Artillery: February 25, 2003

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There's a debate going on among U.S. Army artillery officers about the direction fire control is taking. Since the 1960s, much effort has gone into automating and computerizing fire control (the communications from front line troops to the guns and the calculations the artillerymen must do to get the shells on target.) This has not gone well, with a number of complex and unreliable systems developed, and discarded. The current collection of fire control equipment attempts to digitalize (make the process part of the "battlefield Internet) and centralize (so commanders can make more effective use of all artillery.) The most common artillery organization is the "divisional artillery." This is a brigade size force containing 60 or more self-propelled guns and rocket launchers. Troops in contact with the enemy still call in their fire requests over a radio, but a Forward Observer has to pass the  request to the FDC (Fire Direction Center), and these requests quickly go "into the computer." The current set up gives the Forward Observer (the artillery guy on the front lines who is linked electronically with the artillery battalions) a bunch of neat radios and "digital devices" that, more often than not, get in the way and slow things down. The problem is that the first of these automated systems came into use after the heavy fighting in Vietnam died down, and there has not been a real battlefield test for U.S. artillery since. Even the 1991 Gulf War did not give the artillery the kind of workout they got in Vietnam, Korea and World War II. As a result, computerized systems like the much hated TACFIRE, and it's successors continue to drive commanders nuts during realistic field exercises. The main problem is that the computerized systems are too complex, unreliable and often do the wrong thing (like fire at targets that are no longer targets and ignoring current threats.) During some field exercises, the combat troops and the artillery have ignored their own fire control computer systems and gone back to the old "call in the fire over the radio" in order to get the fire where it was needed, right now. Tactical Fire Direction System (TACFIRE) stayed in use, with many expensive updates, until 1993. In 1992, Light Tactical Fire Direction System (LTACFIRE) and Initial Fire Support Automated System (IFSAS) came into service. This was followed in 1997 by Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System. The officers and men who have to operate all this stuff, and get fire where the infantry and tankers need it, are not happy with how this has all played out. Decades of "we'll get it fixed" has left a lot of troops wondering how many American soldiers will die from artillery fire screw ups if these systems ever get used in a sustained war. At the moment, the artillery troops are, as ever, ready with a lot of improvised solutions and workarounds to their expensive fire control systems. This is all particularly sad, as it was the US Army that developed modern fire control techniques during the 1930s. In World War II, American artillery was the most effective in the world, and neither the Germans nor the Russians were able to duplicate the American methods. But since World War II, technology has triumphed over practicality and battlefield effectiveness.

 


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