Laser-Guided Artillery Developments in Russia: Syria and ZAPAD-2021

Msta-S howitzers are using the Krasnopol PGMs more and more often. Image Credit:
Msta-S howitzers are using the Krasnopol PGMs more and more often. Image Credit:

Russian Armed Forces are beginning to commonly apply laser-guided precision-guided artillery rounds. Not only does this refer to the Krasnopol fin-stabilized, base bleed-assisted, semi-automatic laser-guided, artillery weapon, but also the KM-8 Gran 120mm guided mortar weapon system - the said munitions are more and more commonly applied.

Izvestia outlet has outlined the proliferation of artillery PGMs in Russia in a long article recently, that indicates that in Syria, the long-range precision-guided artillery rounds have become one of the more effective assets, in the fight against the rebels. An example was brought into the light, in case of which mortar sites were destroyed with the use of Krasnopol weapons, in defence of the Khmiemim base in 2017. The very same rounds were also employed to neutralize fortified structures and other targets. The main advantages of precision-guided munitions - as proven by operational use - include high accuracy and the ability to hit the target with the first round. This also refers to moving targets.

Ammunition as such may have an impact on the operations, as the artillery is now able to eliminate fortified or heavily armoured targets with the first hit - protected from close explosions of conventional artillery rounds.

And this has been made possible without conventional shelling necessary - that can inspire counterattack. Also, there is no need now to employ large artillery elements (full battery/squadron), as tasks may be assigned to single, individual artillery assets as appropriate. “Izvestia” also emphasizes the fact that precision-guided artillery rounds are tougher to shoot down than rockets. They are also insensitive to electronic warfare.

It can be said that the Russians are following a broader trend - also common in the western states. The laser guidance systems enjoy a lot of interest, due to the ability to precisely determine the point of impact, and to act against moving targets. The US Army has been using precision-guided rounds for quite some time, utilizing the GPS/INS guidance system - known as Excalibur. However, the US forces are working on a new variant of the Excalibur round (Excalibur-S), that features an additional laser guidance unit.

Furthermore, European artillery weapons for the 155 mm howitzers also feature extra laser guidance units. These include the Leonardo Vulcano sabot round and the Nexter KATANA ammunition. The latter company is also a part of the FIRES programme pursued by the European Defence Industry Development Fund, the objective of which is to create a family of precision-guided, European artillery munitions. The very same programme also involves the Polish Telesystem-Mesko company - bringing in its experience tied to laser artillery guidance systems.

Land Systems and Beyond

Let us go back to Russia for a while. Up until recently, land-based systems were usually used for guidance purposes there. Meanwhile, during the Zapad-2021 exercise, Krasnopol and Gran projectiles guided by Orion and Outpost UAVs were tested. The targets were first detected by the UAVs. Then the data on the targets was uploaded to the C2 systems, and the UAVs designated those targets that were then being destroyed by artillery units - howitzers using the 152 mm Krasnopol rounds, and 120 mm mortars, utilizing the KM-8 Gran munitions. The latter can be used in different mortars (towed, and self-propelled ones, such as the Gorets mortars, based on the Tigr vehicle). During the Zapad-2021 exercise, the precision artillery assets were reportedly destroying the designated targets and were able to protect the freedom of manoeuvre of units involved.

"Izvestia" also added that exercise operations, involving UAVs and precision-guided artillery rounds are held more and more regularly in Russia, mentioning exercise that took place in August this year, in the Eastern Military District. The said training exercise involved the Msta-S howitzers, Orlan-10, as well as Innokhodets and Lastoshka UAV systems. During the aforesaid operation, the Krasnopol ammunition was being used at distances ranging from 10 to 16 kilometres.

Mass Proliferation and Precision

The proliferation of precision-guided artillery in Russia is a result arising directly on the ground of combat experience. The Russians got "used to" this kind of armament that can be very useful, in a myriad of conditions. The first variant of the Krasnopol system was fielded in the USSR era. It was only just recently when it has become far more common.

It seems that the Russians, developing their artillery capabilities, are driven to combine mass with precision, and big quantitative potential does not contradict the introduction of precision-guided rounds. Let us recall - the Russian land forces units usually include expansive artillery elements. Two tube-artillery squadrons and a single rocket artillery squadron are usually a standard, at the brigade level. In the case of the Division-level, the artillery is organized differently, with the elements being a part of the regiments (in smaller numbers than in brigades), but also in the division-level artillery regiments. Alongside the howitzers in battalions, and/or regiments, Russia also operates 120 mm mortar systems. Above the Division level, support elements exist - artillery brigades, with tube and rocket artillery assets of varying calibres, ranging from 122 to 300 mm. These are to lay down salvos, also with the use of cluster and air-blast ammunition.

The artillery is more proliferated in the Russian Armed Forces than in most of the NATO forces. Frequently, the legacy systems, such as 2S7M Malka, 2S3 Akatsiya, or BM-22 Uragan, are fused with modern communications and reconnaissance assets.

Even though the Russian artillery inventory is expansive, with the Russians also using more and more modern fire control, communications, or reconnaissance assets, a major emphasis is placed by Russia, on precision-guided munitions. Ammunition as such creates an entirely new set of capabilities that would otherwise not be available or difficult to obtain if conventional munitions are used. This has been proven by the experience gathered in Syria.

It turns out that the cost-effect ratio, with fewer assets (and ammunition) needed to yield the very same effect, is also beneficial, in case of the precision-guided weapons. This does not translate into a complete abandonment of the basic HE or cluster munitions. Precision guided munitions are suitable for being used in certain conditions. In the case of laser-guided projectiles, a laser target designator is required for laying down accurate fire. As the artillery systems are being developed, along with the supporting UAV systems, the precision-guided artillery shells role would be growing, delivering the capability of striking precisely, when supporting own forces.

Not only is the above statement applicable in the case of Russia, as it relates to any armed forces who own artillery systems capable of using PGMs. This is proven by the fact that precision-guided artillery rounds are being developed on both sides of the Atlantic. The Polish industry has already developed its APR 155 system for the Krab howitzers, while the development of the APR 120 guided mortar bombs for the Rak mortars is in its final stages. Both solutions feature a modern, domestically developed, NATO-compliant guidance system. As Krab sph has now turned into a backbone of all of the fully developed Divisions, and with the Rak mortars being a part of the inventory in four brigades (also bound to become a part of most of the mechanized/motorized units by 2024), one should take a closer look at the potential ways to use those systems most effectively. The introduction of PGMs, as shown by Russian experience, may become a further boost for their potential.