The U.S. Army has a glaring hole in its transformation for large-scale combat operations: its inability to shape the tactical battlefield with fires. While the Army is improving the accuracy and range of its indirect fire systems through modernization efforts, this is only a partial solution. Without a significant overhaul, current U.S. indirect fire systems are insufficient and ineffective for division-centric operations, and organic airpower is too vulnerable to supplement many requirements. Instead, to shape the future battlefield at the tactical level, the Army must move beyond its conventional approach to warfare and embrace loitering munitions as an emerging fire support asset.
Often referred to as kamikaze or suicide drones, this emerging technology is a drone-missile hybrid, staying afloat and waiting to strike a target of opportunity. While the U.S. military has generally relegated this unique tool to supporting small unit tactics, other nations, like Israel, have developed models that can search hundreds of kilometers, stay airborne for hours, find and validate targets, and strike with devastating lethality. Stated another way, if the U.S. Army invests in loitering munitions, divisions can augment their lacking artillery capabilities to shape the future battlefield with organic assets.
The Army does not have artillery systems in abundance, especially at a division headquarters. Whereas artillery was a staple of division-level operations in conflicts such as Desert Storm and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, modern-day division artillery finds itself absent essential equipment. Cannon artillery remains with the brigades—a holdover from the global war on terror—with a single artillery battalion supporting each brigade combat team. While the division may consolidate these systems, it would be at a significant opportunity cost to maneuver operations with a limited gain to the division’s shaping effort based on current cannon limitations. Similarly, rocket artillery resides at the corps, with a field artillery brigade per, some as small as two battalions for the entire corps.
Consequently, training scenarios like Warfighter exercises operate under the assumption that a corps or the National Guard will “allocate” divisions rocket artillery units. Just as problematic, the Army is unlikely to field more cannon or rocket artillery battalions anytime soon. Combined, this equipment situation limits the division’s ability to shape the battlefield with fires, regardless of how capable current U.S. indirect fire systems are or will be soon. The limitations of cannon and rocket artillery exacerbate this problem.
U.S. artillery is not designed to destroy armored vehicles, at least not the current arsenal. While this was not always the case, it is the situation that the U.S. Army finds itself in after moving away from its main three anti-armor munitions—the Copperhead guided round, sense-and-destroy armor submunitions, and cluster munition variants. Consequently, cannon artillery’s most lethal munition is a simple high-explosive round, limited in range and unable to neutralize a mechanized threat. Worse, rocket artillery, the Army’s “Grid Square Killer” and bringer of the infamous steel rain, is now a precision-only weapon.
The Army’s artillery modernization efforts primarily focus on range and accuracy, disregarding this lethality issue. This includes the long-range hypersonic weapon aimed at extending missile capabilities beyond 2,500 kilometers, and the precision strike missile that doubles the range of current tactical missiles to over 600 kilometers. For cannons, the service is working on an extended-range cannon artillery project that increases range and lethality. However, the improved lethality is from increasing rates of fire, not reintroducing anti-armor or target-seeking munitions.
What About Air?
The most common solution to this artillery problem is aircraft. However, fixed-wing aircraft—the systems best suited to supplement artillery—do not belong to the Army. This lack of ownership can lead Army units to operate under similar assumptions to those made with rocket artillery, the idea that the division will be “allocated” air support when needed. A dangerous assumption, given the subsequent shortfall that airspace will be heavily contested in a near-peer fight. Consequently, the Air Force will be preoccupied. Equally important, organic division assets like helicopters will be vulnerable to enemy air-defense capabilities and potentially sidelined for certain phases. While there will be ample opportunities to leverage air power to exploit tactical situations, the division headquarters must rely on something other than this capability to shape the battlefield.
Incorporating Loitering Munitions
Loitering munitions provide a readily available “fires” tool for the division headquarters. While they vary drastically by type, their function is universal—remaining airborne and “hunting” for targets to strike. These systems gained notoriety during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the ongoing Ukraine crisis. Advanced loitering munitions, like the Israeli HARPY, can loiter for hours, cover hundreds of kilometers of area, and have anti-armor warheads.
There is no innovation shortfall. Manufacturers globally have begun saturating the market with varying types of loitering munitions. Israel’s Uvision, for example, recently opened a new production and training facility in Virginia and has contracted one of its models to the U.S. Marine Corps. The company boasts an arsenal of eight different models with varying ranges, loitering times, and payloads for what it defines as tactical, operational, and strategic mission sets. While the Army should strive to leverage loitering munitions across numerous echelons, the division’s ability to shape the battlefield is the most pressing.
However, loitering munitions cannot and should not replace artillery. Instead, they must augment the division’s fires capability. The emerging technology is its own surveillance platform, minimizing the commitment of other assets. Furthermore, a loitering munition that flies for hours provides decision-makers real-time battlefield updates with a ready-to-strike platform. Additionally, the persistent observation gained through loitering allows the system to serve as a makeshift observer for conventional artillery assets if available. Finally, the combination of loitering time and coverage area allows the division to mass fires or repurpose airborne assets based on dynamic environmental changes. For example, suppose a loitering munition identifies a large formation of enemy armored vehicles staging or moving in a column under the enemy’s air-defense umbrella. In that case, the division fires element could repurpose loitering munitions from other targeted areas of interest, converging an incredible amount of lethality on a time-sensitive critical target. This strike flexibility could produce devastating effects without risking friendly forces or equipment.
The Army must examine how the division will shape the tactical battlefield with the shift back to division-centric operations from brigade-centric operations. Current artillery systems are insufficient and ineffective, and organic aircraft can only do so much in a contested environment. It is unlikely that the division headquarters will be “allocated” critical assets in its time of need. It is also unrealistic to recommend that the service fields numerous new artillery battalions to fill the gap. While there is value in current modernization efforts and other potential lethality upgrades, it is time for the Army to embrace emerging fires capabilities. Loitering munitions can augment conventional artillery and provide new and critical attributes to the division headquarters. In this context, loitering munitions are the future of division shaping operations.
Brennan Deveraux is a major in the U.S. Army serving as a U.S. Army North planner. He is an Army strategist and an Art of War scholar specializing in rocket artillery and missile warfare. He has completed combat deployments to Iraq and the Horn of Africa and has three defense-related master’s degrees, focusing his research on military adaptation and emerging technology management. This first appeared in RealClearDefense.