The Future of Fires: Maximising the UK’s Tactical and Operational Firepower

Download PDF(2MB)

Courtesy of British Army/Max Bryan/OGL

This paper outlines critical trends in the development of next-generation fires systems and the implications of this future battlefield for the UK’s ground forces.

Executive Summary

The UK’S 2015 National Security Strategy made clear that there was a risk that Russia would undertake offensive operations against NATO, and that the UK should maintain a credible deterrence posture. The ground forces’ contribution to this posture was framed as a warfighting division. Critical to any divisional formation are its fires, which shape the battlespace, protect Allied forces by eliminating enemy guns, break up enemy force concentrations, and enable friendly ground manoeuvre by destroying adversary enablers and suppressing their manoeuvre elements. The UK currently possesses a critical shortage of artillery, and the army lacks the transportation capacity to deploy and sustain a credible divisional fires group. If conventional deterrence is to remain a key component of the UK’s National Security Strategy, then the modernisation of its fires capabilities should be a top priority.

Modernisation should not simply replicate existing platforms. There are four capability trends that are transforming the delivery of fires. The first is range, which may be expected to increase by 50% to 100% across most platforms by 2040. The second is the maturation of active seeker munitions able to autonomously course correct, which is simplifying kill chains, and improving the probability of kill (PK) of fires systems. The third is the ability to rapidly fuse sensor data to centrally coordinate large numbers of guns. Finally, there are an increasing array of effective defensive measures which, though small in number and with a limited range, can produce protected nodes on the battlefield.

These capabilities are reshaping the modern battlefield. The higher fidelity of sensors and PK of munitions are liable to reduce viable force densities, while the extended range of fires systems must hold combat service support (CSS) at risk over greater distances. This is likely to create a battlefield that is fragmented, with small, dispersed force elements entangled in a zone of contestation, rather than confronting one another across opposing front lines of control. The side likely to prevail will be the one best able to rapidly bring firepower to bear in frenetic engagements. Operationally, however, warfare is liable to return to positional fighting between CSS nodes protected by defensive systems.

Despite these technological advances, precision will remain expensive. The UK must either retain a sufficient stockpile of anti-armour area-effect munitions and enough mass to suppress infantry with high explosive, or must reconsider its commitments to the Oslo Treaty, and procure cluster munitions. It should be noted that the moral objections to the use of cluster munitions can be mitigated. It is possible to significantly reduce the dud-rate of munitions compared with those employed when the Oslo Treaty was signed. Furthermore the moral objections to their use become somewhat moot in a high intensity conflict in Eastern Europe, where Russian and US forces will employ cluster munitions liberally. Without appropriate munitions, British forces will simply be outranged, outgunned and thereby defeated in detail by Russian formations.

A further critical element of future capabilities must be deployability. It is not simply a question of having a credible artillery compliment on the Order of Battle. The force must have an executable plan for getting a sufficient number of platforms into theatre within an operationally relevant timeframe. Deployability must therefore be a critical criterion for all newly procured fires platforms.

The exact structure of a credible divisional fires group to support warfighting is dependent on a number of trade-offs. However, an indicative minimum set of capabilities would comprise:

  • A battery of anti-tank guided missiles per battlegroup.
  • A battery of self propelled 120-mm mortars per battlegroup.
  • 72 155-mm 52-calibre self-propelled howitzers with anti-armour area-effect munitions.
  • A regiment of multiple-launch rocket systems with a compliment of anti-armour area-effect munitions, and long-range precision fires (LRPF).
  • Support for these capabilities from a robust data-centric command and control system, and logistics.

It is important to note that these capabilities are not only relevant to warfighting. The ability to deploy a credible warfighting force increases the risk for adversaries escalating to direct armed conflict, and thereby allows the UK to maximise its efforts in the competitive space. Conversely, forces designed for competition, but unable to fight credibly, can be deterred by the threat of escalation.

Note: A minor typographical change was made to this paper on 6 December 2019.


Dr Jack Watling

Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare

Military Sciences

View profile


Explore our related content