The heavy cost of artillery

Harry G. Summers Jr.

January 31, 1991|By Harry G. Summers Jr.

AERIAL BOMBARDMENT continues to take its toll during the allied air campaign against Iraq, but another kind of bombardment is yet to come. "It is with artillery that war is made," said Napoleon Bonaparte, and casualty figures from America's most recent wars still bear him out.

In World War II, shrapnel (fragments from exploding artillery shells) caused 53 percent of U.S. battle deaths and 62 percent of wounds. In Korea shrapnel caused 59 percent of the deaths and 61 percent of the wounds. Even in the close-quarter fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, where enemy rifle and machine gun fire caused the majority of deaths, enemy shell fragments still caused 36 percent of the deaths and 65 percent of the wounds.

In a ground war in the Persian Gulf, those figures may be even higher. Since the Korean War the U.S. military has allowed itself to become both outgunned and outranged in field artillery. Indeed, the Korean War was the last time the U.S. had clear artillery dominance.

Artillery assigned to the several U.S. infantry divisions and the 1st Marine Division in Korea included 105mm and 155mm howitzers, longer range 155mm "Long Tom" guns and 8-inch (203mm) howitzers in general support. Howitzers fire shells in a high-arc trajectory compared to the relatively flat trajectory produced by guns. Late in the war, two 240mm howitzer battalions, whose guns originally were designed to demolish such fortifications as Nazi Germany's Siegfried line, were also sent to Korea. They could literally put out a wall of fire.

For instance, when the Chinese communist forces' 27-division spring offensive struck the allied lines in April, 1951, some 158,303 tons of artillery ammunition were fired to turn back the attack. The logistics effort to sustain that rate was prodigious: 27 Liberty Ship loads of ammunition, or the equivalent of 3,332 rail-car loads.

Although the Chinese and the North Koreans had little artillery athe beginning of the war, they had almost 1,000 artillery tubes by the end. In July, 1953, they fired 375,565 rounds at allied positions. Allied guns fired 2,710,248 rounds in June, 1953, and 2,000,982 rounds in July.

In Vietnam, the U.S., despite its preponderance in numbers of in-field artillery, found itself outranged by the North Vietnamese Army's Soviet-supplied 130mm guns. The range, more than 30 kilometers (18 miles), supposedly was matched by the U.S. Army's M107 175mm guns, but enemy guns were far more accurate than their U.S. counterparts.

During the siege of Khe Sanh, for example, the Marines had their 105mm and 155mm howitzers dug in to provide supporting fire. But the North Vietnamese had 130mm guns entrenched across the border in Laos far out of range of the Marine howitzers. On Feb. 23, 1968, the North Vietnamese slammed 1,307 rounds of artillery, mortar and rocket fire into the Marine base.

Although knowing their rounds would fall far short, the Marine gunners fired counter-battery salvos, satisfying, at least psychologically, their desire to hear some outgoing fire. But it was Air Force and Marine fighters and bombers that finally silenced the enemy guns.

The Soviets, who supplied these guns to North Vietnam, have supplied them to Iraq as well. That's bad news for the two U.S. Marine divisions in Saudi Arabia, as well as the Army's 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airmobile Division. They are still armed with towed 105mm howitzers with a range of from 11.5 to 18 kilometers (approximately 7 to 11 miles) as their direct support artillery, still far short of the Iraqis' 130mm guns, with a range of more than 30 kilometers. Even the U.S. general-support 155mm howitzers are not quite in range.

The U.S. Army armored and mechanized divisions are in somewhat better shape. Their principal direct support, the M109A2 self-propelled 155mm howitzer, has a range of from 18 to 23.5 kilometers (11 to 14 miles), and their general support MLRS (multiple-launch rocket systems), with standard 227mm missiles, have a range in excess of 30 kilometers and can be fitted with an ATACMS (army tactical missile system) rocket that has a range of more than 100 kilometers (60 miles).

The most accurate howitzer in the U.S. inventory is the 8-inch self-propelled howitzer that can extend its 22.5-kilometer range out to 30 kilometers when firing a rocket-assisted projectile. These are in short supply and, to make matters worse, in an incredible display of bureaucratic stupidity, the 8-inch battalion that normally supports the 3rd Armored Division, now deployed in the gulf, is being demobilized in Germany as an "economy" move.

What causes allied artillerymen the most concern, however, is not the Soviet-supplied 130mm gun but the approximately 300 South African- and Austrian-supplied G-5 and GHN-45 gun-howitzers. Firing a particularly effective high-fragmentation shell that can produce a shrapnel shower, it has an incredible range of 45 kilometers, far exceeding that of any U.S. or allied tube artillery.

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