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).



  1. Lethality thru firepower works if you have all the supplies. The American approach might use this, because they have the logistics and don't have to risk their own skin to solve the problem.
    European approaches must make do with less logistics. Are they less loss averse or does their effectiveness degrade, when they aren't allowed to take risks such as in missions beyond alliance territory?
    Drones have a potential to degrade the logistics necessary for lethality thru firepower. And automated systems reduce the psychological effects of freezing under artillery fire that reduces combat power.
    Any predictions how that will change the warfare you described?

  2. I always thought the maneuverist approach was to fix the enemy in their position with fires (direct or indirect), and maneuver to their flanks or rear, negating or minimizing the benefits of the enemy's fixed defenses.

    Seems like the "rush in after a short bombardment" approach depends on the (lack of) skill and training of the enemy to reoccupy their positions quickly, or quickly call down their own fires on the advancing friendly forces.

    Nowadays, with drones and loitering munitions, we have a new option. 1) We call down fires to fix the enemy and force them to take cover. 2) Then keep a close watch on their positions with drones as friendly forces advance. 3) If any are reoccupied, attack them immediately with small, precise, loitering munitions.

    I could see equipping vehicles with little box VLS's of small loitering munitions like the DefendTex Drone40 that could be launched rapidly.


    They're only a bit heavier than a 40mm LV grenade.

    A swarm of them over the enemy's head, ready to precisely and rapidly attack individual positions, with larger drones providing the eyes, would force the enemy to stay in cover until friendlies were on top of them. Or neutralize positions that are reoccupied. The effect of a Drone40 warhead is probably similar to a grenade or single DPICM munition.

    1. Flank attacks are widely used, even by those who overemphasise fires. I wrote the scenario implying that the position was for all-round defence, so there's no flank. The typical approach would be to assault a 200x100 m patch of woodland on either 100 m edge, equivalent to how you assault villages.

      "(...) depends on the (lack of) skill and training (...)"
      No, it's meant to exploit the human nature. Men are not combat effective for a brief period after exposure to shock.

      There will be a lot more counters to petty multicopters in 10 years than to waves of artillery shells.

    2. "Petty multicopters" don't have to cost much, if any, more than artillery shells.

      Their advantage is that they can be used _during_ the assault, where artillery poses too much risk of fratricide. Their small warheads and precision pose far less risk.

      I'm sure counters will be developed but, as with all counters, how prevalent they will be is an open question. Can our enemies afford to give counters to every infantry fire team, squad or platoon? How easy is it to counter the counter? For example, jamming can be triangulated and dealt with via fires rather rapidly. How susceptible is the counter to saturation? There are anti-drone drones that are either one-shot or reusable, but they can be overwhelmed by just sending more loitering munitions than they can handle.

      I could see a future where every squad assaulting a position could have a drone overhead observing in front of them, controlled by someone in the platoon, and a swarm of loitering munitions ready to pounce on any resistance. The technology exists now. No rocket science required.

    3. You're stuck in the lethality mindset and focus too much on hardware.

    4. Well, I think your description of "Maneuverist" warfare is hopelessly optimistic. Friendly troops rush in in mere seconds after the artillery barrage lifts? They aren't covering the 2km kill zone in that time, even in fast vehicles. Do they try to time their rush and the end of the barrage somehow to let them get closer?

      Do they have to breach obstacles and minefields? This is a prepared position, right? That eats a lot of time right there.

      Do you have any examples of an successful assault that took place as you said here?

      Seems to me you may get a minute or two to START the assault, but completing it before the enemy can offer significant resistance is unlikely.

      So yes, give me,

      - more selective, indirect firepower,
      - controlled and observed by overhead drones,
      - that I can continue to use AFTER the artillery has lifted as my soldiers assault THROUGH the objective
      - and isn't constrained to the direct fire weapons my infantry brought with them.

      I'm focused on this, because it is a brand-new capability and has a chance to change how we fight.

    5. There's no defensive fires to be expected while the neutralising arty still shoots. This includes overhead-protected firing positions. The only question is how long the neutralising effect lasts.
      This duration has to be used not for a 2 km dash, but for a dash equivalent to the minimum safety distance from own arty fires. Russians thought this was 300 or 400 m back in 1980's (by accepting occasional accidents). We can probably cut this to 200 m with our more precise dumb fires. 200 m in a tracked APC is seconds.

      Obstacles and minefields would be a different issue, and the breaching by fires would merely add ~15 minutes to preparation time if drilled well.

      There are plenty examples of successful application of neutralising fires. It's a whole category of artillery fire missions (hence the existence of the term) and its was commonplace in Europe.

      If anything here is up for criticism, it's that there are grey zones (how to discern suppressive/neutralising/destroying fires) and uncertainties (how much of what for what duration is needed to gain how long a time window of neutralisation)?

      BTW, the U.S.Army's definition of "Neutralization" is

      "Neutralization in the context of the computed effects of field artillery fires renders a target ineffective for a short period of time, producing 10-percent casualties or materiel damage.
      Neutralization fire is fire delivered to render the target ineffective or unusable.
      Neutralize - A tactical mission task that results in rendering enemy personnel or materiel incapable
      of interfering with a particular operation. (FM 3-90-1)."


      The neurological process is not all about the KIA rate though. A man in a foxhole has no body count for his whole company strongpoint. Both are symptoms of the violence input.

  3. This is an rare article I disagree with. You confuse IMHO tactical and operational level: The high number of Russian POWs in 1941/42 was a result of German success at the OPERATIONAL level. Here it does in principle not make a difference, how the brake-through was achieved at the tactical level.

    For a German officer back then the maneuver approach at the tactical level made more sense because it required the same type of thinking as the part after the break-through...

    1. I was contrasting the focus on lethality with an approach that exploits human nature.
      An army with a complete emphasis on lethality cannot even switch to operational-level exploits.

      There's a lot of grey and even the extremely fire support-rich Americans of 1944 still had Patton, but even his influence didn't change that they needed six months to recapture what the French had lost in six weeks.

      "it does in principle not make a difference, how the [breakthrough] was achieved"

      The thing is, you don't achieve a breakthrough with complete lethality focus. You're not even supposed to attempt it in that paradigm. That paradigm doesn't strive to make a gazillion of POWs.
      Remember the bodycount obsessions of Vietnam & Afghanistan? POWs were taken for interrogation, it wasn't the go-to approach for taking enemies out.
      This wasn't just a blog post about different ways to support an assault with fires. It was shining some light on the consequences of different mindsets.

    2. "The thing is, you don't achieve a breakthrough with complete lethality focus."

      No, but even German the WW1 approach in spring 1918 was artillery heavy and worked quite well.

      The goal is to achieve an operational success, here manouver is the optimum, the job at the tactical level can in principle be achieved by other approaches too.

      I have no issue with your assessment in respect to the US forces, that has tradition and cannot be fixed in a short period of time.

  4. If I may (not trying to make excuses), the Poles and the Dutch and the Belgian and the Brits and the French - none was prepared in 39-40.

    1. The Germans weren't really prepared to go to war, either.
      They had a munitions panic after a few weeks of Poland campaign. The army had expanded hastily for six years and spun off (loss of officers!) the air force.
      The list of shortcomings and dire issues was long.

      War is always a contest between inadequately prepared forces.

      But the entire May 1940 campaign was decided almost randomly by a single issue. I think the six months of OP Barbarossa are much more suitable to show the differences between land warfare approaches.