August 01, 2012

Guest Post: The Last Argument of Tyrants

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
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.