If you were an Ottoman janissary at the close of the 14th century, you likely had every reason to feel confident. Your homeland was, just then, burgeoning into an empire spanning two continents. Just a few decades before, your generals had started their conquest of the Balkans – and just a few decades later, they would take Constantinople, finally snuffing out an enemy that had plagued the armies of Islam since the time of Muhammad.

But for a few days in 1396, the apparently invincible Ottoman armies would be checked. Supported by Genoese mercenaries, the Byzantines, beleaguered though they were, would prove they had a final trick up their embroidered sleeves – cannons. Fired from high over the walls of their city, this new and terrifying weapon launched metal projectiles into the massed ranks of Turks, their booming sound sowing terror in men and beast alike. The janissaries may have been masters of the sword and the bow, but gunpowder was new, and they quickly retreated to fight another day.

From these rustic beginnings, of course, artillery would go on to dominate battlefields for the next 500 years, from Pavia to Borodino to Gettysburg. Yet with the rise of military aircraft over the past century, artillery suddenly began to feel painfully outdated. Why would you bomb a position with an unwieldy and vulnerable howitzer, after all, if you could simply assault it from the air, making your escape before the enemy even had time to react? Just ask the people of Guernica or Hamburg how effective this approach can be. At the same time, the trend away from artillery is clear if you speak to the gunners themselves.

While the Pentagon splurges $200bn a year on new aircraft, US artillerymen have increasingly found themselves swapping their howitzers for armoured personnel carriers, and are often expected to work as regular grunts. Yet, with sophisticated air defence systems liable to knock even the fastest aircraft out the air – and new ways of combat transforming the battle kit of armies the worldover – it feels like conventional artillery might finally be due a comeback.

An area under fire

If you’ve been listening to Conservative Party backbenchers and the British right-wing press over the past few years, you’ve likely heard both grumbling about the apparent unpreparedness of the UK’s military for the wars of tomorrow. Whatever you think of the arguments underlying these claims – about the UK’s place in the world, or its status as a serious power – much of this is unfair. From new tanks to excellent intelligence, the Union Jack is still a banner to be feared. On one point, though, the naysayers are correct. Compared with the giddy heights of the Cold War, the UK’s artillery capability has crumbled, with most of its firepower centred on just two regiments of aging AS90 howitzers.

Special forces units are similarly bereft, with the Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade sharing only four six-gun batteries between them. Not that this is unique to Her Majesty’s armed forces. Defence experts from Paris to Berlin have warned about a decline in artillery power, with not even the global superpowers proving immune. In an announcement in March 2020, for instance, the US Marine Corps announced it was planning to slash its artillery component down from 21 batteries to just five. No wonder one American artillery officer recently remarked that his superiors viewed artillery “as secondary” to other needs, from running patrols to staffing guard towers and escorting convoys of supplies.

Reflect on that statement for a moment, of course, and you can begin to understand how this decline in artillery came about. The wars the US has fought so far this century haven’t been grand conflicts in open fields. They’ve been bitty, irregular affairs, where some of the most important tasks involved escorting supplies from Kabul International, or protecting Baghdad’s Green Zone. To put it another way, even the most obtuse US commander realised that shelling the Mahdi army out of Sadr City in Iraq was more trouble than it was worth – and when they did use artillery, like at Fallujah, they mostly just achieved international criticism for flattening entire neighbourhoods. The nature of the US’s recent wars helps explain the fall of artillery in another way too.

“In a world where conventional enemies no longer existed – and the foes that did persist could hardly build reliable IEDs, let alone sophisticated anti-aircraft systems – why not simply reign death down from above?”

During the Cold War, after all, Nato planners envisaged fighting pitched battles against massed Soviet troops. But in a world where conventional enemies no longer existed – and the foes that did persist could hardly build reliable IEDs, let alone sophisticated anti-aircraft systems – why not simply reign death down from above? No wonder the US air force had conducted 87,000 sorties against Isis by March 2016, even as it lost just seven drones and aircraft. With that kind of air superiority, why bother risking a single $527,337 M198 howitzer, especially given insurgents have proven so adept at exploiting captured weapons?

An extended range

Around Christmas 2018, US marines faced some of their toughest opponents in years. Up in the Makhmur Mountains, in a landscape of shrubland and dust, they battled hundreds of well-fortified Isis militants. Fighting insurgents in the Middle East, you might think, is something these men were used to – but this time something was different. For the first time in a long time, the marines conducted an artillery raid – military parlance for an intense barrage aimed at dislodging the enemy from their foxholes. As one officer present put it, “Doing the first artillery raid, having never air assaulted a howitzer in theatre, was a great experience.”

This change makes sense. Unlike the Al Qaedas of the world, Isis, especially in its caliphate guise, was far closer to a conventional enemy than any the US had faced in years. Finally, three decades after the Cold War, here was a threat that could be tackled using old-fashioned fire power – including artillery. In fact, if you examine what militaries are doing in research and development, you can see similar changes far beyond the uplands of northern Iraq. From Nagorno-Karabakh to the Donbas, conventional battles are once again in vogue – and artillery is taking centre stage.

“With aerial smart bombs capable of accurately hitting targets within 13m, and 24% of the Pentagon’s budget going towards mechanised brigades, the artillerymen of the future need to be mobile.”

One of the most striking examples comes from the US. Its Extended Range Cannon Artillery programme aims to comprehensively improve the firepower of new artillery pieces. Right now, conventional 155mm howitzers can fire about 14 miles. But powered by rockets, and sitting atop a tank-like structure, the new weapons might be able shoot 24 miles, with some special rounds capable of hitting almost double that. Given the RAND Corporation reports that Russian artillery has around twice the range of its US counterparts, that would go a long way towards redressing the balance. Not to be outdone, meanwhile, the US’s Chinese opponents are developing a similar system, their PHL-16 mobile platform boasting eight 370mm rockets.

You’ll notice that both of these systems are selfpropelled. And for good reason – with aerial smart bombs capable of accurately hitting targets within 13m, and 24% of the Pentagon’s budget going towards mechanised brigades, the artillerymen of the future need to be mobile. That’s especially true given the growing challenges facing aircraft. The RAF may have reigned supreme in the skies over Belgrade or Baghdad, but new technology is dampening their power. Israel’s Iron Dome is especially famous, but everyone from Saudi Arabia to Iran have gone the same way. India’s Advance Air Defence system, for its part, can intercept incoming missiles from just 18 miles away. In short, infantry in the wars of tomorrow may no longer be able to rely on ubiquitous air cover – but with fast, flexible artillery, they might not need to.

The new terrain

Self-propelled guns of the old school are all well and good, but some armies are taking the principle of mobility even further. It might not be as sprightly as aerial cover, but an Austrian-led venture certainly gets close. Known as the Super Rapid Advanced Mortar System (SRAMS), this 120mm mortar weighs less than 26t. That means the SRAMS can be easily installed on 4×4s and transported on rough terrain, ensuring it can support infantry no matter how fast they advance. No wonder the SRAMS has already been snapped up by countries as varied as Singapore and the UAE.

And like so many other corners of military hardware, new technology is making these platforms even deadlier. The SRAMS, for its part, can be fired remotely. That means a helicopter pilot, even far above the battlefield, could use the mortar to target foes precisely, especially when they’re armed with laser target acquisition technology, a GPS navigation system and a digital map. Even artillery projectiles themselves are being improved. In the UK, for instance, the army is experimenting with so-called ‘base bleed’ technology, where a small gas generator at the rear of shells fills the area behind it with vapour, reducing drag and increasing range. Lucky for the Ottomans that their Byzantines opponents didn’t have access to anything quite that sophisticated – or the janissaries might have been beaten back again in 1453, just as they were in 1396.


Six-gun batteries shared between both the UK’s Air Assault Brigade and the 3 Commando Brigade.

Defense News


Miles the US’s new rocket-powered Extended Range Cannon Artillery platform might be able to fire, with some rounds capable of hitting nearly double that.

Defense News