Towards a Smart Artillery By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

Preamble: I could not publish an article for a few days since I got busy with my project which makes Indian Artillery Smart and Lethal. In that hi-tech process all these simple old fashioned thoughts came to my mind. One can not beat good old gunnery. As far as my project goes, it is purring along.    

Also published in The Financial Express @ Towards a Smart Artillery

The word Smart Artillery, conjures images of hi tech precision systems with pinpoint accuracy blasting the target with minimum collateral damage. 

Towards a Smart Artillery
Towards a Smart Artillery

By Lt Gen P R Shankar, (Retd)

Much was written about modern age multidomain operations and how conventional war was past its heydays. It has been more than six months since the Ukraine war commenced. Not only has conventional war roared back with a vengeance but Artillery has held centre stage with all its violence. There is no doubt that Artillery will remain the king of the battlefield. 


The extensive use of Artillery by Russia in the initial stages of the war saved it a lot of blushes. In the later stages of this ongoing war, Russian Artillery gave it a lot of successes. However the fact that Russia could not close out the war has been equally due to the ineptness of the Russian Infantry and Mechanised Forces as also due to unimaginative use of its Artillery. On the other hand, throughout the conflict, Ukraine could hold the Russian might at bay since it used its limited Artillery more imaginatively. There are a lot of lessons for Gunners all over the world to imbibe from this conflict. However there is a fundamental lesson emanating from this war. Armies throughout the world need to move towards having a Smart Artillery. 

The word Smart Artillery, conjures images  of hi tech precision systems with pinpoint accuracy blasting the target with minimum collateral damage. If you really imagine your arsenal being full of precision big bang large calibre weapons then it is really a costly, unaffordable and dumb Artillery. It might never win a war for your country. Smart Artillery is much beyond that. It is all about going back to first principles and doing the basics right in a modern manner. To understand this better, the examination is being partially contextualised.  The context is the PLA, which many countries may have to confront in the near future.    


The Ukrainian war will be analysed minutely by the Chinese. The employment of Artillery by Russia and Ukraine will be dissected in all the phases of the war since China lays great emphasis on employment of rockets and missiles. Its core doctrinal stress is on fighting wars under conditions of informatisation using precision strike capabilities to paralyse enemy operational systems as part of their system destruction warfare. This theme was evident in the live firing drills which it executed against Taiwan recently. PLA is likely to approach the next war with a preponderance of firepower for many other reasons also. The inexperienced PLA will not risk losing a war by resorting to close battles with Infantry or Tank attacks. I doubt if the Chinese people will accept losing their only child in war for any cause beyond a point. Politically, the acceptable causality threshold is low in ‘one child’ China. In such a reality, PLA will in all eventuality, go hell for leather with overwhelming firepower to reduce casualties. Hence , if PLA is to be unhinged it has to be done through Smart Artillery and not by getting into a  headbutting contest. 


An important part of smartness of Artillery is to reframe its role in battle. The days of Artillery merely providing ‘fire support’ to Infantry and Mechanised Forces are over. The new roles of Artillery in battle are destruction and deterrence. Destruction is generally well understood. However the combination of ‘fire support’ and ‘destruction’ has led to a stasis in Gunner thought. The deterrence role is new and needs dwelling. Modern  Artillery is  an instrument  of  ‘conventional deterrence’ and has ‘strategic’ significance. This role is expanding as ranges of weapons have increased. With hypersonic systems set to enter the fray, Artillery can now be used in conjunction with nuclear weapons to convey ‘hybrid deterrence’. Also it can be used with Air Forces to reinforce ‘conventional deterrence’. This  subtle shift was on display in Ukraine wherein  suitably tailored hybrid deterrence was effective in keeping NATO out of the war. Moreover, Artillery  can be calibrated and better controlled. The resulting collateral damage is politically more acceptable than a nuclear holocaust. In case it is not feasible to use  Air Forces for any reason, Artillery  is the go to proposition. The Chinese have been using their long range conventional missile power in conjunction with influence operations to inject  ‘deterrence’ into political thinking of adversaries. Artillery, has now become a credible and transparent instrument to convey national intent. This evolving paradigm was on display in the Chinese ‘huff and puff’ live firing drills across the Taiwan Straits after the Nancy Pelosi visit. 


Smart Artillery encompasses employment of Mortars, Guns, Rockets, Missiles (guided, cruise, and hypersonic) seamlessly. These weapons complement each other in battle. However there is a tendency to overplay and hype one kind of weapon system as the battle winning factor. That is foolish. Smartness encompasses using a mix of dumb, semi precise and precision ammunition fired from a variety of platforms to achieve the desired effect on the target. When to use precision ammunition or dumb ammunition is a matter of proper appreciation of the target.  It is also a matter of affordability and availability of a particular type of ammunition vis a vis others. Smartness is also about finding the balance between firing a small number of big calibre shells vis a vis firing a large number of small shells. The fundamental requirement of a Smart Artillery is therefore balance. I guess this is applicable in every facet of life. Smartness also is predicated on having the right quantity of ammunition at the right time and place. It means getting your logistics and resupply plan right. Remember 80% of military logistics is moving artillery ammunition into position. Ensure your ammunition management is good. Caching ammunition is a good idea, especially in mountains. While guns are never kept silent, they can never be kept without ammunition. The true weapon of a Gunner is his ammunition. Use it intelligently with diligence. Do not shoot like a cowboy. 

                                     All my articles on Artillery and Firepower are @

Smart Artillery must deny or supress the opponents Artillery from doing what it wants to do. It is therefore important to disaggregate the PLA Artillery and keep it off your backs. Primarily one has to realistically appreciate what the PLA is likely to bring to bear against its adversary in a given battlespace  at a given time. Hence it is about the numbers and its composition.  Wargaming is necessary to assess how these numbers can be transplanted on ground. A detailed terrain analysis will be required to assess where PLA artillery will appear and at what stage in each sector.  Overall, a time, space and work sequence needs to be built up regarding employment of Artillery (by PLA) in that sector. Accordingly a plan needs to be developed to deal with the PLA at each stage of war. This must encompass likely deployment areas, routes over which Artillery can traverse, replenishment routes, missile/rocket preparatory positions and hides, ammunition dumps and so on. So what is smart about all this? The smartness comes by leveraging technology to put this matrix in place well before the first round is fired. The leveraging technology revolves around satellite and aerial reconnaissance, monitoring of the depth areas, reliable communications, night vision technologies and artificial intelligence to name a few.           

Very importantly, Smart Artillery means good observation/spotting  of fire. The ubiquitous drone(s) will obviously enhance battlefield transparency without which Artillery is blind. It calls for a high degree of sensor to shooter integration across the length and depth of the battlefield. Hence, intrinsic mating of holistic surveillance means (space, aerial and land based) with firepower is smart.  Keeping them apart or divided is dumb. Such intimate mating including keeping some firepower at the beck and call of sensors needs enhanced jointness.  Further, sensors need overlapping redundancy. Getting this mix right demands sound networking. If networking is not in place,  solid and reliable communications will have to be configured.  


PLA believes in preponderance of numbers in any operation. Further, PLA firepower, especially its Artillery,  is heavy with large silhouettes. Overall, PLA forces will need lot of space. Conversely, for a given space, detectable targets will be numerous. Denying space through systematic interdiction will pay dividends. It will also fix the adversary to constrict his manoeuvre while enhancing your own. Observation posts/spotters lying doggo deep in PLA territory will be invaluable. Replenishing  them with drones and enhancing their endurance will add to value. Track and kill operations, firepower ambushes and spoiling attacks will be telling. To that extent, the Ukrainian terrain during ‘Rasputitsa’ conditions and the Himalayan terrain are identical. PLA forces will have to lumber along limited roads and tracks. Catch them on the move. If that is difficult, catch their follow up and ammunition trains. They will all move at night. The fundamental message is that Smart Artillery means generating intelligence of the ‘battlefield space’ by AI based digital modelling and using it to squeeze the adversary.  This is now feasible with universally available georeferencing and satellite technologies.  


If Artillery has to be smart, it has to use terrain well. Terrain is critical to protecting own  Artillery as a well as maximising its effect. Smartness also involves imaginatively utilising the space available to deploy Artillery and move it around.  Artillery stuck in a position is really dumb. So keep it agile and mobile. Don’t get static. Shoot and scoot. Use roving and temporary positions. Penny packet and dispersed deployment could also be useful if you have the technology to handle concentration and control of fire. Don’t get caught in retaliatory fire. If that situation is inevitable, dig deep, deploy irregularly and protect guns. An important aspect of taking your adversary out is by direct firing. Contrary to what people say, direct firing is lethal and effective even beyond 5 kms with modern sighting systems. 



Surprise remains a major battle winning factor. A smart Gunner will always pop a surprise.  Russia played the deep battle by using Artillery for deterrence extremely well. However it surprised everyone by fluffing the tactical battle around  Kyiv where Artillery was not used offensively. It’s overwhelming use of Artillery in Donbas was expected as inevitable. Hence there was no surprise. On the other hand, Ukraine surprised everyone with imaginative use of the meagre Artillery they had. They are still holding out and that by itself is huge. If I take my mind back to the Kargil war where India gave a comeuppance to Pakistan, the difference was surprise.  In Kargil, Pakistan did not even imagine that Artillery could be deployed at such scale and much less used the way it was in High altitudes. India’s employment of mass artillery in a destructive role and especially the destruction wreaked by the 155 mm Bofors Howitzer was a strategic and tactical surprise for Pakistanis. It blew them away completely.


In the next war, something different will happen. The old template will not work. Of that I am sure. Smart Artillery will ‘make’ that difference happen. The dumb Gunner will ‘let’ that difference happen. The difference between success and failure will be dictated by Smart Artillery. Lastly, Smart Artillery is not about smart hi-tech systems or weapons but being smart in using what you have between your ears.  


One response to “Towards a Smart Artillery By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. Sir, I hope we are looking into on-demand deployable cubesat launchers in low earth orbit, that can provide all-weather coverage over the battle-zone for a few-weeks to months. With the advances in miniaturization and signal processing, it should be within our capability to develop and deploy a scaled down version of our remote sensing tech.Some research examples using sounding rockets:

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