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Captain Brett Friedman is an active duty field artillery officer in the United States Marine Corps. He is currently attending Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico, Virginia. He normally blogs at the Marine Corps Gazette Blog.
While much ink has been spilled about the use of digital social networking on the part of protestors and insurgents during the Arab Spring and every use of air strikes draws the condemnation of the world, an old standby been a mainstay of Middle East tyrants clinging to their positions: artillery. After the imposition of a No Fly Zone over Libya, Muammar el-Qaddafi used artillery in an attempt to reduce the city of Misurata and even succeeded in closing down the port. The opposition has utilized indirect fire as well. In June of 2011, then President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh was injured in a mortar attack. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has used artillery throughout the country in an attempt to destroy the Free Syrian Army.
While indirect fire in warfare may have reached its apex during World War I, investing in artillery is still advantageous for countries with developed militaries. It is far easier and cheaper to train artillery crewmen than it is to train, educate, and pay pilots for example. Most artillery crewmen only require basic math skills and more educated officers can oversee multiple guns. Artillery is also less expensive to employ. For example, the United States pays $27,000 for a basic JDAM. The tactical tomahawk, the United States’ newest cruise missile, costs $730,000. An average high explosive artillery round like the M107 only costs about $1500. The Syrian regime, for example, has taken advantage of this cost effectiveness. Depending on defections, they have over 3,440 pieces.
Despite the disparity in costs, artillery remains one of the most effective weapons on the battlefield. The ubiquitous M107 shell, for example, boasts a fifty meter casualty radius. What that means on the ground is that any unarmored human standing within fifty meters of the point of impact in an open field will die. Injuries can occur well outside that radius. Buildings and terrain features are not always a savior for those subjected to artillery fire. Wood, rocks, bricks, and metal all become shrapnel when thrown by the force of an explosion. Depending on the model and fuse, artillery shells can penetrate buildings and explode inside. Additionally, artillery shells are never fired for effect one at a time. Most gun crews will fire one or two rounds a minute, although well-trained crews can do better. Multiple guns fire dozens of shells at a time and, unlike air frames, are not restricted by weather or darkness. Behold 11th Marines, a regiment, firing at the same time on the same target outside Baghdad in 2003. More advanced rounds are even more destructive, like the Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition shells that explode in the air and drop eighty-eight shaped charge bomblets.
Those are just the physical effects, not for nothing was PTSD first known as “shell shock.” Those lucky enough to live through sustained bombardment can be affected for the rest of their lives. Unlike their Hollywood portrayal, incoming artillery rounds do not make a sound before impact. Unless you are able to hear the cannon themselves, there is no telling where and when the next round will strike. If they are well supplied and reasonably competent, a mere battalion of artillery (eighteen guns) can keep a small city under fire indefinitely. Civilians and combatants will be similarly affected. Sustained bombardments prevent sleep, put the nervous system through a rollercoaster-ride of fear, relief, and surprise, and do not discriminate between enemy, friendly, and neutral actors. An old adage goes that a bullet may have your name on it, but an artillery shell is addressed “to whom it may concern.”
So why has the use of artillery in the Arab Spring garnered little of the attention of the other combat arms? Every use of helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft draws renewed cries for the tactic du’jour, a No-Fly Zone. Yet, Misurata in Libya was shelled for months and the Syrian city of Aleppo is under bombardment as I write these words. Perhaps we have less fear for artillery, a weapon that has been used for centuries, than we do for relatively young weapons like airplanes and tanks. Our greatest fear is, of course, the use of chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction. But artillery is easier and cheaper to employ to the same effect without the international condemnation that would follow any use of chemicals. Artillery can literally wipe a city off the map, given time, yet the international community seems far more accepting of its use than any other major weapon. Tyrants seem to realize this. We should be just as aghast at the indiscriminate shelling of Aleppo as we were at the mere rumor of Assad using his chemical weapons. That being said, we should also be wary of exposing our troops to its effects.
Although it is destructive artillery, like drones, is just a tool. Western militaries strive to increase the accuracy of artillery to reduce the chance of collateral damage. The M982 Excalibur precision-guided artillery round is just one example. Professional militaries also limit the destruction of artillery through battlefield restriction like GEN Stanley McChrystal’s famously strict rules of engagement in Afghanistan. Despite its advanced age, (the first use of gunpowder artillery occurred on January 28, 1132 in China) artillery has remained a relevant and effective element of warfare. Advanced militaries continue to invest in and develop better indirect fire capabilities while hard-pressed despots use it to destroy insurgents and civilians. Some in the US military have predicted the end of artillery as air support has improved and insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan took to the population centers to deter US firepower. The tyrants of the Middle East seem to disagree.