second week of the war). Furthermore, airpower has enormous maintenance requirements. For every hour in the air, an F-16 needs several hours of maintenance to get it ready to fly again, and a B-52 is even worse due to the sheer age of that platform, a one day mission takes *days* of maintenance before the bomber is ready to fly again. Meanwhile, a dumb tube can just sit there, hour after hour, day after day, and until it’s used it needs virtually no maintenance.
    From a dollars and sense perspective Rummy’s air head notions just don’t make sense. We simply cannot keep enough fighter jets in the air over Iraq to give the sort of concentrated firepower that a battery of artillery can give. We can put only so many hours on an engine before it needs a complete overhaul, unlike an artillery tube, which can sit there for months without an overhaul, and what’s happening is that we’re literally wearing out our aircraft faster than we can fix them. And it’s our troops that are paying the price, especially as the insurgents figure out how to kill without being killed due to simple evolution (i.e., those with bad ideas are getting slaughtered, leaving only the smartest to “breed”).
    – Badtux the Military Penguin

  11. b says:

    Mostof the fighting in Iraq seems to be in urban terrain and at relative close range.
    Even modern artillery has an inevitable range variation of some 0.15%. At 20,000 yards fire range an average round will be off target by some 30 yards.
    Doesn´t matter much if you are fighting an armor batallion on the horizon. But in close combat in urban terrain, you most probably do not want your own artillery in the mix.
    “The don´t know friend or foe, just valuable targets.”

  12. ismoot says:

    I don’t agree with your characterization of the fighting. A great many US casualties occur in roadside incidents for which fire support in the event of an enemy “follow up” would be valuable. As for the fighting in towns, Fallujah would be one example in which artillery WAS used to great effect. As to the accuracy issue, I would take my chances on that. pl

  13. ismoot says:

    Bad Tux,
    Amen, brother. pl

  14. ismoot says:

    hfiend et al,
    There have been some tragic Fire Direction Center (FDC) mistakes like that, mess tents struck in Germany on firing ranges, etc. Unfortunately, nothing works perfectly. pl

  15. ismoot says:

    Artillery used to be plotted in the way I described on charts using trig, elevations off maps, weather data and computed when I began using slide rules (if you can believe it).
    Basically you start with two known points, the guns and the target and work it out from there.
    I started in the infantry and then was in SF for a long time so I personally have done this with mortars which are basically a smaller form of artillery, but not the same thing at all in terms of range, weight of shot, etc.
    In recent years the fire direction center process became an automated computer process with paper back up against the day when the damned machines broke.
    We will probably be joined by a “redleg” (artilleryman) to explain this in detail to us. pl

  16. hfiend says:

    The cycle continues
    “U.S. Launches Attacks in Western Iraq” (AP)

  17. ismoot says:

    Not much choice but to continue offensive action in that area. we need to get human and electronic surveillance across that corridor backed by troops to stop infiltration and support activities. pl

  18. hfiend says:

    It seems to me we go in, clean up what remains in the targeted area, and pull back until another horrible incident occurs. There’s got to be another way, a permanent presence. I guess that would mean (gasp!) more troops.

  19. BadTux says:

    “B”, yes, it is true that artillery can kill your own troops. But if you’re dead anyhow because you’re a fire team of 7 snipers and you just got jumped by a hundred jihadis, calling an arty strike on your own position suddenly doesn’t seem like a bad deal… at least you have a *chance* to survive if you protect yourself enough (and we have damn good body armor these days), as vs. a 100% chance of being dead without the arty support.

  20. ismoot says:

    Bad Tux
    I couldn’t agree more about the risk/benefit thing on calling artillery in near you in a tight spot. pl

  21. Dave says:

    Two brief comments:
    1. I would guess, but don’t know, that one of the not yet mentioned reasons for the number of tubes being low is that, judging from news accounts, there’ve been a fair number of artillery folks deployed to Iraq in other combat arms roles.
    2. I would further guess that another motivating factor for not deploying fire support in as dispersed a manner as you suggest is “footprint” concerns. How many troops does it take to secure an entrenched battery over the long term? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’ll bet that it would mean a significantly increased footprint over present levels. (The other thing that leaps immediately to mind is the old tactic of bouncing SF camps to provoke a conventional military response — would that become an opposition tactic? [frankly, I think they’re far too weak to give a direct version of that one a whirl, but they might try something analogous in the assymetric vein: VBIED attacks, provocations, demonstrations, etc.])
    It’s also interesting, given the locations of the FOBs shown at globalsecurity.org (presuming that it’s accurate), that there is something of chain of FOBs up the Tigris just North of Baghdad, but not over on the Euphrates in the Marine AO. Different doctrines, a much larger AO, lower population densities on the western Euphrates? Possibilities abound, I guess.
    Thanks for your thought provoking posts.

  22. Dave says:

    Argh. Must. Read. More. Carefully.
    Of course, you did mention that many of the folks were deployed without their guns and I missed it. Sorry, will try and finish processing input before regurgitating on it.

  23. ismoot says:

    Good stuff. Sounds like you have “seen the elephant.”
    In re your first point I think the chicken and egg thing probably worked the other way around. That is, first you had the restriction on entry of tube artillery and then the decision to use organic artilery units as JV infantry/MPs doing perimeter security, gate guard etc. Could be some of both.
    In re “footprint,” my memory of entrenched artillery positions is that Corps heavy batteries in VN defended themselves with quad 50 M2 self propelled mounts, 40 MM AAA “dusters,” also self-prpelled, and self propelled 20 mm. Vulcan gatling guns. I lived near some of these positions in Phuoc Long and they were attacked repeatedly by VC ground troops with disastrous results for the VC. Incidentally the battery usually had two 8 inch howitzers and two 175 mm long guns. Devastating. The SF manned guns in 5th Grp camps obviously defended themselves. My point? Not necessarily a bigger “footprint” than the artillery unit itself.
    As for the possibility of the insurgents “bouncing” these positions to provoke a response. Hey. We want to find them, right?
    The western Tigris Valley is more densely populated, but I don’t think the marines have a had a significant permanent presence in the Euprates Vallet until recently. I don’t know if marine doctrine is different about this. They have a number of “different” ideas. I have never though they entrench deep enough.
    In any event we don’t know how many of the Army camps in the Tigris Valley have artillery in them. Do we? pl

  24. ismoot says:

    No sweat, or problemo, depending on your generation.
    In re our previous discussion. All those little guns probably belonged to some AAA outfit. Never thought about it. They were just “there.” Amazing thing to see these AAA guns firing in the “ground” role at night with the quad .50s roaring away and a continual tearing sound from the Gatling guns shooting at 2000 rds/minute as they spewed forth a continuous stream of red tracer like a death ray.
    Also, battery positions like the ones we are talking about become little “towns,” and have to be re-supplied with ammunition, replacement barrels, food, etc. For that reason, positions that were fairly permanent were usually built alongside an existing airstrip or the engineers built one with bulldozers and PSP.
    At times there were American maneuver units close by, mainly because they too, needed the airstrip. pl

  25. Dave says:

    I’m afraid the only elephants I’ve seen have been in zoos. I’ve simply been fortunate enough to read and learn from the writings of many of your contemporaries, and those that followed.
    I take your point about the chicken and the egg, and on reflection I tend broadly to agree. To speculate, I’d guess it did start mainly as an historical artifact of Franks’ decisions on force mix, and then continued due to a number of things, not least (as you say) transformation [as viewed by OSD, at least] as well as an attempt to buy more rotations out of a finite pool of troops, given a political dictate that the number of troops not be increased.
    I have reservations about dispersing into small batteries because they will turn into the little towns as you describe. I have visions of the jihadis carbombing queues of Iraqi nationals waiting to come onto base, organizing demonstrations and firing from the cover of the crowd trying to provoke return fire, etc. All that in addition to the increased possibility of civilian casualties due to increased resupply convoys.
    To be sure, I don’t know how it is that one can viably hope to suppress insurgent activity without the control of terrain afforded by a dispersal of the type you suggest (and I’d probably suggest an even broader one), but I don’t see that dispersal happening on a large enough scale to be effective, without a significant manpower increase that I don’t see coming. Maybe it’s overly simplistic on my part, but this strikes me as one of those things where it’s “go big or go home” [as it were]. The one complaint that I have seen repeatedly seen attributed to junior and some field grade officers is a lack of manpower, and it seems to my untoutored eye that problem’d only get worse with more FOB overhead at current manning levels. At least a partial solution would certainly seem to be a higher fraction of manpower invested in the leaner more self-sufficient type of operation you describe the fifth group camps as having been (I hadn’t previously run across any mention of the fact that they had organic guns of that size – very interesting), but I get the impression that many of the larger establishments are currently a good ways from being so lean [the current Burger King count is 2, if I recall correctly], and everything that I know about organizational inertia suggests that that isn’t terribly likely to change on any short timescale.
    Your point about the quad .50s and dusters is interesting, in that I don’t recall anything currently in the arsenal that fits that niche, exactly. I dunno, maybe they thought single .50 mounts and the Mk19 were enough (which seems odd, given the ubiquity of ZSU-23 variants). One interesting possibility would be something similar to our Canadian LAV-III with a 25mm turret, but if I recall correctly the Stryker brigades aren’t currently planning to acquire anything like it.

  26. ismoot says:

    When I said the fire bases would become little towns I did not mean towns with Iraqis as inhabitants. They should not be allowed into these positions, at all.
    Unless you go down to battery level for dispersal you will never get the coverage that you need.
    If you start to conduct a lot of small unit ground operations with infantry and armor, especially light armor without adequate fire support, the rebels are going to figure that out, run some big ambushes and eat your lunch.
    Additional manpower will require force expansion which will take a couple of years. What’s the chance?
    SF Camps in VN had a lot of weapons not authorised by TO&E or anything else. The SF people just went out and acquired a lot of extra heavy machine guns, mortars, recoiless guns and 105 mm howitzers. How, mostly by barter from the USAF and/or Vietnamese Army.
    How did they know how to use artillery? An SF sergeant is a formidable person. pl

  27. Mr.Murder says:

    Compare to bosnia. Rumsfeld wanted to copy a successful tactical support role over a higher frequency strategic model?

  28. PenGun says:

    Actually that’s “Queen of Battle” but I agree wholeheartedly.
    A plane can unload a 500 pounder every once in a while. A troop of guns can deliver, 105s, 30 pounds endlessly every few seconds, or at least untill the ammo is gone.

  29. Pat Lang says:

    Infantry is known as the Queen of Battle, Artillery as the King of Battle.
    And as usual… pl

  30. PenGun says:

    You are correct. I carried that one for a long time.
    But then I was 16 before I understood it was tidal wave and not tiger wave;).
    Kind of mental typos that become what you believe.

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