By 1948 the United States had abandoned coastal artillery completely, and Britain followed suit in 1956. As early as the late 1930s, it was obvious that carrier-based aircraft were making conventional gun battery coastal defenses obsolete, and in reaction many coastal artillery units started to convert to air defense (antiaircraft artillery, or AAA) missions. Most American air defense artillery (ADA) units today carry the lineage of older coastal artillery units. ADA weapons also went through rapid and radical changes following World War II. Most large-caliber AAA guns were phased out in favor of guided missiles, although some armies still retained machine gun-based systems for low-flying aircraft. Two of the most prominent still in service in the early twenty-first century include the American 20mm Vulcan and the Soviet 23mm ZSU-23-4. Both systems are radar controlled and are mounted on self-propelled tracked carriages.
In the 1960s many armies started introducing shoulder-fired, man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs) to extend air defense coverage to lower-level maneuver units in the field. Unfortunately, too many of these weapons were poorly accounted for and were controlled by many armies. During the 1980–1988 period alone, the Soviets delivered 32,210 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) of all types to third world countries; during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the United States supplied the mujahideen resistance with Stinger MANPADs. All too many MANPADs ended up on the black market, and at the beginning of the twenty-first century MANPADs in the hands of terrorists had become one of the worst-case nightmare scenarios.
Antitank artillery units were virtually unique to World War II, and most armies abandoned them completely by the mid-1950s, although conventional Soviet field artillery retained an antitank role in the direct-fire mode. Most antitank guns were phased out in favor of wire-guided antitank missiles, either employed directly by the lower-level maneuver units or later fired from helicopters. When the armed helicopter first appeared in Vietnam firing 2.75-inch unguided rockets, those units initially were designated as aerial field artillery (AFA) because the U.S. Army at that time did not have an aviation branch. As helicopter ordnance became more sophisticated and the first purpose-built attack helicopter, the AH-1 Cobra, was introduced, such units quickly were redesignated as attack aviation. Shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army reintroduced the Aviation Branch that it lost when the U.S. Air Force became a separate service in 1947.
At the start of World War II, the standard divisional support gun in most armies was 75mm. From the latter half of World War II through Vietnam, it was 105mm. In the years since Vietnam it has been 155mm. Although the self-propelled (SP) gun became a standard weapon system in World War II, most field artillery then was still towed. Today most of the artillery of the major armies is SP. The weight of the SP guns, however, restricts their air transportability, and for that reason most armies still have a number of the lighter towed guns, particularly the 105mm, that can be transported by helicopter.
In the early 1960s the United States introduced an entire family of SP guns. The venerable 155mm SP howitzer M-109 was adopted by at least twenty countries. It has undergone constant modification and improvement and still remains in service. The 8-inch (203mm) howitzer M-110 was essentially a World War II weapon mounted on new SP chasses. With a range of 16,800 meters, it reputedly was the most accurate field artillery weapon in history. In the 1970s a longer barrel gave it even more range, but many maneuver commanders disliked it because of its slow speed. It was phased out of the U.S. inventory immediately after the Persian Gulf War, a decision that many artillery experts still believe was a serious mistake because of the weapon's accuracy and unparalleled hitting power. The 175mm SP M-107 was mounted on the same chassis as the M-110. Firing out to 32,700 meters, it had the longest range of any American cannon system. Unfortunately, it was very inaccurate and suffered from the same mobility problems as the M-110. The 175mm SP was phased out in the early 1980s.
The standard artillery calibers used by the Soviet Union, its client states in the third world, and the Warsaw Pact states included 122mm, 152mm, and 203mm, which were first adopted by the emperors' armies and have been used by the Russians up to the present. Initially, the Soviets did not follow the trend toward SP field artillery. From the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, however, the Soviets conducted an aggressive program of introducing the new 2S family of SP artillery. These included the 122mm SP howitzer 2S-1, the 152mm SP howitzer 2S-3, the 152mm SP gun 2S-5, the 203mm SP gun 2S-7, and the 240mm SP mortar 2S-4.
It is an old adage of the British Royal Artillery that the real artillery weapon is the projectile and that the gun is merely the means of sending it to the target. During World War II, the most common types of artillery ammunition were high explosive (HE), illumination, and smoke. Chemical artillery rounds had been widely used during World War I; all sides still had them in their arsenals during World War II, but they were never used. Nonetheless, most armies during the Cold War stockpiled chemical artillery rounds and trained in their delivery. Chemical agents carried in the artillery rounds included the GB (nonpersistent) and VX (persistent) nerve agents and the HD blistering agent.
During the Cold War period, a wide range of new and innovative artillery projectiles came into service. During the Vietnam War, the United States introduced the antipersonnel round (APERS), commonly called the Beehive round. Designed to defend isolated firebases from human-wave attacks, the Beehive round fired thousands of tiny fléchettes (essentially small nails with fins) at point-blank range. The Beehive was a return to the concept of the old canister round of muzzle-loading artillery. Also introduced in Vietnam, the Improved Conventional Munition (ICM) was a cargo-carrying round that dispersed antipersonnel submunitions (bomblets) above the target. After the Vietnam War, the United States introduced the Dual-Purpose ICM (DPICM) round, containing a mixture of antipersonnel and antiarmor submunitions. In the 1980s the United States also introduced a laser-guided antitank round, the M-712 Copperhead. Developed to counter the massive Soviet armored formations, the Copperhead was the first field artillery round specifically designed to be fired against a point target rather than an area target.
Another variation on the cargo-carrying round was the late-1970s U.S. introduction of the Field Artillery Scatterable Mines (FASCAM) system, designed to lay minefields deep into enemy territory. FASCAM rounds carried either antipersonnel or antiarmor mines. Each of the mines has a variable active period that can be set prior to firing the round. At the end of the maximum active period the mines automatically disarm, thereby rendering them harmless to friendly troops who might advance through the area in the future.
Fuel Air Explosives (FAE) are powerful conventional explosives, sometimes called the poor man's nuke. The round operates on the same principle as a grain elevator explosion. A preliminary explosion first disperses a cloud of petroleum-based droplets over a large area while the main charge detonates the vapor cloud, producing a huge fireball. The Soviets reportedly used FAE artillery rounds and missile warheads in Afghanistan.
The most defining characteristic of Cold War field artillery was its ability to fire a nuclear round, the so-called battlefield nuclear weapon, also erroneously called the tactical nuclear weapon. The first and only cannon firing of a nuclear round occurred on 25 May 1953 at Frenchman's Flats, Nevada, as part of Operation upshot-knothole. An 803-pound T-124 projectile with a W-9 warhead was fired to a range of 10,000 meters and detonated 160 meters above the ground, producing a yield of fifteen kilotons. The weapon that fired the round was the superheavy 280mm M-65 gun. Originally designed late in World War II, the weapon was never put into production as originally intended. In the late 1940s the design was resurrected specifically as a nuclear weapon. In battery, the gun weighed 93,800 pounds and fired from a box-trail platform.
It was suspended between two specially built tractors. In addition to the nuclear round, it could also fire a 598-pound HE round out to a range of 28,700 meters. Nicknamed "Atomic Annie," the M-65 remained in service a little more than ten years.
The mainstays of the U.S. nuclear field artillery arsenal were the 155mm M-109 and 8-inch M-110 howitzers. Both weapons also fired conventional ammunition and fired many thousands of HE rounds during the Vietnam War and later during the Persian Gulf War. The M-109 was capable of firing the M-454 nuclear round. At 120 pounds, the round's W-48 fission warhead produced a mere 0.1-kiloton blast. It was the smallest U.S. nuclear warhead ever fielded.
Approximately 1,060 M-454 rounds were procured. The other nuclear shell produced in large numbers was the M-422 with the W-33 warhead, fired by the 8-inch M-110 howitzer. Three types of the W-33s produced yields between five and ten kilotons. A fourth type produced a forty-kiloton yield. Some 2,000 W-33s were produced between 1957 and 1965. Late in the Cold War the M-753 round with the W-79 warhead was also produced in small numbers for the 8-inch M-110 howitzer. It had only a one- to two-kiloton yield, but its enhanced radiation effect was designed to produce greater human killing with less blast damage.
American officers specially trained as nuclear target analysts carried the additional skill indicator personnel code of 5X. The logic and even the basic sanity of nuclear weapons with such a short range was debated continually throughout the Cold War. In the event of an all-out attack by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations, units such as the 2nd Battalion, 92nd Field Artillery, stationed in Giessen, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany), were supposed to deploy to predesignated positions near the Fulda Gap. Once in position, their mission was to fire a single nuclear round from each of the battalion's twelve 8-inch M-110 howitzers. Most American artillerymen who served in Germany during the Cold War understood only too well that it was basically a suicide mission.
President George H. W. Bush made the unilateral decision to eliminate nuclear field artillery in 1991, withdrawing some 1,300 nuclear shells from Europe. The Soviet Union followed suit in 1992. The United States destroyed its last nuclear artillery round, a W-79 warhead, in late 2003.
Britain's Royal Artillery employed the U.S. M-109 and M-110 howitzers, and as a nuclear power, British forces had nuclear rounds for both weapons. The West German Bundeswehr also used the M-109 and M-110 but as a nonnuclear power did not have nuclear rounds. There was, however, a system in place to issue such rounds to the Bundeswehr in time of war. U.S. Special Weapons units, sometimes called caretaker units, were aligned with and based near designated Bundeswehr artillery units. The American units maintained physical control over the nuclear rounds. Upon receipt of the release authority of the president of the United States and the approval of the West German chancellor, the nuclear rounds would be released to the German units. Fortunately, this mechanism was never tested.
Artillery rockets have been in use since at least the War of 1812, but they only became significant battlefield weapons during World War II. The German V-1 Buzz Bomb was the world's first practical cruise missile. The German V-2 was the first guided missile used as a weapon and the forerunner of today's intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The German Nebelwerfers and the Soviet Katyushas were the first practical multiple rocket launchers.
During the 1950s the United States fielded a succession of battlefield rocket and missile systems, including the Corporal, the Sergeant, and the Little John. Introduced in 1962, the Honest John had both nuclear and HE warheads. The 762mm rocket was launched from a rail on the back of a truck and had a range of 37,000 meters. As an unguided, free-flight rocket, it was aimed before firing using fire direction calculations similar to those used for tube artillery. In 1972 the United States replaced the Honest John with the Lance. Designed as a nuclear delivery system only, the 557mm inertial-guided missile had a range of 112 kilometers.
The Pershing, first introduced in 1962 and fielded in Europe in 1964, was the premier U.S. field artillery missile system. An inertial-guided, two-stage missile with a nuclear warhead and a range of up to 750 kilometers, it became the backbone of the nuclear deterrent against attack by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations. In March 1964 the West German Air Force's first Pershing wing began unit training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The control system for the warheads in Germany was the same as for the nuclear artillery shells.
The upgraded Pershing Ia, introduced in 1969, had a W-50 warhead with yields of 60, 200, or 400 kilotons. The far more capable and accurate Pershing II, with a range of 1,800 kilometers, was introduced in 1983. Fired from West Germany, the P-2, as it was called, could hit targets with pinpoint accuracy deep in the Soviet Union. Its W-85 warhead produced a 40-kiloton airburst. Basing the P-2 on German soil caused a major political crisis for the government of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, but the administration of President Ronald Reagan forced the issue. Some historians have since argued that the deployment of the P-2 was one of the most significant elements of pressure that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the control of the 56th Field Artillery Command, eighty-six P-2 launchers and ninety-one warheads were deployed in Germany as of 1989. Before the Pershings were eliminated in 1991, the U.S. Army had 169 Pershing 1a and 234 Pershing II missiles.
As with the Soviets, the French relied primarily on their Pluton guided missile as their primary delivery system for battlefield nuclear weapons. Although Israel is not an officially declared nuclear power, most Western intelligence organizations have assumed since the 1970s that their Jericho missile has a nuclear warhead.
Except in the Soviet Union, multiple rocket launching systems went into an eclipse for almost four decades following World War II. Such weapons never went out of service in the Warsaw Pact armies, and in 1964 the Soviets introduced the BM-21. Basically an upgraded version of the World War II Katyusha, the BM-21 was a truck-mounted system with forty launching tubes that salvoed 122mm free flight rockets to a range of 20,000 meters. The system was not very accurate, but the NATO armies respected and feared its area-saturation power.
In 1985 the United States introduced the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), which was quickly adopted by many NATO armies. Based on the fully tracked chassis of the Bradley armored fighting vehicle, the MLRS was a quantum technological improvement over the Soviet BM-21. The MLRS carries twelve 227mm rockets and can fire them by salvo, by ripple, or individually. Although the rockets are unguided, they are essentially as accurate as cannon artillery because each SP launcher system carries its own onboard computer and a Global Positioning System (GPS). This also means that each launcher in a battery can position itself independently in diverse locations yet still mass its fire on a designated target. Each rocket has a range of 32,000 meters and delivers a 320-pound warhead containing 644 DPICM submunitions, capable of defeating 100mm of armor. Once the launcher expends its load, the onboard automatic loading system allows the three-man crew to reload the system in a matter of minutes. The MLRS was used with devastating effect during the Persian Gulf War.
Electronics and computers have also changed artillery in ways undreamed of during World War II. By the latter half of the Cold War, all the NATO and Warsaw Pact armies had sophisticated counterbattery radar systems that could instantly pinpoint the map coordinates of hostile mortars or artillery. (Because of the different angles of fire involved, separately designed radar systems are still needed to locate mortars and artillery.)
Up through the end of the Vietnam War, fire direction calculations were still done manually, using firing charts and graphical firing tables (specially designed slide rules). A well-trained Fire Direction Control (FDC) section could calculate initial firing data in a matter of minutes and subsequent correction data in a matter of seconds.
In the late 1960s the U.S. Army introduced its Field Artillery Digital Automatic Computer (FADAC). The new computer was not really faster than a well-trained FDC section using manual methods, but FADAC's advantages were that it was more accurate and could compute firing data for up to five different batteries simultaneously. FADAC's main drawback was its poor reliability. It was almost always down for maintenance. The equivalent British system was called Field Artillery Computing Equipment (FACE).
With the widespread commercial introduction of inexpensive handheld calculators in the early 1970s and programmable calculators shortly thereafter, many enterprising FDC crewmen bought their own calculators and programmed them for the gunnery solution. The results were almost as fast and accurate as FADAC and were much more reliable. The U.S. Army eventually bought and preprogrammed the Texas Instruments TI-59 calculator. Meanwhile, the much more reliable and flexible TACFIRE system replaced FADAC in all U.S. artillery units by the 1980s. The system is still in use today, and only a few very old artillerymen at the start of the twenty-first century still remember how to compute the gunnery solution manually.
Accurate artillery fire is absolutely dependent on accurate positioning data for the guns and at least the registration point, if not all the targets. Up through the end of the Vietnam War, artillery survey was still conducted the same way the early colonial surveyors laid out the Mason-Dixon Line, with a tape measure and a transit. In the early 1970s the time- and labor-intensive tape measure gave way to the infrared Distance Measuring Equipment (DME). Shortly thereafter the entire surveying system was completely automated with the introduction of the Position and Azimuth Determining System (PADS). Once initialized, the gyro-based PADS could be transported in a ground vehicle or a helicopter to any location, there to produce precise digital readout of the location. When the constellation of GPS satellites was put in orbit, the GPS was able to produce accurate location data anywhere in the world. As with the MLRS, other SP artillery systems have been fitted with their own onboard GPS, allowing the guns of a single battery to be widely dispersed on the ground yet mass their fires on a single target. The widely dispersed guns, of course, offer a far more difficult counterbattery target to the enemy and improve battlefield survivability.
Although conventional tube artillery is nowhere near as technically sophisticated as guided missiles, jet fighter-bombers, or helicopter gunships, it will remain a key element on the battlefield well into the twenty-first century and most probably beyond. Within the arc of its range, field artillery is still the only all-weather, twenty-four-hour, instant-response, close-fire support system that cannot be interfered with by electronic means. As long as the ammunition supply remains constant, artillery also has far greater duration than any of the airborne systems. Those characteristics make field artillery still indispensable to infantrymen in contact.
David T. Zabecki
Bellamy, Chris. Red God of War: Soviet Artillery and Rocket Forces. London: Brassey's, 1986.; Bidwell, Shelford, ed. Brassey's Artillery of the World. London: Brassey's, 1977.; Hogg, Ian V. Artillery 2000. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1990.; Scales, Robert H., Jr. Firepower in Limited War. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1995.