Break-in operations: A fresh look at some important artillery aspects

The Artillery Journal | Aug 4, 1989

Present day planning of artillery operations for a break-in battle is largely based on Montgomery's North Africa Campaign, particularly the last battle of EI Alamein, and its characterised by dumping of enormous quantities of ammunition, extensive preparatory bombardment and continuous covering fire, while the infantry makes painstaking progress from objective to objective. It is fashionable to decry the effectiveness of artillery fire on defence works on a DCB. The figures usually bandied about state that only three to seven percent rounds would actually land on the DCB and therefore, artillery fire is relatively less effective.

Keeping Pace with the Times

The break-in battle of an infantry division or RAPID, particularly over single or twin linear obstacles such as DCBs (Ditch-cum-Bund), ts a complex operation which demands meticulous planning and bold but methodical execution. It is an integrated air land battle in which success depends on the skilful execution of the combined arms team concept. A close coordination is necessary among the fighting arms and with the Air Force to orchestrate the synergetic effect of the available combat potential at the point of decision. A high intensity operation of this nature makes heavy demands on the artillery and is a stupendously difficult operation to plan, both from the technical gunnery point of view as well as the tactical aspect of the provision of the right quantum of fire support throughout.
Present day planning of artillery operations for a break-in battle is largely based on Montgomery’s North Africa Campaign, particularly the last battle of EI Alamein, and its characterised by dumping of enormous quantities of ammunition, extensive preparatory bombardment and continuous covering fire, while the infantry makes painstaking progress from objective to objective. Fire control during the assault and for defensive fire (DF) to beat back enemy counter attacks, is based mainly on radio Communications. Complicated fire plans (FP) with numerous serials, result in long transmissions over many nets to make the tortuous modification drills work satisfactorily. In today’s high density surveillance and _ target acquisition (SATA) and sophisticated electronic warfare (EW) environment, such archaic
methods of planning and execution of artillery operations are foredoomed to failure. There is an urgent need to re-examine important artillery aspects of break-in operations to evolve methods which are more in tune with the requirements of a modern battle.

Assault from the Line of March

The deployment pattern of artillery is a major battle indicator, particularly in offensive operations. The dumping of five to six second lines of ammunition over two to three nights prior to K Day, or D Day, the digging of gun pits, command posts, ammunition pits, weapon pits, fire trenches and slit trenches in main and alternate gun positions and the deployment of suns in main gun positions by first light on K Day, are bound to jeopardise surprise regarding the likely thrust lines of a Strike Corps. As approximately 55 to 65 fire units may be available to take part in the Corps offensive, no amount of effort on camouflage and concealment will be adequate to prevent the enemy from locating this large concentration by means of PR, SLAR and IRLS from the air and by employing ground based medium and long range BFSKs.
The large scale digging prior to K Day appears to be counter-productive on gather counts too. Even before the first round is fired, the gun-end parties will be weary in body and mind and incapable of producing the Herculean effort required to keep the guns blazing continuously for the first 48 to 72 hours of the battle. Emphasis on digging weapon pits and fire trenches in initial gun areas is apparently misplaced as it Is the holding formation’s task to proivide a secure launch pad for the Strike Corps offensive. With defences on own DCB holding out as planned, there would be little or no ground threat to the initial gun areas.
Also, once the assault is launched, the enemy’s counter bombardment (CB) capability would be limited to a maximum of three to four medium batteries being brought to bear at one time against one fire unit for a duration of upto five to 10 minutes. Considering the effect of CB fire due to inaccuracies in location of hostile batteries and the errors of predicted fire, the enemy’s CB capability may justifiably be termed as negligible.
Hence, it emerges that extensive preparation prior to K Day is not warranted by the circumstances. Except tor a few troops (guns) of different calibres, which may be deployed the previous night for registration, rest of the guns should move into their gun areas from assembly areas 35 to 40 kms from the International Boundary (1B) only an hour or so before last light on K/D Day and deploy to fire the FP from the line of march. Technical preparations should nave been carried out earlier. The H hour should however not be before 2200 or 2230 hours. If a bridge head is to be established over only one obstacle, the assault brigades will still get about five hours for the task before the induction of the leading combat commands of the breakout force commences. Deployment from the line of march will retain surprise and ensure that fresh and motivated gun detachments participate in the battle. It would indeed be difficult to handle, prepare and fire large quantities of ammunition; but the problem is not insurmountable and is discussed later.

Destruction of Bunkers by Medium Guns

The concept of employing medium guns in the pistol-gun role for the destruction of bunkers on the enemy’s forward obstacle, is often zealously advocated. Where the guns cannot be deployed well forward to identify targets through their direct sights due to visibility problems, the “modified indirect” method is resorted to. In this method, the guns are deployed up to 4000 m from the obstacle one hour before last light and FOOs along the line of fire control each shoot. Up to a maximum of one troop is deployed per assault brigade, shoots being taken simultaneously and each gun being employed to destroy five to six bunkers.
The concept, though truly noble in intention, is patently flawed in planning and execution. The remaining velocity of a Charge Full 130 mm HE shell at 4000 m is only 753m/sec. This is substantially lower than the velocity of a shell fired from a tank gun. A tank gun is also Comparatively more accurate and, with its armour protection, a tank can close up to less than 2000 m of the target. The shorter range would result in greater accuracy.
The modified indirect shoot procedure would be almost akin to engaging each bunker by a precision adjustment method. Such a shoot would require a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes and approximately 15 to 20 rounds per bunker. It is doubtful whether one gun can be employed to destroy more than two bunkers in one hour of fading light and the haze which usually settles just above the ground in the evening on our Western borders during the Campaign season; to say nothing of the setting sun shining in the FOO’s eyes. Hence, with a troop of guns, not more than six or seven bunkers may at best be destroyed.
The guns required to take part in this dubious venture would not be able to re-deploy in the main gun positions to take part in the FP tor the assault, specially if the H hour is soon after last light. It is clear that the results obtained by the modified indirect method of destroying enemy bunkers would not be commensurate with the effort put in. This task could be left to the tanks and ICVs employed to establish contact over a wide front. They are both temperamentally and training wise better equipped to destroy point targets.

Effect of Arty Fire on DCB Defences

It is fashionable to decry the effectiveness of artillery fire on defence works on a DCB. The figures usually bandied about state that only three to seven percent rounds would actually land on the DCB and therefore, artillery fire is relatively less effective. While the conclusions drawn from the dispersion theory are absolutely indisputable, they do not stand scrutiny when tested in the crucible of tactical reality. To claim that artillery fire on a DCB is ineffective and, by implication, even less effective on canal based defences, is to strike at the very basis of the application of artillery fire. Guns are area weapons, designed with the primary aim of neutralising large areas of ground with their inherent dispersion of fire. When fire is applied to a target to achieve neutralisation by the normal method of fire for effect, that is not by the fire assault technique using AMTAB allowances, any destruction of enemy fortifications is purely incidental and is to be taken as a bonus over and above the aim of the shoot. Therefore the effectiveness of artillery fire on a DCB should be evaluated mainly from the angle of whether effective neutralisation can be achieved or not.
First of all, the myth regarding three to seven percent rounds needs to be laid to a well deserved rest. A few hours of work with a graph sheet reveal that, for a given target size, with a fixed number of bunkers and emplacements, planned to be neutralised by a given number of fire units, the chances of one or more rounds hitting a field fortification are approximately the same REGARDLESS of whether the fortifications are arranged in a linear pattern or in- a conventional defence pattern. Hence, if there are three bunkers and one Rcl gun emplacement in a target size of 250 by 250 m, then, whether the tactical group (a section in this case) is deployed on a DCB or ina conventional pattern, if three fire units are employed for neutralisation, the chances of one or more round(s) hitting a bunker or the Rcl gun emplacement are approximately the same. Therefore, the argument of only a= small percentage of rounds actually landing on the DCB Is irrelevant to the issue of the effectiveness of neutralisation.
The second misconception is regarding the utility of the shells which fall in front of and behind the DCB. Besides causing casualties to personnel exposed in open trenches and emplacements on the DCB and in nests in the minefield, there is a fair chance of splinters entering the bunkers through the loopholes and Causing damage inside. The smoke of the exploding shells and the dust kicked up would affect the working of night vision devices and effectively deny aimed observed fire to direct firing weapons such as small arms and supporting weapons like MMGs and Rcl guns, thereby achieving substantial neutralisation.
Shells bursting behind the DCB would achieve a local interdiction effect by preventing readjustment and reinforcement of the sector of the DCB being attacked. The move of supporting weapons to secondary or alternate positions would be greatly hindered. Damage to radio set antennae and exposed telephone lines would adversely affect command and control links. The overall effect of artillery fire on the DCB would pe to substantially degrade the enemy’s defence potential. This would be achieved with the same measure of effectiveness as in any other type of defence pattern, conventional or otherwise.

MFDT Template: An Aid to Registration and Shooting

In Corps levels FPs, involving 55 to 65 fire units, particularly if the Corps offensive is planned to be launched on inter-acting thrust lines (25 to 40 km apart), registration of objectives and other targets is a cumbersome and laborious process as surveying them on a common grid would seldom be possible. Registration has to be planned for a large number of calibres (105 mm IFG, 105 mm Abbot, 122 mm, 130 mm and 155 mm). While the integral artillery brigades of the assaulting divisions would be deployed astride their respective axes of attack, bulk of the medium regiments would usually be deployed centrally So as to support both the infantry divisions within planning range up to the first obstacle and at maximum range up to the second obstacle, if possible. Registration of all the objectives and interfering targets from all blocks of gun areas within each of which guns of the same calibre are deployed within an inter-se distance of 2000 m (gun end datum limits) and for all types of equipment, is a colossal task, specially when it has to be performed in an hour of fading light before last light on K Day. When juxtaposed with the requirement of carrying out similar registration at five to six places all along the Corps front so as to retain surprise regarding the planned bridge head sites till H hour, the task appears truly awesome.
Only one solution appears in sight and that is to so evolve the basic structure of the FP that it can be fired by registering a single target per assault division front if contiguous bridge heads are to be established or one target per assault brigade front if multiple or separated brigade bridge heads are to be established. Such limited registration with all calibres of equipment and from each block of gun areas will not be problematic and will assist in maintaining surprise. Given a reasonable degree of linearity of the DCB or the canal being assaulted, a Massed Fire Distribution Technique (MFDT) template, gridded to a scale of 250 m, can be used as an aid to registration and shooting. Since a battalion attack normally goes in over a frontage of 500 m and there is an inter-battalion gap of 500 m, each coy objective and flank or shoulder of the attack can be designated as a target of 250 m frontage. As the inter-se distance between the targets is fixed, by registering the centre point of one of the company objectives and recording it as for example, E4 or H4 (see diagram below), the technical data for all other points on the template can be read off by the GPOs. The bearing of the DCB or canal and, consequently, the axis bearing, can be read off the map or from vertical gridded air photos. Where these methods are not suitable, two points on the DCB or canal may be registered to obtain the bearing.

Simplicity: Hallmark of Successful Fire Plans

A simple and effective registration plan is a pre-requisite for a workable FP. However, to be successfully executed, the FP itself should also be simple with a minimum number of serials, the least switching and hopping from serial to serial and unless unavoidable, the three fire units of a regiment should fire on a common target at all times.
The present tendency towards making FPs technically perfect might satisfy a craving for puritanical flawlessness but makes FPs complicated and difficult to handle during execution.
FPs should not be divorced from tactical reality in the sense that the most minor hold up in the progress of assault should not necessitate major modifications. No matter how much the procedures are practised, modifications are difficult to execute even in peace time. Some allowance at least must be made for the fog and friction of war, particularly in an EW intensive environment where Communication channels may cease to exist during critical periods of the assault. There is a time tested maxim that in war, all other factors being the same, the simpler plan has a better chance of success. This is equally applicable to FPs.
Having decided on a desirable goal, it is imperative that the methodology to achieve it be evolved. One possible solution to the problem is to fire a simple concentration of all available fire units on the centre point of the objectives and their flanks or shoulders per assault battalion. As a battalion is normally given 10 to 12 fire units for the assault, the concentration would completely cover 500 m of the DCB where the initial lodgement is to be established by two companies. This will ensure that adequate punishment is meted out to the objectives. As the assault progresses through the minefield and ‘nests’ and flanking localities become active, fire units could be lifted from the objectives to neutralise new targets without the need to go through time consuming modification arils. The decision could be conveniently left to the BC with each assault battalion. Eventually, once the troops close in with the DCB to a distance where own splinters start becoming dangerous, all the fire units could be lifted to the interfering localities on the flanks or in the gap between the assault battalions. In this way, control of the FP will vest at the executive level, that is with the BCs and FOOs of the assault battalions, and not with commanders and staff ensconced many kilometres and two to three communication channels away from the scene of action.
Besides providing inherent flexibility to the BCs and FOOs in action, such an FP would require only one serial per battalion during the assault stage as all the fire units would be initially directed at a single point. It would also ensure that fire is not wasted by uniformly neutralising the entire 2000 m of the frontage of the proposed brigade bridge head. Within each of the four regiments supporting a battalion attack, fire control would be much simpler as _ all batteries would be firing on a single point. One disadvantage of not covering the flanks or shoulders initially would be that no interference will be caused to the enemy’s movements to reinforce the flanks or the objectives and to redeploy supporting weapons in secondary positions. However, the advantages conferred by simplicity and flexibility, far outweigh the effects of the only disadvantage.
Another aspect of FPs which needs to be reviewed is the rates of fire which are varied within a serial. The reasons attributed to this practice are “catching” the enemy off guard and avoiding ‘stereotyped’ fire. While the idea is well meaning, its success in practice is questionable. When such large number of fire units with different times of flight are firing on a common target it is next to impossible to coordinate the tire as per the complicated laid down rates of fire. It is better to fire just normal rates of fire except in the beginning or the end of a serial to provide the desired crunch. Pauses should be controlled by the FOO by simply ordering “stop loading” and “go on”. This will also have the effect of dividing the entire duration of covering fire into a number of fire assaults.

Staggering H Hour

Very often, the method adopted to overcome the paucity of fire units is to stagger the H hour between assaulting infantry divisions by about one hour when the Corps offensive is planned along inter-acting thrust lines, or between the assault brigades of the same infantry division, if multiple or separated brigade bridge heads are planned. This course of action is fraught with dangerous implications. The very nature of war is such that tactical plans are wont to go awry in the face of spirited enemy resistance. In case the first formation launching the assault fails to make progress as planned, it would hardly be prudent to deny it the fire of 40 to 60 percent of the fire units to enable the waiting formation to commence its assaults. On the other hand, if the second formation does not commence its assault as planned, the delay would have serious repercussions on its overall time plan and would be a demoralising factor for troops in the FUP. The decision would indeed be a critical one Also, fire units “borrowed” from the other formation have to be “returned” well in time to beat back counter attacks. Any delay in the progress of the second formation after its assault is launched, would be even more problematic as not returning the first formation’s fire units to it at the planned time, would immensely jeopardise its ability to beat back enemy counter attacks.
Firing in support of two formations in turn complicates work at the gun end as data for twice the number of targets has to be worked out and predicted. All the FDCs established for the FP would be involved in the registration of targets, circulation of target records and the control of fire. Guns of the neighbouring formation would be firing at long ranges leading to greater dispersion and at oblique lines of fire, endangering assaulting troops.

Counter Bombardment Tasks

The paucity of fire units invariably militates against the allotment of a number of dedicated fire units at priority call for CB. In order to still achieve satisfactory CB results, selective bombardment of active hostile batteries (HBs) should be planned with all available fire units within range during each tactical pause in the battle such as prior to or after counter attacks and during the advance to the second obstacle. One crucial period when enemy guns must be silenced is when own troops are 300 to 400 m from the objective. On lifting from the objectives and flanks, own fire units should neutralise enemy guns so as to prevent or considerably reduce their interference with the assault.
Ways and means need to be found to ensure that HBs can be located to ‘Z’ accuracy (25 m) within a few minutes of opening up so that retaliatory action can be taken speedily and every round can be made to count. Accurate location will also reduce the need for a large concentration of fire units. Six to nine batteries would achieve worthwhile results. For close coordination, the CB command post should be co-located with the brigade FDC and the staff should train together.

Ammunition Management

Dumping of large quantities of ammunition over two to three nights has obvious disadvantages and should be avoided. The concept of deployment from the line of march requires the entire quantity of ammunition to be carried on wheels. The availability of transport and road space on K day being major limiting factors, It will not be possible to move forward more than three second lines of ammunition in addition to the first line held by the units. By pruning the volume of fire on each target, it is possible to plan to fire not more than three second lines on the night of the attack with the first line of the units being earmarked as an immediate reserve. This calls for a great degree of skill in ammunition management.
The first task is to reduce the requirement of ammunition to levels much lower than the lavish scales currently prevalent. This can be accomplished by attacks which are initially silent, by slower rates of fire and longer pauses. Even during FPs, fire units can be selectively lifted if a target does not apparently warrant the weight of fire being brought down on it.
The transportation, delivery and preparation of ammunition has to be organised in a methodical manner in a well-rehearsed sequential chain in order to ensure that sufficient rounds of the correct composition or charge are available at the gun for each serial on which the gun is required to fire. One method would be to establish a regimental ammunition point (AP) at the entrance to the gun area where semi-prepared rounds could be received from second line transport and prepared as required. Up to two to three FATs per battery could then be used to transport fully prepared rounds directly to the gun platforms and to continue the chain by going back for more. The gun detachments will have to be judiciously divided between manning the guns and preparing ammunition at the regimental AP. This method, vis-a-vis the carriage of ammunition directly to the gun platforms in second line vehicles, would result in economy of effort and greater flexibility at the regiment level. However, units could evolve their own methods as found convenient. What needs to be emphasised is that batteries are capable of receiving and firing up to three second lines of semi-prepared ammunition in one night.

Overcoming the imponderables

Offensive operations are by nature complex and governed by the cumulative effect of numerous imponderable factors. Any number of things can go wrong. Break-in operations over multiple linear obstacles are perhaps the most difficult operation of war, rivalled only by the complexity of an opposed river crossing. Artillery plans to support the operations of assault divisions should be extremely flexible, simple and must not give away bridgehead sites and intentions by large scale digging and dumping before the operation. Staggering of H hour between formations and the frequent switching of fire should be avoided. Plans must allow for the likelihood of the complete failure of radio communications at critical junctures.
The task table should have the least possible number of serials. Registration plans should be simple and fail-safe. Due thought should be given to making optimum use of the available artillery for effective CB.
Finally, the best method of reducing the effect of the imponderables is to inculcate mental flexibility so that correct decisions can De rapidly made and implemented in the heat of battle. The famous Gunner elan for reducing the most complicated tasks to easy to execute drills needs to be revived if the artillery is to provide adequate, timely and accurate firepower on future battlefields. All artillery plans for break-in battles must be tested on the touchstones of simplicity and flexibility above all other principles. If they qualify on these counts, the plans will work successfully.