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May 8, 2019

Digital by design – enhancing fires C2 for the modern battlefield


Digitalising the fires process can go some way to improving the efficacy of existing and future artillery systems, perhaps most significantly in the area of information assurance.

Artillery drill in a desert
Credit: US Army. (The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement).

Many NATO members and others in the West have found themselves engaged in counter insurgency (COIN) operations for close to 20 years, driving artillery capabilities in those countries to focus on accuracy above all else. The requirement to deliver overwhelming firepower at distance and with speed has taken a back seat as the perceived threat from peer and near-peer adversaries waned, however, with the Russian Army’s fires capabilities being demonstrated to devastating effect in Ukraine and elsewhere, the need to meet this and other potential threats is high on the priority list of military planners.

Emerging threats

Senior military commanders within NATO have recognised that they are outranged and outgunned on the ground versus the capabilities possessed by Russia. Its tube and rocket artillery forces have used the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria - along with large-scale training events such as the Vostok-18 exercise held in conjunction with the Chinese military - to test new systems, develop new concepts of operations, and hone skills.

While defence agencies are working with industry to develop new artillery systems and munitions that will at least match the performance of their counterparts in Russia, the importance of supporting technologies - such as weapon locating radars and command-and-control (C2) systems - cannot be underestimated.

Digitalising the fires process can go some way to improving the efficacy of existing and future artillery systems, perhaps most significantly in the area of information assurance. While using voice arguably remains the fastest method for the observer to call for fire, it is also open to errors along the chain, any misunderstanding can ultimately lead to an ineffective mission and even friendly and civilian casualties if force is brought to bear in the wrong location.

The application of a digital process, whereby the information for the fire mission is entered into a data management system and passed along the chain, can ensure that the observer’s intent is actioned at the gun line. This information assurance is equally important in potential force-on-force scenarios as it is in asymmetric warfare.

Systematic’s fire support module solution provides a simple, structured template that features drop-down menus and fields for population that are intuitive and designed with the call-for-fires process in mind. It can operate with a touch-screen interface, enabling coordinates for the mission to be automatically generated by selecting a point on a map and can also ingest target information from a laser rangefinder.  

The system is designed to be ‘light’ and not endowed with the cumbersome functionality inherent in some larger legacy systems. While they may offer a wider range of capabilities, it is apparent that many of these are not used by forward observers, who tend to operate with a limited number of processes and tools that they find effective.

More comprehensive artillery C2 systems can restrict and dictate the process to a significant extent, limiting the forward observer’s ability to apply their expertise and, for example, select the effects that they determine to be most appropriate to a mission. For the most part these systems are stovepiped and do not tie into a force’s wider C2 network, this can pose problems with regards to situational awareness (SA) in particular.

A flexible approach

Systematic’s fires modules operate as add-ons to the SitaWare Frontline C2 system for the observer and gun crews, and SitaWare Headquarters for the coordination cell. This approach enables the same SA picture to be available to all fires elements and for C2 information from across an area of operations and wider command structures to be presented. The software’s ability to mark-up no-fire zones and display a continuously updated SA picture - including blue force tracks and enemy reports - can significantly reduce the potential for friendly fire incidents and civilian casualties. Knowledge of potential threats also serves to forewarn the observer of which capabilities they may need.

Flexibility and transparency are also important factors to be considered and are features of the fires module design. Enabling all stakeholders to view the process from the observer’s initial order onwards provides an additional layer of awareness and assurance. Information on other fires missions underway and available assets is also readily accessible. Added to this is the ability to edit mission data along the command chain, thereby doing away with the need to create a new mission if errors are identified or changes required. The dynamic nature of the modern battlefield does not allow for time-consuming alterations to be made, the ability to quickly edit select elements of the mission can be the difference between success and failure.

Coalition operations are the norm rather than the exception and few militaries can deploy the full range of artillery assets necessary to support their activities. Operations in Afghanistan are a prime example, the provision of fires support was largely a multinational effort and often forces deployed without any artillery systems organic to their formations, therefore it is essential that interoperability is a feature of the fires process.

Digital image of a battlefield

Multinational operations

Systematic’s fires modules have been built with interoperability and integration in mind, continuing the ethos of the wider product suite. The modules can be delivered with an Artillery System Cooperation Activities (ASCA) gateway, enabling the fire mission data to be distributed to other forces and assets that follow the same standards.

Survivability is for the most part not a significant issue in asymmetric warfare due to the nature of the threat, however, versus a peer or near-peer foe it is a primary concern for commanders and drives the employment of so-called ‘shoot-and-scoot’ tactics. Advances in weapon locating radars and electronic warfare systems, along with the development of fast and accurate counter-battery fire techniques, necessitates the ability to quickly deliver an accurate fire mission and redeploy. Likewise, due to the mobility of many self-propelled artillery systems, any counter fire must be made within at most a few minutes if an engagement is to be successful.  

The fires module’s use of a number of NATO artillery kernels for ballistic and meteorological data calculations also serves to improve timeliness and trust that the correct data is being delivered to the guns. Working in cooperation with artillery systems suppliers, Systematic is able to develop interfaces that automatically load the mission data into fire control systems, doing away with the need to manually enter this when it is delivered to the gun crew. 

The two-fold requirements of extant asymmetric warfare operations and potential peer and near-peer threats poses technical and doctrinal challenges for many militaries, simplifying and streamlining the fires process can go someway to meeting these and digitalisation can play an important role. Providing high levels of SA to all components of the fires ‘loop’ – as well as wider command elements – serves to enhance combat effectiveness and reduce the risk of friendly fire and civilian casualties. Indeed, its importance will only be magnified in potential hybrid warfare scenarios. 

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