A "15 years too late" analysis on precision munitions and survivability

Precision munitions and smart munitions were the big hype of the 90's, but obviously I didn't blog during the 90's. Nor did I have particularly well-founded views on them back in the 90's. So pardon me for coming late to the party, please.

First some context, for no analysis should be done with an empty stomach:

Back in the World War Two era, the best defensive practice on flat land (against an enemy who preferred night attacks) was to have a forward line of own troops (FLOT, VRV - Vorderer Rand der Verteidigung) as a screen for the main daylight defensive positions (1). This forward screen was made up of small teams in ambush/observation positions or on patrol. Such far forward troops were naturally exposed to detection, no matter how well they camouflaged and concealed themselves. Sooner or later they were spotted.

In short: The more important position was to be screened against detection by a more expendable position. This led to a surprise advantage for the defender in major defensive battles and added uncertainty for the attacker in general.

- - - - -

Long-time readers of this blog do probably remember that I advocate camouflage and concealment all the time, period. Even small exposure is in my opinion acceptable only for very short duration (about 2 minutes).
That's of course a judgement result, not the reasoning itself.

To prove that I'm correct I would need to prove that even the aforementioned forward screen could not expose itself nowadays without unacceptable attrition rates or mission failures.

The relation of overall lethality of fires (most notably indirect fires, = rocket, howitzers and mortars) is the key. It has to be worse (=more lethal to the defender) today than back in WW2 to yield worse (for the defender) results. This lethality has to be seen in context of target quantity if you look at the macro scale (this relation isn't so important on the tactical level).

Many high explosive warheads  x  low probability of hit Ph.(2)
Fires usually had to be 'walked in' on the target, spending the surprise effect.(3)

Few high explosive warheads x high probability of hit
Fires can be very accurate on first salvo.

Now the question is whether
much HE x low Ph
is smaller, equal or bigger
few HE x high Ph

This would mean that accuracy (surprise) is the key advance, while firepower overall has decreased.

This would mean that accuracy (surprise) is the key advance, while firepower overall is the same.

This would mean that dispersion and accuracy (surprise) advances are overmatching the loss of ammunitions quantity.

The "smaller" and "equal" cases would -if true- allow the conclusion that precision munitions are not so much important as is the accuracy (knowledge of positions, environment and trajectory, correct calculation). You could -in this simplistic model- have the same effect with lots of dumb rounds being fired by good gunners and good guns.

The "bigger" case (which is widely implied or asserted to be true in publications) would suggest that the hype about the small dispersion of precision munitions (small circular error probability, CEP) was correct.

Well, what's the overall lethality that I meant?
'Shells' times quality of dispersion (less dispersion = better quality) is the measure against targets which don't evade fires when possible.
Against targets which do evade incoming fires you need to magnify the effects a lot to represent today's situation, for modern fires take immediate effect and leave no time for running to a secondary position.

- - - - -

I may not have made myself clear about this in previous texts (can only point out so much at once). The dispersion is in my opinion important, but not in itself the reason why modern ground forces need to break contact after a short time to prevent getting caught by support fires. They need to do so because you cannot run away from modern mortar or artillery fires.

That's why I have my conclusions about the role of modern support (indirect) fires, even without being able to solve the high explosives x dispersion equation (which is extremely complicated if you want to do it thoroughly) even though publications focus usually on one variable of this equation.

By the way; there has been near-constant frustration about the lack of realism in training in regard to indirect fires lethality and thus wrong training and doctrine. This goes back to at least the early 80's in literature. Unsurprisingly, I have yet to see an army manual from any country (I know infantry manuals from eight) that emphasises that unlike in WW2, hostile indirect fires are accurate on first salvo now.

The incompetent harassment mortar teams of Third World insurgents did certainly not help to press this point about modern indirect fires into the minds of our army leaders.

S Ortmann

(1): An approach similar to scouting in general: Jeopardize few in order to buy better security for many. This fundamental approach has mostly been lost to today's Western officer Corps due to their quest for (almost) no KIA on their teams. Such an approach is incompatible with singling out few for high risks, as high risks have (supposedly) to be avoided altogether. Their approach would increase the average risk-taking in a great war.

(2): A measure of dispersion rather than accuracy in this context.Dispersion tells how close the impacts are to each other, while accuracy tells whether the centre of the impacts group was close to the target.

(3): It was possible to avoid this and instead just fire short fire mission with many artillery battalions at once. This shotgun effect came surprisingly and at least some firing batteries were usually on target without corrections. The ammunition expenditure of this tactic permitted it only for large target groups and afaik it was preferred as a defensive fires tactic and not used much for the destruction of defensive positions. The exception was IIRC rocket artillery.

edit 2012/08: I read this old blog text today and now I understand it's very difficult to grasp, for I laid out my thoughts poorly. In case you don't get what I mean, just focus on the underlined parts and keep in mind that the classic responses to indirect fires were to (a) find shelter in field fortifications or (b) run to a new position faster than the enemy can correct his indirect fires aim.


  1. "The incompetent harassment mortar teams of Third World insurgents did certainly not help to press this point about modern indirect fires into the minds of our army leaders."

    See, this always worries me, surely, during a power point exercise once upon a time, an artillery officer stood up and said, "I could wipe out your entire battalion in under a minute if you did that".

  2. Sure, but it's difficult to simulate indirect fires in training areas. The referee can tell a company commander that he was caught in mortar fire and some exposed exterior parts as well as some tank commander heads were hit.
    Problem: You'd need the infrastructure to
    * know about the strike
    * know which referee is relevant (or tell all of them)
    * tell him
    * let him be aware of his position

    Meanwhile, for line of sight engagements you don't need more than blanks, some muzzle smoke simulators and possibly laser training gear.

    It's much easier to incorporate direct fire threats in training than indirect fire threats.

    On the other hand, I'd establish a standing order that referees declare all dead who've been involved during a firefight in the same 100x100 m area for more than 2:30 minutes (or been otherwise observed in that area).

  3. What about a suitable simulation tool?
    Take a fast flying toy UAV with an add on that makes sound (preferably a loud explosion sound) and a small fog machine for better location of the source. When it appears and rings, a zone around it is hit. The toy UAV flies to the specified coordinates artillery calculates, but can be stationed nearby in order to provide realistic timing.


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