Artillery - philosophies and competence


There's a saying - Artillery conquers, infantry occupies. The American Maneuver Warfare military reformers of the 80's and 90's used this to describe the French First World War approach, which the American army adopted as it became the French army's apprentice as late-comer to WWI.

The effect of this on American thinking about artillery and air/ground attack is indeed profound. Lethality here, lethality there. It's all about lethality.

The Russians seem to follow it as well.

Those who follow this philosophy have good arguments; there were battles if not entire wars in which indirect fires accounted for about 80% of casualties. The current Russo-Ukrainian War appears to follow this pattern as well. 

But there is a different way of thinking. Air power could be thought of as impediment to logistics, and thus to operational agility. An increase of its lethality could even be counter-productive

Artillery could be thought of as an enabler to battlefield manoeuvres of land forces.

Let's say there's a patch of 100x200 m woodland from which an  infantry force of 30...150 personnel (not exactly known) can fire on vehicles in 2 km radius with missiles and call artillery fires onto infantry in the same radius.

The "Artillery conquers, infantry occupies" school of thought would destroy this force by bombarding the entire patch of woodland, thoroughly. They might want to have a bird's view on it, so troops who evaded to open fields could be shot at as well. The defenders may have dug in properly, so a very high density of 155 mm shells of multiple very big bombs such as Mk 84 (914 kg GP bomb) or special thermobaric/fuel air explosive munitions would be needed. The amount of fires would be calculated to destroy the force. Then infantry in IFVs or APCs would drive to the patch of tree stems, dismount, count the bodies and take a few prisoners.

The Maneuverist school of thought would do this very differently. It would execute a very brief but intense bombardment by artillery and/or mortar HE munitions  and would rush in with the infantry mere seconds after these "neutralising" fires were lifted. They would assume that the brief but intense bombardment has "neutralised" the defenders. That's a state of shock that goes away within minutes. At most a handful of defenders would open fire on the advancing troops, and they would easily be overwhelmed by direct fires. Almost all defenders would be taken prisoners.

So let's sum up. 

Advantages of Maneuvrist approach:

  • less munitions expended
  • less firepower needed
  • less planning required
  • quicker
  • less killing
  • smaller calibre artillery and mortars suffice, may even be better
  • enables rapid advance through deep defences without extreme amount of fire support

Advantages of the "Artillery conquers, infantry occupies" approach:

  • Your officers don't need to be smart about land warfare.


I mentioned the 80% casualties by indirect fires statistic. This is true and valid, but you can achieve a much better statistic if you have a large competence advantage. Operation Barbarossa caused about 4.5 million personnel losses to the Soviet Union in 1941. Half of these were prisoners of war. The Axis forces could not have defeated that much personnel and could not have advanced that quickly if they had relied on "Artillery conquers, infantry occupies". They did use up the ingredients of this success (competent infantrymen were worn out, logistics vehicles were worn out, strong horses were lost, motorcycles were worn out) in the later years, but the events of 1940 and 1941 show that if you have a big competence advantage and the means to exploit it, you can do much better than the firepower fetishists.

The philosophical difference is between surprise & shock or lethality of fires. It's obvious how laymen and undereducated army officers gravitate towards the latter. It requires much less understanding of what happens and what works in battles. Most superficial knowledge suffices to understand the 'lethality über alles!' approach.

The lethality approach is nevertheless the approach to go with if you lack competence in your officer corps or if you cannot or don't want to advance. If all you can really do is shoot, you shoot - regardless of whether something else would be better if you just could do that as well.


Firepower's lethality fascinates laymen just as much as the Americans (I'm not sure about today's Frenchmen). The focus on lethality should be a fallback position for when you can't do better.






BTW, the loss of DPICM bomblet munition to the cluster munitions ban doesn't seem to be all that bad when you expect enemies to use overhead cover or if you just want neutralising fires (which works fine with "unitary" HE munitions). Yet the theoretical lethality advantage of DPICM made it the dominant munition in the U.S. Army of the late Cold War (something like 70% of 155 mm rounds were DPICM if my memory of a secondary source serves well).



Yet another blog post on reserves


There's a substantial difference between modern NATO-style armies and how most of their predecessor armies (other than troops used in colonies) did it in the 1880...1945 period.

Armies of old developed an officer corps (and some of them also a senior non-commissioned officer corps) to have qualified leadership for a huge mobilised army ready. This included some briefly-trained reserve officers and reserve junior NCOs, which usually had a good education (and thus social) background.

Enlisted personnel was trained and then discharged after at most three years, often two years. The idea wasn't to have super-competent enlisted personnel. The idea was to be able to mobilise millions for the next great war. Peacetime strength of the army was of much lesser importance than wartime (mobilised) strength.

I should more often use images to break up text walls again

The training shortcomings of the time up to 1916 weren't rooted in this; they were rooted in a lack of understanding how best to tackle tactical problems. It was later shown over and over again that you can train young men to become highly proficient enlisted personnel in less than two years. In fact, in times past many junior officers had less military experience than that and were sent to lead men in battle, often even without anyone more experienced supporting them.

Modern armed forces are very much concerned with peacetime personnel strength. But what's the point of having enlisted man on active duty for more than two years? His learning curve has flattened already, he's little more than a prop for a handful of junior leaders to gain experience in leadership and management. Couldn't those learn their trade also by training another class of enlisted personnel? Two men serving two years as enlisted personnel each gives about the same experience to the junior leaders as one man serving four years.And they are about twice as much enlisted personnel in wartime.

To recruit two young men for each two years is harder than to recruit one for two years and then bribe him to re-enlist, of course.

Our modern armed forces have thus been formed by the socio-economic background, just as knights were a product of their feudal time, for example. I'm jut a bit irritated that people seem to believe that this way of running an army is superior, "professional", possibly even "elite". It's a recipe for having too small trained reserves for when you need to have a numerically strong army.

NATO can keep following this recipe as long as it doesn't fight a land war against India or China. We are outnumbering the peacetime Russian armed forces roughly 2:1 with European NATO alone. Recent events have show that Russia cannot mobilise any better than we could. So it's safe to keep following this path in NATO, albeit it's guaranteed to be cost-inefficient.

What about countries that are not part of such a large (and effective, unlike CSTO) alliance? They should abstain from some follies like miniature balanced forces (such as having a navy just because you have a coastline, or running a single squadron of Mach 2 strike fighters). They should also absolutely abstain from the "professional" army model.

It takes more than just a budget to motivate enough young men (and women) to volunteer for a relatively brief military service, but they would do it if it's a career boost rather than a career speed bump. There's no need for conscription in most countries. Yet for deterrence and defence there's a need for quantity. Look at Ukraine and Russia; both need plenty infantry for the oh-so usual infantry tasks. The terrain is mostly open fields, but the demand for infantry is still extremely high. Russia in particular did not prepare, and can apparently not mobilise infantry in quantity with decent equipment and at least modest (six months) training.

Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran, Vietnam, South Korea, Pakistan and Philippines need substantial infantry reserves. The NATO model of land forces would be a folly for them.





The military technology death spiral

The quintessential platforms of army, navy and air forces seem to get more and more expensive, and ever less affordable. This was sometimes described as a "death spiral" and may lead to a point when it's about time to give up on such a platform concept. 
I will try to offer a concise, illustrated explanation of this very important phenomenon. My model is simplified* and assumes among other things that there's always a counter to a counter possible.
- - - - -
At first, let's look at a simple modelling of a spiral between attack and defence. A form of attack (or firepower) is introduced, which provokes a countermeasure that largely or entirely mitigates this capability. The response is an improved attack capability that overcomes the defence. Rinse, repeat.
This was seen in tank development, when penetrative ability of tank guns and protective ability of tank armour were competing. Alternatively, you could think of the tank's protection as enabling attacks and as anti-tank guns ' ability to penetrate the tank's armour as the defensive side.

(click on image for a bigger version)

The costs of attacking and defensive abilities escalate together with said abilities. A 3.7 cm anti-tank gun did cost much less than a 8.8 cm anti-tank gun, and 15 mm of steel plate did cost less than 100 mm of steel plate. My model assumes that capability and costs are proportional (normally costs rise more than proportionally) to reduce one layer of detail that doesn't matter right now.
You see an additional dimension in the next diagram; the utility or usefulness (for deterrence, in warfare or both).
This scenario shows a rising usefulness, as the platform becomes more capable over time. Still, the escalating costs may eventually exceed the usefulness in warfare. The entire concept of this platform (which unites offensive and defensive capabilities such as a strike fighter, a tank or a destroyer) should be questioned at the latest at this break-even point. Further improvements are not worth the associated expenses. Different ways of 'doing business' in war should be found. The platform that unites offensive and defensive abilities is likely already obscenely expensive at this point.
Many metrics could be used to describe usefulness, such as how deadly a platform is, but in the end this is not a value that can truly be calculated. The entire model does not offer a formula for calculation. It is meant to create awareness in the reader's mind about this break-even point and why it will be reached eventually.
The next diagram shows a different, more pessimistic scenario. The platform's usefulness in warfare actually degrades as its evolution is driven by the attack-defence spiral instead of by the mission.

Medieval knights were a good example for this. They were initially an all-round mounted force, but at the latest by the 11th century the weight of armour reduced their utility to a specialised battlefield shock attack force. The personnel also gained a high social status. Other cavalry tasks such as scouting or foraging were thus usually left to light cavalry. Horse cavalry only re-united into a unified cavalry in the 19th century when firepower had won so clearly over the cavalry's defence that the heavy cavalry niche became impractical.

The next diagram shows a special case in which the costs of a system escalate not as a sum of attack and defence, but are almost entirely about one of both. A fortress' costs are being driven almost entirely by its defensive qualities, and a land attack missile system's costs may be driven almost entirely by its offensive qualities. The break-even point will nevertheless be reached eventually.
Asymmetric arms races (such as cruise missiles versus air defence missiles) add another aspect. The offensive capability may keep getting funded for good reasons after its costs exceed its direct utility: Such a decisions an be justified by taking into account indirect utility; the expenses incurred on the opposing forces for defence against the threat. Land attack cruise missiles won't be self-defeating by high costs if the defence against them are more expensive missiles. Then the production of the threat system (cruise missile) would be escalated as long as the opposing forces waste their resources trying to build up a defence against it. Finally, the defenders may cease to throw more resources into a hopeless arms race and then the optimum for the threat system (cruise missile) would in theory exist: A maximised difference between the (sum of direct and indirect) utility and the (lower) expenses for it.
So in the end, the asymmetric arms races can be described using the same graphics, just keep in mind that utility = direct utility and indirect utility in such cases.
- - - - -
Certain platforms -especially tanks- have been proclaimed "dead" when a new iteration of a counter looked particularly convincing, such as the rise of anti-tank guided missiles in the 1960's. But engineers usually find a new iteration that counters the counter, such as composite and reactive armours that kept 1960's anti-tank missiles from penetrating most of a 1980's tank's front. Potential technical counters are known to just about all forms of attack today. Likewise, counters to just about all forms of defence can be found.
I assert - and this model visualizes -  that the real death knell for a concept is not some spectacular-looking iteration of a counter to it: It's that the death spiral of escalating costs does at some point exceed the usefulness (the utility) of a platform. This doesn't necessarily stop the evolution, though. Usefulness in warfare cannot easily be monetised and compared to expected costs of a platform evolution step. We may - and likely do so regularly - keep going in the death spiral, wasting resources on platforms that have long become inefficient.

The exact quantity of iterations until the cost-utility break even varies.
The figures in the diagrams are symbolic.

You may use and modify the model with proper attribution (author Sven Ortmann, Defence & Freedom blog).
*: Models should be simple and reduced to one thought or essence when meant for explanation. Complicated models are good for simulation purposes only.


On infantry


On infantry, because it's still such an essential building block of every army and the misconceptions are legion.

Prepared defence

Infantry has a certain pattern of what it needs to do in a prepared defence (not an official term) situation. It shall remain undetected, outposts shall intercept enemy scouts and force hostile attackers to deploy from march formation. They shall slow down hostiles (maybe even guard obstacles), so friendly indirect fires have ample opportunity to hit them and friendly HQ and reserves have enough time to react to the attackers. Most importantly, the outposts / screening force / patrols protect positions and troops farther 'back' against the enemy ground reconnaissance. Few are exposed to great risks in order to reduce the risk for the formation as a whole. The outpost infantry better change position briefly after revealing itself, so one should not think of outposts (and their even smaller pickets, which you need when and where fields of view are really short) as static positions. To dig in is fine, but you better change position once hostile arty knows your position.

A main line of resistance is farther behind the outposts and it's meant to not just slow down, but to stop the attackers for good. The main line of resistance can become a new outpost line with a new main line of resistance created farther in the back, or alternatively some counter attack or counterstroke (flank counterattack) expels the attackers from the outpost zone. Either way, the main line of resistance positions should not be used after uncovered. The whole secret to success in such a defence is to

  • avoid detection of positions until they open fire to slow the advance down and to
  • direct powerful indirect fires on hostiles, preferably even before they launch the attack.

The infantry does not shoot much in this prepared defence scenario. It probably gets shot at ten times as much as it gets to shoot. Indirect fires (mortars, tube artillery, rockets) are the big killers, while infantry is in this scenario more of a stopping force than a killing force.

Infantry assault

It's near-impossible to succeed by attacking with companies or battalions in a long skirmish line as if it was still 1913. It didn't really work back then, either. The infantry breaks down into small teams and these teams manoeuvre through the battlefield, exploiting microterrain for cover and concealment. Surprise is very important, so they need to be disciplined regarding shooting, talking, using radios and exposing themselves. Both the element of surprise and survival require that they avoid being detected until they are in close contact with the enemy.

A large attack is a disjointed line of advancing infantry platoons. Some will be stopped early, others will break into the hostile positions. The successful ones need to receive reinforcements quickly, while the not successful ones should rather receive smoke support so they can break contact. The reinforcements need to exploit the break-in as quickly as possible for maximum success. The platoon that succeeded to break into the defensive network will likely not be able to quickly push on. It's going to prepare for defence instead,  particularly flank security. It has almost certainly wounded comrades and prisoners of war to deal with.

Attacking infantry can rarely win a firefight on its own against peer infantry without suffering many casualties, and in some situations it's entirely impossible. Suppressive small arms fires are helpful, but rarely perfect. Infantry can quickly run out of munitions, especially grenades. 1st choice for suppression (or neutralisation) is to use indirect fires, 2nd choice is to use armoured vehicles and last resort is to let the infantry make the enemy fight less in order to succeed itself.* Our suppression effort is all about having fewer opponents shooting at us, lethality is of little interest. 

The attention on killing (milporn videos in social media, mil-industrial complex promoting wonder weapons) distracts from the necessity to make the alive enemies shoot less so our troops advance again. It's much better to capture a company of 100 men in a day with reconnaissance, a couple hundred shells fired and a surprising assault than to kill it over a month of bombardment with € 50 million worth of precision munitions!

Indirect fires are again the main killers on the attack. The infantry's job is not so much to kill the defenders as to make their position untenable and to then hold terrain. Infantry is not very good at pursuit, so an offensive that does not include an exploitation of a break-in or breakthrough by tanks is going to cause much less losses to the attacked force than an attack with such a mounted exploitation component.

An important job for the infantry is to take prisoners of war. Great tactics with good resources should lead to more prisoners of war than hostiles killed in action. So in a way, the best offensive use of infantry is more about them not shooting hostiles dead than about them shooting hostiles dead.

- - - - -

I've seen much writing and much obsession with infantry firepower that signalled very different ideas of what infantry is good for, and I do blame in part the stupid occupation wars and unhealthy special forces fanboiism for this. 

Russian mobilised infantrymen complain that they're cannon fodder. They get mortared or shelled multiple times in their dugout position in some woodland and can't do anything by themselves.

Well, guess what? Western infantry would not feel much better in prepared defence or on the attack. The infantry's job is not so much the killing and destroying by shooting as just being there, then moving somewhere else and be a presence there. They're in large part simply movable targets for artillery once exposed. Infantry is exposed to indirect fires because it's necessary to have someone there to slow down or stop attackers, to dislodge defenders, to take prisoners of war.

Infantry was the main arm of killing in the age of rifles from the 1850's to 1880's. It was clear by 1915 that it's not the main arm of killing any more and it will likely never regain that status. Indirect fires did  60...90% of the harm to hostile troops in pitched battles since about 1915.

The problem is that you simply need infantry for the mentioned tasks.



P.S.: I did approximately describe highly effective tactics that were actually known since WW2 at the latest, but are still not commonly taught in all major armies, or in all of NATO. Some armies have an astonishing ability to ignore tactics that deliver greater success, and to ignore scholars who point out the military history evidence and field exercise results that support this. Personally, I'd recommend testing some alternative ways of doing business, particularly on the defence, as I see promising conceptual alternatives there.

*: Combat in settlements that were not bombed or shelled much is a special case; the attackers can use the cover and concealment by buildings to mass locally and execute a push with well-prepared suppressive fires on a limited amount of possible firing positions while blocking roads with longitudinal machinegun fires (by tank or infantry) to isolate the local defenders. Buildings known to house a substantial quantity of defenders can be precision-bombed on call. The attacker is actually enjoying advantages inside settlements, so the defenders may use an picket/outpost line to reduce how many troops are exposed to such attacks and to free up troops for locally massed offensive actions. High tactical skill on both sides will lead to outskirts having merely observation posts, then there would be mobile pickets and both sides would strive to 'win' with a series of attacks with limited objectives. Many more troops would be detailed for suppressive fires and covering routes than for assault duty.



Suppression by infantry weapons


I'm going to insert a small piece on suppression by infantry fires, as the comments in the last piece on short and long range infantry brought this up.

The bigger calibre (7.62x51 mm rather than 5.56x45 mm) is widely believed to suppress effectively in a large radius around the trajectory. The suppression effect stems from justified fear after hearing the sonic crack of a bullet passing nearby. So no subsonic bullets for suppression, please. The bigger calibre weighs more and is more bulky than the smaller one, but it can still be more efficient if you don't expect to miss very closely. So suppressing someone who occasionally pokes his head out of two windows may better be done with 5.56x45 mm single shots, while suppressing a line of hedges 30 m wide at 300 m distance is much better left to the 7.62x51 mm calibre.

Suppression knows two phases; 

  1. Gain fire superiority; the aiming and shooting hostiles get scared by bullets passing by closely and take cover.
  2. Maintaining the suppression; the repeated shots keep the hostiles scared. They may expose themselves once in a while to shoot, but they won't aim and may very well miss by 20°. They may also resort to "spray & pray", not exposing more than hands and lower arms. 


"One rule of thumb states that a soldier will become suppressed if a bullet passes within one metre of him every second, and stay suppressed if one bullet passes within one metre every  three seconds. [...] The one-metre rule does not fit with what has been seen in real small-arms firefights. For example, Second World War [when mostly calibres similar to 7.62x51 mm were used] field studies suggested that one round passing within three metres every six seconds would appreciably degrade return fire from a whole fire-team, and two rounds every three seconds would prevent any return fire at all."

"War Games  The psychology of combat" by Leo Morray

Neither phase works on hostiles who use a periscope and don't need to expose themselves to aim & shoot. This is particularly relevant for well-sited tripod-mounted machineguns.

We saw remote-controlled sniper rifles used in Syria and other conflicts; these won't be suppressed, either. 

cover > concealment > suppression

Much depends on the situation and on the small unit leadership here. A well-trained non-commissioned officer leading the infantry section is often expected to control and direct the firing of the section machinegun (especially if it's a 7.62x51 mm GPMG). He's supposed to use magnifying optics to find and identify the main threat, then order suppressive fires on it. The rest of the squad should shoot in the approximate direction he directs, and cease fire when he signals it. A section leader who can do this with a disciplined squad may succeed with phase 1 very quickly and with relatively small munition expenditure. He'll also be able to transition to phase 2 soon and thus save even more munitions. Let's call this section "frugal".

Other infantry sections (and indeed other armies) will react to shots taken at them with mad firing, guessing where it comes from and expending a thousand or more rounds as a section in a minute. They may also not be frugal with munition in phase 2. Let's call this section "mad minute".

Section "frugal" can very well do its job with 5.56x45 mm calibre and even machinegunners using 30 rounds magazines ("automatic rifleman"). At least one thermal sight (for the section leader, ideally periscopic) will help greatly. Their weapons will not overheat, and they can easily carry enough munitions for an afternoon of (non-continuous) firefights. 

Section "mad minute" does not require as much training, but it would be best-served to have one if not two (as late German WW2 mechanised infantry sections) 7.62x51 mm GPMGs. Its optimal weapons are much heavier and it needs to carry more and heavier munitions. It may very well be a lot less lethal and it's certainly less agile on the battlefield due to the greater weights. An upside is that it's going to be better when the locations of hostiles are very hard to discern or if the section needs to gain fire superiority almost instantaneously, as it has no decent cover available. Furthermore, its weapons will have an edge at penetrating obstacles and hard body armour.

So you can go all lightweight on small arms (all 5.56x45 mm carbines and magazine-fed light machineguns/"automatic rifles", modest quantity of rounds carried) and greatly emphasise agility, but you need to be capable of applying the firefight drills that work with that.



P.S.: A factor for suppression may very well be whether the suppressed hostiles think they know where the shots are coming from. They may have engaged a section and suppress it, then get engaged and suppressed by another section. They will feel extra fear of the unknown until they believe they know where the second section is. Morale will be hurt especially much if the 2nd section wasn't expected (hostile reinforcements always hurt morale if it's not a turkey shoot) and if it's shooting from the flank or even from the back.


edit: https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2021/03/trench-warfare-revisited-armenias.html



The golden calibre


Pre-Dreadnought battleships and some armoured cruisers often had a large calibre secondary armament. The ship designers thought it was not quite practical to add more of the primary calibre (usually 11 or 12 inches) guns in wing turrets, and proceeded to add as powerful guns port and starboard of the centreline as possible.

HMS Agamemnon (c) Emoskopes

This practice ended with HMS Dreadnought, and literature usually frames it like this:

The new fire control techniques involved correcting salvo fires, and it took as a rule of thumb at least a salvo of six shells of identical guns to properly observe and thus properly adjust the fall of shot. Similarly large secondary artillery fires or salvoes by other warships on the same target made fall of shot attribution more difficult. Thus the warship designers attempted to have a large-enough calibre for penetrating battleship armour and install this with as big a broadside (6..14 tubes) as affordable on one battleship, which accordingly grew in size.

This is all correct, but a different framing works as well, and explains battleship designs of the Inter-War Years:

Manual loading was quick, reliable and safe only up to a shell weight of about 45 kg, corresponding to six inches calibre (155 mm). Heavier shells required machine-assisted loading, which was slower than manual loading until the 1940's (autoloader 8" guns of Des Moines class cruisers). The 5.5...6" (139...155 mm) calibre range was furthermore considered the minimum to very effectively combat warships of large torpedoboat or destroyer sizes. 4" (100...105 mm) and even about 5" (120...133 mm) were not highly regarded for stopping power against such targets, but were preferred against aircraft.

It made thus little sense to use a bigger secondary artillery calibre than 6" (155 mm).

The calibres between 6" and 8" (such as 17 or 19 cm) largely disappeared after the First World War. They fired almost as slowly as a 12" gun (German ~15" guns of WW2 reached 3.3 rounds per minute).

U.S.American 1930's 6" L/47 gun: 8...10 rounds per minute 

U.S.American 1930's 8" L/55 gun: 3...4 rounds per minute

The optimum, was in the 1920's a 14...15" primary battleship artillery coupled with 5.5...6" secondary artillery (which could be limited to rear 270°, as the best reaction to torpedo-carrying light forces was to go flank speed away from them unless they were detected only very close). 2 pdr pom-poms were the best choice against torpedo bombers and MTBs. The secondary artillery could deal with airships, except for lone cruisers, which might want to have a single 90° elevation 3" (75 mm) gun for that (also as salute gun).

The 28 cm and 33 cm (~13") gun calibres used by new-built ships in Germany and France were kind of budget solutions, suitable for defeating cruisers and unsuitable for battle against battleships. The 8" (~20.3 cm) calibre of the standard heavy cruisers was artificially set by a multinational treaty as limit for cruisers, nobody believed that it was a technical optimum.

The optimum of the 1930's was different, as aircraft had become more threatening. One mix was a divided ~6" secondary artillery with an anti-air 3.5...4" tertiary artillery, but the Americans probably got it right by combining both into their very good 5" L/38 gun.

- - - - -

I wrote this as an introduction to the concept of a 'golden middle' for artillery calibres.

The 6" calibre was in naval warfare (and in today's army artillery, apparently) the biggest practical calibre before rate of fire fell off very badly, turning guns relatively inefficient against unarmoured or weakly armoured oats and ships.

 - - - - -

Fast forward, and moving to land:

There's again a debate about tank gun calibres. A debate that was postponed in the 1990's, when Germany lengthened its 120 mm smoothbore gun and gave it more powerful propellant, too. The quest for greater penetration power was slowed by a lack of tank protection advances in Eastern Europe and by a focus on improving the projectiles to better deal with late 1980''s protection (heavy ERA). 

There were 140 mm tank guns tested in the Western World during the late 1980's and 1990s, but they were not introduced yet.

prototype of Swiss Leopard 2 version, upgraded with 140 mm gun

The German-developed 120 mm smoothbore calibre became a Western de facto standard, while the Soviet legacy 125 mm smoothbore was the competing standard. 125 mm was already too large for manual loading, and was loaded by autoloaders - and in two parts. The separation of ammunition and propellant had a very detrimental effect by the 1980's, when continued development of the arrow projectiles of APFSDS led to longer 'long rod' arrow projectiles than did and do fit into the Soviet-style 125mm shot. The Western munition coped by letting the projectile protrude into the propellant, and thus gained superior penetration despite the smaller calibre.

The Russians moved on in terms of MBT protection with their T-14 Armata tank, so Western developers are again looking at bigger guns.

There's the Rheinmetall 130 mm gun  

There are now again 140 mm tank gun projects:

The problem with these guns isn't the barrel, which really cannot get significantly longer than the 120 mm L/55 or the 125 mm barrel anyway.

The problem is now the munition. It has gotten unbelievably large to the point that (being of fixed nature, not separate propellant) manual loading is out of question. You need an autoloader for that. Autoloaders are today no more slower than manual loading, but they add a probability of technical failure (~mission self-kill), add cost, add maintenance demands and eliminate a crewmember that participates in security, situational awareness and maintenance efforts. An upside is that the vehicle can be built with a bit lower silhouette with an autoloader.

Moreover, the enormous cartridge size permits for very few cartridges carried, especially if you want to carry the cartridges safely, such as in the turret bustle behind blast doors.

This enormous munition size is really only needed for one thing; a powerful-enough APFSDS shot to penetrate T-14 Armata crew capsule from the frontal 60°.

A 105 mm shell is plenty for just about every other purpose. It may not collapse a family home in one shot, but you can easily shoot twice for the same effect as one 155 mm HE shell would have on it. All armoured vehicles other than MBT frontal protection (would be penetrated by a good 105 mm APFSDS shot. All kinds of 105 mm shots other than smoke and cannister are guaranteed to ruin the turret of a T-14 Armata, achieving a firepower kill.

Is the ability for frontal penetration of the T-14 Armata crew capsule really worth the effort of an even bigger gun than 120 mm L/55?

It sounds like extremism, fanatism and tunnel vision to me. It's regrettable that the German army and arms industry have been especially fixated on APFSDS and frontal 60° tank duels (both concerning firepower and protection).

One should remember that there's an alternative to a bigger gun that can do the very same thing for the tank, from within it: A powerful rocket. The only drawback of the HVM approach is that they need some time for acceleration, thus the ability to penetrate a T-14 Armata hull capsule over the frontal 60° may have a minimum range of a couple hundred metres. You could still mess up its turret at such distances with a gun in the 75...105 mm band, and its sensors with just about anything (including machineguns), but notably with 30 mm autocannon firing AHEAD.

In other words; tanks may have found a golden middle for tank gun calibres decades ago. The candidates are 75...120 mm with single piece munition (75...105 or 90 mm only in combination with missiles). 120 mm smoothbore is the golden middle if one rejects HVMs.



The story is very different for stub guns



*: Warships smaller than 3,000 tons had at most fragmentation protection armour and early on they also made use of filled coal bunkers to stop fragments. They did not really stop shells.


Short and long range infantry


Imagine we added just a few more features (such as a tripod, interfaces, laser beam widening lenses) and a bit of software to such a portable gadget. We could with a single device

  • launch anti-tank guided missiles using thermal camera head (Javelin, Spike)
  • launch anti-tank guided missiles using SACLOS (laser comm) or laser beamriding
  • launch anti-tank guided missiles using SAL guidance
  • launch anti-tank guided missiles using SACLOS (radio, wire or fibreoptic cable link)
  • launch various ManPADS (Piorun, Stinger, Mistral, maybe LMM Martlet)
  • launch "dumb" munitions with good accuracy to good ranges (600...1200 m) (similar to Panzerfaust 3-IT); thermobaric, high explosive, tandem HEAT, smoke
  • do battle damage reporting and other reporting (camera)
  • "see" enemy continuous laser emitters
  • do terrain surveillance out to about 2 km day and night
  • do forward observer tasks for mortar, artillery and close air support

And all this could be given to every infantry platoon as an easily man-portable (battery supply is the bigger headache than the item itself) asset under direct platoon leader control.

Should we do this?

 - - - - -

It's enticing, but I say "No".

The problem is the range. It has a range measured in kilometres, not in hundreds of metres. How do you site it? You site it with a long field of view, preferably over a wide angle. You place it at the edges of open terrain or on a high vantage point (high up in a building).

Those are not places where the rest of the infantry platoon should be at all. Infantrymen are the superior troops for close terrain, where fields of view are measured by tens or hundreds of metres. To leave a few men at some great vantage point to make good use of such a device while most of the platoon is in close terrain is nonsense. The platoon would often be torn apart and unified leadership would break down regularly. Such a multi tool CLU and close combat infantrymen do not belong together in one platoon.

- - - - -

This device is an extreme example because of its range of several kilometres. There are several weapons that go well beyond the core range proficiency of infantry; 12.7 mm sniper rifles (also ~2 km on good days, 1 km on normal days), .338 magnum sniper rifles (easily 700 m), 7.62NATO machineguns on tripod (easily 600 m). Even a normal 6.8 or 7.62NATO rifle with a 4x scope reaches out to 600 m or more unless it's an inaccurate design.

Such weapons with ranges well beyond hand grenades, 5.56NATO small arms, rifle grenades and 30/40 m grenades luckily have one thing in common; their users (crews) don't need to participate in assaults (other than maybe 7.62NATO universal machinegun taken from tripod and used as "light" machinegun with bipod).

This lends itself well to dividing infantry into two types: Not light or mechanised, but short and long range.

The short range infantry would fight inside buildings, inside woodland and conduct assaults (including counterattacks in platoon strength).

The long range infantry would be sited for good field of view/field of fire. They would provide suppressive fires during the short range infantry's assaults. The different siting does not necessarily mean less changes of positions. They should change position after revealing themselves by shooting, while the short range infantry may not yet be in contact and thus remain hidden where it is.

So this is not about mobile and static infantry, it's about short ranges (and lines of sight) and long ranges (and lines of sight) infantry.

- - - - -

Here are some hypothetical TO&E for infantry platoons:

short range infantry platoon

  • Platoon lead team (Plt leader, Assistant Plt leader, signaller, combat medic/assistant signaller
  • 4 sections (section leader, 2 automatic riflemen, 2 grenadiers with anti-BMP LAW)

long range infantry platoon

  • Platoon lead team (Plt leader, Assistant Plt leader, signaller, combat medic/assistant signaller
  • 2 or 3 MG sections (section leader, designated marksman .338magnum, machinegunner with 7.62NATO MMG,  rifleman/porter)
  • 1 or 2 missile sections (section leader, multitool (CLU) user, 4 riflemen/porters)

Brits/Canadians/Frenchmen can add a commando mortar to the platoon lead teams if they must. Chinese might want to add one of their 35 mm rifles to a MG section and expand it to 6 men, but I don't think such weapons are a must-have.

 - - - - -

These hypothetical platoons would be employed very differently. The long range infantry platoon would do forward observation, long field of view picket duty, suppressive fires from more than 300 m distance, anti-tank work and battlefield air defence work.

The short range platoon does what is more commonly associated with infantry tasks, without the extra weight, training demands and tactical complications of the longer-ranged weapons and tools. Their platoon leaders would still be authorised to request mortar HE fires and artillery smoke fires. The short range infantry platoon would do a lot more training with MBT and APC crews, while the long range infantry platoon would rather train against MBTs.

Finally, one remark inspired from Ukraine war footage; the long range infantry platoon places a greater equipment weights on its members, but it would still be suitable for older infantrymen than the typically optimum infantryman age of 18...35 years. I see a lot of Ukrainians in ATGM teams that look more like 40...50 than 20...30. Younger men are more aggressive (especially the unmarried ones, while the married ones are more stubborn defenders) according to WW2 experiences.

So this short range and long range infantry division could very well also be an age division (young and old), which is important for an army that depends on reservists.

related blog posts:














approximate usual effective ranges (ignoring hard body armour):

  • LMM Martlet: against low-flying helicopter and BTR/BMP targets maybe about 4000 m if a good-enough sensor is available
  • ManPADS: typically ceiling about 3500 m, diagonal distance more than 4000 m, field of view on ground doesn't matter much
  • anti-tank guided missiles (man-portable): 1800...4000 m with outlier ERYX (only 600 m range) (typical minimum ranges 50...200 m)
  • 12.7 mm sniper rifles: about 800 m, rare shots well beyond 1000 m
  • .338 magnum or similar sniper rifle: about 700 m, rare shots beyond 1000 m
  • computer-assisted unguided Panzerfaust and similar: 600...1200 m depending on munition
  • NLAW (predicted line of sight mode anti-tank missile): 800 m
  • .338 Magnum cartridge machinegun: about 700 m, harassing fires well over 1000 m
  • 7.62NATO machinegun on tripod: about 600 m, harassing fires well over 1000 m 
  • 7.62NATO designated marksman rifle: about 600 m
  • commando mortar: about 500...600 m (less in windy conditions) 
  • 5.56NATO machinegun on tripod: about 400 m
  • machinegun on bipod: about 400 m (bursts)
  • 7.62NATO battle rifle with iron sights: 300...400 m
  • 5.56NATO rifle with magnifying scope and either bipod or stable rest: about 400 m
  • assault rifle with no more than 1.5x magnifying scope, 5.56NATO carbines: about 300 m
  • unguided anti-tank weapons: 200...300 m (RPG rather 150 m with crosswind, first shot)
  • underbarrel or stand-alone 30 or 40 mm grenade launcher: about 150 m, harassing fires much farther
  • rifle grenade: about 100 m, rocket-assisted ones in calm air rather 150 m, harassing fires about 200 m
  • lightweight or stick hand grenade: 30...40 m
  • normal hand grenade: 20...30 m

Opinions about what's an "effective range" differ. It's usually a good tactic to hold fire down to about 2/3 of what I stated as effective range with carbines/rifles/machineguns. Certainly many people would claim longer effective ranges, but I'm confident to not be far off.




P.S.: We had something similar in the past, the heavy weapons companies of infantry battalions. Lots of heavy machineguns were in those, later also mortars. U.S.Army infantry platoons had IIRC two heavy machineguns separate from the squads in the 80's or 90's.



Defence policy layers

Defence policy (in the sense of providing security to your own nation against blockade/bombing/invasion, not in the sense of quasi-imperialistic meddling) can be separated into layers.

Here's an example:

  1. Foreign policy to create a safer world (by sanctioning aggressions, for example)
  2. Abstaining from starting or needlessly joining a war
  3. Forming or joining collective security treaties (defensive alliances)
  4. Deter aggressors
  5. Be able to defeat aggressors if deterrence fails
  6. Limit damage incurred in case of war

(Any blogger with a bit of visual design skill would now use one of those onion layer graphics to illustrate the concept.)

I'm fine with layers 1...5 and think that they were somewhat neglected.

#1 Hypocrisy kept us from sanctioning aggressions and microaggressions committed by friendly countries

#2 We needlessly joined the Afghanistan War, and needlessly send troops into many other countries that are irrelevant to our security.

#3 We are in NATO, but fail to emphasise the defensive nature of NATO (see Kosovo Air War 1999 and the frequent tolerated loudmouthing by NATO general secretaries)

#4 This works for NATO almost without effort, as there's no aggressor capable of taking even only on a fourth of our conventional forces without using nuclear warheads.

#5 See #4

- - - - -

So, what's my issue with #6?

I think #6 is cost-inefficient. It's extremely unlikely that #1...#4 fail to keep us in peace. Resources spent on #6 are better-spent on #1 (sanctioning aggressors at some economic cost to yourself) and #4 (deterring war in the first place, instead of trying to make it less horrible).

- - - - -

This blog post was triggered by news about political efforts for a missile defence in Central and Eastern Europe. That would be an extremely expensive endeavour, and by now we know that Russia has a) largely depleted its missile stocks and b) is too dumb to cause much damage with missiles.

Moreover, an aggressor would be tempted to launch many missiles with a strategic surprise, which means that such a defence system would be surprised and thus likely fail to live up to expectations.

To establish a very large area defence against cruise missiles (supersonic or stealthy) AND (quasi-)ballistic PGMs (different from cruise missiles by carrying the oxidiser for the propulsion rather than breathing air) AND hypersonic missiles (high & very fast-flying, typically air-breathing) and to stay ahead of threat munitions with all three defences would be extremely expensive. To just buy some American missiles and radars would not live up to expectations.

We need such strategic missile defences neither to deter nor to defeat. This is overreach, overspending, primitive and poorly thought-out feeding of arms industry big business.

It's yet again a primitive low effort thinking reaction, just as the primitive EUR 100 billion boost with which politicians who were too incompetent to do their job want to calm their security policy conscience in Germany.




A new wave in MBT designs


P.S:: Some additions I made on twitter:


The Western main battle tank development appears to mimic what the T-14 Armata already showed:

  • at least two crewmembers in the hull
  • main gun using autoloader
  • hard kill active protection system
  • lots and lots of electronics & optronics
  • really expensive
  • under 60 tons weight

A current reveal is the Abrams X with three man crew in the hull, autoloader, optionally manned turret (manual loader with poor ergonomics as backup for the autoloader).

The German KF 51 Panther demonstrator is a classic autoloader tank of three plus one optional mission specialist in the hull for the added gadgetry.

The inclusion of drones and loitering munitions in MBT designs looks like a fallback to 1920's thinking about tanks. The tank developers appear to think of a tank as a single vehicle, not as it being part of a company team-sized effort with brigade-level support.

The difference that appears to split the development paths in two is the question of whether the turret is permanently manned or not. A permanently manned turret receives MBT-ish protection, whereas an unmanned turret appears to receive IFV-ish protection. Permanently manned turret MBT concepts are less radical, and may be realised as retrofit of the post-1980 MBT generation.

A 125 mm HE or 105 mm HESH shot would likely mess up an optronics- and electronics-laden turret anyway. Likewise, 20...30 mm APDS or HE rapid rife or a few 30 mm AHEAD kinda-of-shrapnel rounds would shred much of the expensive equipment outside of the armour as well. It's thus understandable that unmanned turrets don't receive protection against 125 mm or even 152 mm APFSDS.

A question remains: Why should the crew in the hull be protected against the greatest threats when the vehicle can be immobilised by even 105 mm shots and firepower killed by anything from 30 mm upwards? Other troops on the battlefield do not get this level of protection. I don't quite see a reason for this.

The new MBT designs do not reveal any particular philosophy for tank actions to me. There's no emphasis on mountain warfare, no emphasis on extreme speed (= neglect of some other characteristics), no emphasis on affordability. The only thing that stands out at least from the German and Russian examples is a quest for even more powerful main guns. This reveals an idea of a MBT that's fighting other MBTs. This thought is very common, but at the same time very questionable. Rather few tanks were destroyed by other tanks in Ukraine. Various kinds of PGMs, 152/155 mm HE indirect fires and morale issues were the big tank killers as far as I can tell. Armoured spearhead actions would rather not face much opposition by tanks, either.

- - - - -

I stick with my fairly recent opinion on protection schemes that permits getting a tank "light" enough (~40 tons) for bandtracks. It makes no sense to add effort for crew survival in face of MBT main gun shots on top of that; the tank crews would be a tiny portion of the exposed battlefield troops. It's OK to have a main gun that defeats MBTs, albeit it doesn't need to blow them up from any angle. To firepower kill the hostile tank suffices. A 120 mm L/44 gun looks satisfactory to me. A quick fire autoloader gun of 76...90 mm calibre coupled with anti-MBT HVMs would be very promising as well.

Either the hostile tank platoon surprises yours - then they will likely knock you out by hitting your weaker sides. Or your tank platoon surprises the enemy tank platoon - then you'd do the same, even with a gun that does not penetrate the forward 60° hull protection.

It makes no sense to clutter the turret roof. A single remotely controlled weapon station ranging from a 7.62x51mm MG3 to a 20x102 mm M621 (or at most a 30x113 mm autocannon) suffices. You may use a coaxial machinegun if the RCWS features an autocannon. I'd propose a 120 mm L/44 with a .338 RCWS. I'd insist on a bulletproofed RCWS, including the munition and its feed.

Finally, I don't like how expensive tanks become. They price themselves out of the battlefield. We may afford a couple hundred, but we would not afford the needed amount of spare parts for all the vulnerable optronics. The commander's independent gimballed sensor should be bulletproofed except in its field of view and have an unimpeded all-round view. This means that the Russian approach of mating the CITV and the RCWS in one (which saves the RCWS's sensors) is the way to go, as it prevents the RCWS from restricting the view of the CITV and cuts costs. The gunner doesn't need the same quality optronics. A plain optical sight for a turret-seated gunner and a second cheap (!!!) infantry-grade thermal vision (monocular) for up to 1000 m vehicle detection range should suffice. Most combat would happen in daylight, and the CITV is a powerful sight for aiming the main gun as well.

The all-round view should be aided by small and cheap (!!!) camera sets with visual and thermal vision. This would feed the "through armour" vision of the crew (especially the driver) and an automatic threat detection (incoming ATGM, drone, persons, vehicles) software could use these cameras to support the crew.

Another means of saving weight and costs could be to use a smaller powerpack. The hybrid approach with an electric motor-generator for peak power (acceleration) with some robust rechargeable batteries for it makes sense. The battery helps greatly with powering the electronics and the turret drive without running the engine (an infrared signature issue). The electric engine is extremely compact and peak power output is rarely required, so going for a "mild" hybrid makes a newly-developed powerpack smaller than an equivalent turbocharged diesel powerpack. The electric engine also counters the turbo lag issue. In the end, the concept has to have a certain power to weight ratio, and developers appear to aim at 30 hp/ton, while 20 hp/ton was widely regarded to be sufficient for a long time and frankly, I don't see why we need the extra 50% power. Yes, having that extra power is fine, but having 5% more tanks for the same budget instead is better. And that may actually be the choice to make.

So even with an intent to cut costs, I'd only

  • save some expenses for special hull armour
  • save the operating expenses associated with the extra hull armour weight (especially fuel)
  • save some costs on the RCWS sight
  • save some costs on the gunner's sights
  • certainly add small costs to the tank with my insistence on anti-drone sensors and acoustic sensors

That might reduce a 15 million Euro tank to a 12 million Euro tank, but the costs for buying AND OPERATING the new MBT generation would still be severe problems. Keep in mind that even the development of the Leopard 2 did cost about as much as 200 tanks. Full development of MBTs is in itself only going to be affordable if we have production runs for well over 500 vehicles.

I don't quite see a route how we could keep tanks tactically highly capable and at the same time affordable in quantity.

There are many alternatives to the use of MBTs in slow-moving combat, and I suppose we should embrace them. MBTs should be focused sharply on rapid spearhead actions by rather compact armoured battalion battlegroups. The current crop of MBT concepts does not appear to be aimed at this, and does not appear to be affordable for more general employment.



*: "affordable" is not about fiscal possibility. "affordable" means that the costs to benefits ratio is not much worse than for alternative approaches. Germany could buy hundreds of tanks that cost a hundred million Euro a piece, it would just be extremely wrong to do so.