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By Mr C. Shaw


The Chief of Army has outlined his intent to ensure that the New Zealand Army is a modern, agile, highly adaptive and light combat force, capable of meeting the challenges of the contemporary and future operating environment. His intent should not be empty words, but should guide and focus our training, force design and overall development. Tradition shouldn’t stand in the way of output, and nothing should be considered sacred or beyond critique.

Noting the above, it will be argued that our current artillery capability may be orphaned from our concept of operations. This is not to cast into doubt the existence or importance of the Royal New Zealand Artillery or 16 Field Regiment, but rather how we can ensure that future contingents of New Zealand soldiers deploy and fight with ready, relevant and capable fires capability available in support. This article will argue that other options exist, and that the light gun capability should be critically considered against possible alternatives.

The Army’s Current Fires Capability

The NZ Army’s artillery unit, 16 Field Regiment, provides the fires sub-unit inside the ‘Multi-Role Battalion Group’ (MRBG) that guides our outputs. The MRBG provides an outline of the largest force structure the NZ Army could look at deploying in support of government policy, or alternatively as a basis for task-organisation of sub-units or task elements – a ‘shopping list’ that can be used to tailor and specialise capabilities for specific deployments and roles.

Currently the artillery’s contribution to the MRBG is a ‘hybrid battery’ capable of employing either 105mm light guns or 81mm mortars, targeting and fires specialists for the MRBG headquarters, forward observers and a planned Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) capability. The biggest issue with the current structure is that it aligns legacy capabilities of 105mm light guns into an organisational level that it was not designed for. It is possible that the hybrid battery could split its mortars to remain in support of the MRBG and simultaneously attach a light gun element to a higher-level brigade or task force’s own artillery force. While conceivable, assuming that the light guns would work to a higher organisation indicates a capability outside the scope and purpose of the MRBG and potentially creates command and control issues for a split battery.

Keeping the light guns in the MRGB is not an ideal capability match, though. A combat battalion is focussed on manoeuvre, and the technical and support requirements behind sustaining and enabling artillery represents an additional burden. Mortars are easier to manoeuvre as part of a battalion, and thus remain the traditional organic fires for battalion-level units. No other force in the ABCA or NATO sees artillery held organically at the battalion. It can thus be argued that the MRBG is capable of being supported by mortars, keeping it aligned with likely coalition partners and preserving the standard ‘best practice’ mix of firepower, mobility and sustainability at the battalion level. This doesn’t render the 105mm light gun capability ineffective or undesirable, but it does indicate that the continued relevance of the 105mm light gun capability for the NZ Army’s outputs is worthy of closer assessment and analysis.

The Future Fires Requirements

Artillery and indirect fires remain an important and integral part of any combined arms capability, and will do so into the future. However, the nature and requirements we anticipate of our fires is evolving. It is anticipated, according to both the Future Land Operating Concept 2035 and the Chief of Army’s guidance, that we will be operating in an ‘increasingly complex and urbanised operating environment.’ Future campaigning will also be increasingly scrutinised, requiring our operations and use of force to be increasingly precise, especially in terms of effects and firepower.

Traditionally 105mm light artillery has been used for expeditionary roles (such as air-mobile, airborne and amphibious forces) and has proven itself in lower-intensity warfighting operations where the adversary does not possess a similar indirect or artillery capability. In conventional or manoeuvre warfighting against a peer or near-peer enemy the light gun concept is vulnerable, being forced to dismount to fire and offering no protection to the gunners operating it. In addition, the lethality of light artillery is limited against a protected or fortified target. 155mm medium artillery, especially armoured self-propelled systems, are the norm for forces structured for higher intensity warfighting, with light artillery normally reserved for specialist (high mobility / rapid deployment) or lower-intensity (operations other than war, counter-insurgency) type operations.

Yet it’s suitability for the lower intensity type of warfare may be changing. Guns are an inherently area-effect weapon, excelling at bringing massed fires upon a target. The last two decades have seen precision munitions developed, but these are almost exclusively for medium artillery systems (155mm) and missile systems (HIMARs). The opportunity and utility light artillery offers in lower-intensity operations will become increasingly reduced due to the need to deliver precise, low collateral (rather than massed or area) effects, while manoeuvre warfare and higher-intensity combat operations against a peer or near-peer enemy normally requires artillery with longer range and better levels of lethality and protection than that is offered by the 105mm system.

Where does that leave us? Artillery has proven utility and indirect fire is a crucial part of our combined arms capability, but it does not appear perfectly aligned to our MRBG concept or to our likely future operating environment.

The United States Marine Corps (UMSC) Evolving Fires Capability

Interestingly, the USMC has experimented with delegating artillery to battalions as part of its Enhanced Company Operations and Distributed Operations concepts. Even more interestingly, the USMC has recently indicated that it is now moving in the opposite direction entirely. Under a 10-year plan released this year, the USMC will reduce its artillery force (of 155mm medium howitzers) from 21 batteries to 5, while at the same time disbanding its main battle tank capability. This will allow the USMC to invest in missile artillery and UAS, including an increase to their squad size to include a drone and counter-drone capability. This is part of an ongoing effort on behalf of the USMC to pursue an operational concept that would see it capable of conducting high intensity warfighting against peer adversaries in a littoral environment.

An Alternative for our Future Fires?

While the specific capabilities and scale of change the USMC is looking at may be well outside the scope of the NZ Army, their direction and logic could nonetheless be instructive as we consider our own future capabilities. If we were to look for an alternative to our artillery capability, we can use the USMC’s example as a template. We don’t have the resources or requirements to pursue heavy missile artillery systems in the form of MLRS or Tomahawks as they are doing, but we can mirror their logic. There is a comparative system we could look to – if the USMC is replacing their 155mm medium artillery howitzers with long-range surface-to-surface missiles, an imperfect analogy for the NZ Army could be replacing our 105mm light guns with short-range surface-to-surface missiles. Instead of having a hybrid battery capable of employing both mortars and artillery, it could instead see the MRBG employing a dedicated mortar platoon (as per doctrinal norms) and a dedicated surface-to-surface fires element (a new innovation).

This might sound far-fetched or bordering on science-fiction, but there is a mature, operationally proven short-range system that could be used as an indicative system for comparison purposes. Since at least 2012, the United States military has been purchasing small, individually-portable loitering munitions known as the ‘Switchblade’ and has employed them extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is more of a kamikaze-type drone than a traditional surface-to-surface missile, as it has the ability to loiter, providing its own observation feed back to an operator before a target is designated and it conducts a terminal attack. Once launched it cannot be recovered, and according to open-source information it has a loiter time of around 10 minutes and a range of approximately 10km. It is far from equivalent to light artillery, and in terms of lethality its terminal effect is closer to a 40mm grenade than to artillery. The Switchblade is not a like-for-like replacement for any form of artillery, as it lacks the lethality and firepower that a light gun (or mortar) battery can bring to bear. However, it does provide a level of precision and real-time sensor-shooter targeting that a light gun battery by itself cannot, and it is worthy of consideration as an alternative system.

The Switchblade would appear, on the surface, to be a viable option cost-wise. It is similar to a Javelin MRAAW in terms of per-missile cost (open source internet searching indicates NZD$115k for a Switchblade compared to $130k for a Javelin missile) and is easier to train on than a gun battery – it requires an individual or small team to employ, rather than the full sub-unit for 105mm light guns. Software, synthetic training and training missiles can allow the system to be trained and integrated into exercises in the same way the Javelin capability is sustained, without the need for the need for annual and ongoing live-firing. While the Switchblade has yet to be used outside the United States military, applications have been made for an unspecified export customer as of April 2020.

It appears to be a reasonably future-proofed option, as well. The Switchblade had undergone a range of upgrades since it was introduced in 2012, including secure data communications. Additional variants are also in development, including a heavier warhead better suited for destroying protected or fortified targets and software that would enable the Switchblade to be used as an anti-drone weapon. The system itself is modular in a way that light guns are not – it is easier to replace the Switchblade with a new or emerging like-for-like system in the future, as it is stand-alone and relatively independent in terms of support infrastructures and training requirements. Guns require workshops, specialist trades and dedicated combat service support assets to transport and sustain them in the field, while a light missile team is more like a Javelin section, able to integrate within a larger organisation with minimal support requirements. Another benefit would be the potential personnel savings – instead of having over 100 personnel providing the hybrid battery’s mortar or light gun capability, a dedicated mortar platoon could be maintained alongside a Switchblade-type section or platoon. 16 Field Regiment could continue to provide forward observers and targeting staff to the MRBG, but would have additional personnel freed up to dedicate to additional roles – and if the USMC direction was to be further adapted, this could include a tactical counter-UAS or counter-drone capability under the umbrella of artillery’s traditional air defense role.

As such, it is suggested that an alternative option for a RNZA/ 16 Field Regiment based upon mortars and light guns could be a 16 Field Regiment based upon mortars, short-range precision strike, tactical UAS and tactical counter-UAS systems.

Utility Outside the MRBG?

Would the NZ Army lose a core component of our combined arms capability by losing light artillery? This would need to be carefully considered, but it is worth noting that contemporary manoeuvre warfare is heavily dependent on air-land integration, and the NZ Army has long accepted that air support would be provided through coalition forces in a higher intensity role. It is not implausible to suggest that the NZ Army could also forego its own artillery and accept that the MRBG would rely on a coalition brigade or task force for reinforcing fires. Training-wise and within the MRBG, mortars would provide the indirect fire necessary for unit-level combined arms warfighting. The addition of precision short-range fires in the form of a Switchblade capability would add an additional capability to the MRBG across a spectrum of operating environments, including lower-intensity or urban operations where light guns would struggle to be employed effectively. In addition, the Switchblade has been heavily utilised by the United States Special Operations Command in counter-Da’esh operations in Iraq, and it is likely that such a capability in 16 Field Regiment would be capable of supporting a range of New Zealand Special Operations missions and tasks, as well as the conventional MRBG.

Even broader in scope, the Switchblade would offer options for the army to provide support to NZDF joint operations. Light and portable, the Switchblade capability is far easier to deploy and set up in terms of time and sustainment than artillery guns or mortars are – noting, of course, that the light, precision effects provided by the Switchblade are vastly different to the lethal and suppressive effects offered by the former. In addition, the Switchblade has been launched from air and naval platforms in testing. It is difficult to conceive of any situation where such a system would be employed out of a RNZAF aircraft or helicopter, but it is possible to consider possible scenarios where Army personnel could support the RNZN with this capability, either in force-protection or in light strike role, especially in an amphibious operation in the littoral environment.


Winston Churchill famously quoted that “Renown awaits the commander who first restores artillery to its prime importance on the battlefield.” We can leave the focus on restoring artillery to prime importance on the battlefield (if indeed that is possible or even desirable) to our larger coalition partners.  We do, however, need to ensure that our own artillery capability remains suited to our current and future operating concepts – we need to ensure that we ensure our artillery retains its prime importance to our future battlefield and to our way of warfare.

This argument above is unavoidably devoid of much in the way of figures and empirical data, as the specific costs and personnel roles need to be conducted inside the system using classified information. However, the opportunity to field new capabilities (light precision strike and counter-drone systems) could be worth the cost of losing our legacy light artillery. The current 105mm light gun is a proven, capable system – but it is not the only option open to us, and it might not be the best one. Above all, debate, discussion and wargaming on how we design and structure our fires capability is one worth having to ensure we achieve the intent of being a modern, agile and adaptive light combat force.