Artillery and Firepower – A Future Perspective – Part 9 : THE QUEST FOR PRECISION by Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

Part 1 : Preamble



Part 2 : Effects on Firepower in the Himalayas


Part 3 : Chinese Operational Concepts and Employment of Firepower


Part 4: Fire & Move and Historical Evolution of Firepower 



Part 5 : Operational Evolution and Key Tenets of Firepower



Part 6 : Firepower Enhancement


Part 7 : Role of Firepower

Precision came into focus during the first Gulf War when laser guided bombs and cruise missiles were used extensively with spectacular success. As per analysis, guided munitions were only 7-8% of the total delivered but caused  75 % of the damages. Guided munitions were also used very extensively during the Kosovo campaign where a combination of laser and GPS/satellite guided munitions  could hit their targets 75-80% of the time. Thereafter the quest for precision engagement has been constantly increasing. Precision munitions could be anti-air, anti-ship, anti-surface, and anti-tank missiles fired in multiple  modes . These could  be conventional, cruise or nuclear missiles flying at subsonic, supersonic or hypersonic speeds.  Precision weapons form part of an important segment of armed forces of powerful nations. Precision-guided weapons are also being used by non-state actors, terrorists and insurgents increasingly. 

In the days gone by, the aircraft pilot / OP officer was the precision mechanic. He saw the target , acquired it, engaged it and ensured that accurate fire was brought to bear on the target to destroy or neutralise it. In the Gulf Wars,  the surgical precision of guided munitions destroying targets at long ranges with least effort caught everyone’s imagination to become the aspirational standard. These aspirations grew with the increased commitment of Armed Forces in hybrid operations where collateral damage was not acceptable. The  advent of non-contact warfare  and the requirement of stand-off has further elevated all round expectations. The requirement is successful destruction of hi-value hi-effect targets at long ranges in depth. The seduction of surgical strikes deep in an adversaries territory with minimum collateral damage allows posing a threat without going to war. The co-related fact is also that precision  engagement reduces the number of rounds fired. It implies reduced logistics loads and minimum exposure times. All these put together has slowly and steadily made precision a deterrence tool of political acceptability. However precision is a complicated animal. If it is not understood, it is a costly and unaffordable hobby of questionable reliability made up of complicated technologies which might not work in the battlefield, especially in our Himalayan environment. Hence the desirability of widespread precision comes under the pump.  There is undeniable need to understand this animal better to make it work better for us.     


The Precision required to destroy the target involves three interrelated factors – accuracy, consistency and lethality. If three projectiles are fired at the target, and all can hit the target centre – they are accurate. If they are off centre but land together, they are inaccurate but consistent. However if they fall widely apart but their mean centre is on the target, they are accurate but inconsistent. If all three land together on the centre but the warheads are not lethal enough the target is not destroyed. Ideally, one needs accuracy, consistency and lethality to destroy the target precisely. The issue to recognise is that accuracy,  consistency and lethality  are systemic variables and the target is an operational variable in size shape, location and hardness. In essence, Precision has to be contextual to the target and desired outcomes. It is a complex phenomenon. Hence let us see how this complexity evolved.  

In earlier days, precision meant the ability of the OP officer or the aircraft pilot putting dumb shells/bombs as near as possible to the aiming point in adequate numbers and let the lethality do the rest. The pilot or the OP Officer with his skill set, training and experience  guided the warheads within the parameters of accuracy and consistency to achieve a desired effect. Later, as technology developed, the warhead was steered/guided to the target by looking through a sight and aiming the cross-hairs on the target. Engagement became more precise by incorporating sighting , guidance and control systems. Precision improved with incorporation of an optical seeker in the nose of the projectile to enable the firer  to have a bombs eye view of the target as he guided it. Then came the concept of using reflected laser energy from the target to enable the projectile to home on to the target. The pilot/ OP Officer/ operator had to only keep the laser on the target, he did not fly it. An improvement on this was to use the thermal radiations of the target to home on to it. However one had to see the target and get close to it. In such a case, bad weather and retaliatory enemy action could degrade the precision capability. This paved the way for the GPS/ Inertial measurement guided weapon systems where  one had to feed in only the target coordinates. This enabled weapons to be fired from longer distances without active controls. When combined with advanced seekers, the outcome was the concept of ‘fire and forget’. This capability rules the aspirational roost till date albeit with multiple technological enhancements. Precision has come to stay. The platforms have also increased – aircraft, ground based OPs, tanks, vehicles, helicopters, UAVs, space based designators et al.    

Precision capability enables attacking targets that are small or require precise weapon placement to destroy them. This capability gave rise to a ‘one projectile  one target’ thought process. Modern day precision also increased the distance from which a hit could be achieved thereby protecting the firer, where ever he is. However all methods of achieving precision operates on the probability theory. Precision neither guarantees a hit nor does it prevent collateral damage in totality. It only increases the chances of a hit and reduces the chances of collateral damage. As it increases the hit probability, the chances are that even if a target is missed by a small margin, the lethality of the projectile will achieve the desired effect. Precision also ensures that since the chances of achieving the desired effect are high, it would reduce the overall ammunition expenditure and the need for repeated re-engagements to destroy a target. All this was spectacularly  evident in the Gulf Wars.  Since then precision weapons became the go to option based on the success achieved. It is here that  a shift has occurred. Precision was to make application of firepower more efficient and lethal. However the fall out has been that calibrated precision has become a political tool of application of combat power. The advent of cruise missiles enhanced  the political acceptability of precision – no risk of loss, no video trail, no basing /deployment issues, lax rules of engagement and deniability with a very high degree of precision. The term surgical precision came into play from thence. Surgical precision has been taken to a higher level with the entry of unmanned systems into the battle field in a big way. This has now given way to the concept of stand-off and non-contact warfare.


 In today’s context, reliance on precision is on the upswing in the battle field. In the first Gulf War 8% of the munitions used were precision guided. In Kosovo, 8 years later,  29% were precision weapons. The figure went up to 60% when USA stepped into Afghanistan post 9/11. By the second Gulf War this had inched up to 68%. The question then arises. Are we putting too many eggs in the precision basket?  If so, how can we make them hatch and what are the problems which will spoil our precision omlette?  Need to understand that well. 

Successful precision strikes will require sensor-shooter integration which consists of four elements. The first element is an array of precision weapons to choose from. The second element is well integrated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to enable proper targeting. It means acquisition of the accurate location and coordinates of the target through multiple sensors, analysing its posture for a weapon match and engagability. It also means monitoring the strike and carrying out a post-strike analysis. The third element is the necessity of joint operational training, doctrines and concepts to carry out such precision strikes. The fourth element is well-integrated and responsive command control and communication networks which can enable precision strikes in a time sensitive manner. In the current environment, it is only the USA which has a full grip on this business of sensor-shooter integration. Russia and NATO forces have some experience in this process. The Chinese are aiming for this capability by aping methods used by USA in the Gulf Wars, Kosovo and Afghanistan. The outcome is their much publicised concept of informatised local wars. However they lack experience in execution. As far as India is concerned, we have a long way to go which I will discuss in the next part. Precision will not succeed on its own.

Precision comes with huge baggage. Remember, all surgeries carry the risk of going awry so do precision based surgical strikes. Precision strikes go wrong when they’re aimed at wrong targets at inappropriate times. Target location error is also a common problem. Targets acquired by sensors on a particular map grid might differ from the weapon guidance georeferenced grid which might differ from the actual location of the target on mother earth. Guided weapons will not follow intended trajectories if wind and environmental conditions are unstable or extreme. More importantly, guided weapons can fail mechanically due to a number of reasons – faulty manufacturing, improper testing and preparation and aging. Aging is a very relevant factor since all sensors degrade and deteriorate geometrically with time. Of particular concern is storage of guided systems which can be very demanding. Inappropriate storage, maintenance, transportation and preparation more often than not will result in costly duds. From available literature it seems that it is accepted that anywhere up to 20% of the weapons fired will miss the target or not reach it. In reality the figure will be more. My estimate is that one should be prepared to accept a failure rate of 30%.   

Precision is costly. The cost increases with the degree of precision one desires and the range to be achieved. A comparison between dumb , semi intelligent ammunition (normal ammunition with precision kits) and intelligent full precision ammunition is tabulated. A simple 155 mm Projectile with an electronic fuse is very reliable, simple and cheap at about a lakh rupees. However its dispersion increases with range. It means firing more number of rounds to destroy the target. That adds to the logistics load. The same projectile with a semi intelligent system like the Precision Guided Kit (cost 3000 USD) has a standard dispersion irrespective of the range. It is a reasonably simple system wherein the Precision Guided Kit replaces the fuse in an existing shell. Due to tighter dispersion, lesser number of rounds are needed to destroy a target. That leads to lighter logistics also. However the cost of each projectile  goes up to  3.2 lakhs rupees. While the Precision Guided Kit is well established and fairly reliable in plains, its performance in high altitudes is suspect. When we transit to intelligent ammunition like the 155mm Excalibur round, we can expect a first round hit with no collateral damage in plains through pinpoint precision. Its performance in high altitudes is however is unknown. The cost of each Excalibur round is an astronomical 70000 USD ( approx. 52 lakh rupees). When we go up the value chain of precision munitions, the costs of cruise missiles like Tomahawk or Brahmos could be anywhere between 30 – 75 crore rupees per piece. Overall , when employing precision munitions, one has to do a lot of home work to ensure that precision engagements  are cost effective. The costs of precision and increased ranges at which engagements occur also dictates the level and complexity of sensor-shooter integration. Every engagement has to be made to count. However one thing is clear, no nation can afford full precision. Generally the trend is to have about 5-10% full precision capability, 20-30% semi precision capability and 60-75  normal ammunition. 


Precision complicates weapon design. Everything starts from the fact that a warhead has to be delivered at the target for a particular lethal effect. If the target is deep in enemy territory, propulsion has to be effective to take it that far. As the range increases, the inaccuracy and inconsistency also increases. Hence, there is a requirement of control and guidance system to achieve precision. This increases the weight and dimension of the projectile for a given warhead. Hence propulsion requirement also increases cyclically. Further speed is needed to evade enemy reaction. Increased velocities means also means more powerful propulsion. Overall, the desired range , accuracy and speed of the missile guide the weapon design, in any class or category of precision system corresponding to the target being attacked. These three contribute to the effectiveness of the system as also its cost. An increase in one has inverse effects on the others but directly increases weight and costs. For example greater accuracy can be more easily achieved in a subsonic missile than in a supersonic or hypersonic one since the comparatively slow speed provides more time to the guidance package and terminal seeker for  navigation, target acquisition/recognition. Subsonic speeds also need cooler propellants to achieve the same range. Overall,  a subsonic  missile structure is built from cheaper,  less robust and  lighter materials which in turn enables better manoeuvrability.

The idea of putting all this is to convey that any precision weapon  is complex. One has to find a balance through optimisation. Optimisation dictates what the missile can do or not. Another factor is that it is easy to achieve precision with rockets /missiles rather than with tube artillery. The high spinning artillery projectile is the most complex to achieve any sort of precision. The idea that precision munitions allow you to ‘fire and forget’ is fallacious. Precision engagement is a systemic approach rather than a one off swing on the golf course. Notwithstanding the complexity and costs involved, precision engagement is the way forward for many reasons. The trick is to make precision engagement successful and cost effective in combination with normal engagements. The other trick is to make normal engagements more precise. that is the missing factor these days. This article conveys a broad sense of the issues involved in precision engagement. In the next article I will discuss the precision requirements and approaches relevant to the Indian context.  


References :-


One response to “Artillery and Firepower – A Future Perspective – Part 9 : THE QUEST FOR PRECISION by Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. Very simply & precisely expained the concept of Precision Ammu ition, Ravi. Thanks

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