April 2017

21st Century Fires

The King is dead, long live the King
Volume 101, Issue 4

the Staff, Marine Corps Gazette

Maj Victor M. Ruble
Fire support systems are a central component of combat power.
Photo by Cpl Timothy Valero.

This article series has continually highlighted the proliferation of high-end fire support weapons systems, precision-guided munitions, and the ubiquity of surveillance on the modern battlefield through both satellite imagery and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Technological evolutions in firepower—from the crossbow and the English longbow to the gunpowder revolution to breech-loaded indirect fire artillery to close air support—have always triggered evolutions in warfare. It should come as no surprise, then, that the aspect of warfare changing the most, and the fastest, is fires.

Fires, as a warfighting function, are the application of all available supporting arms—the firepower—of a military force to achieve a mission. Fires are a central component of combat power, defined as “the total means of destructive and/or disruptive force which a unit can apply against the enemy at a given time.”1 It is also a major component of the Marine Corps Operating Concept, which seeks to achieve “a combined arms approach that embraces information warfare” as well as cyber and electronic warfare.2 The function of fire support provided to other combat elements does not change regardless of whether that support is delivered by catapult, trebuchet, cannon, howitzer, or missile. The systems involved in delivering that support, however, have driven changes in tactics based on their particular capabilities throughout history.

The modern changes in fires capabilities—increasing lethality, precision, and range—are driving a convergence of conventional and irregular tactics (see “21st Century Maneuver,” MCG, February 2017). Conventional militaries are increasingly adopting the methods of guerrillas to operate on the modern battlefield just as guerrillas are increasingly as well-armed and effective as their more professional counterparts. Nowhere is this convergence more obvious than in urban environments, specifically in the three urban battles occurring as this article is being written: Aleppo in Syria, Mosul in Iraq, and Donetsk in Ukraine.

The sea change in firepower, however, is not just in the greater lethality, precision, and range of weapons systems that shoot and explode. The most important change is the integration of those more capable fire support systems with information warfare and persistent ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) platforms as currently in use by both state and non-state adversaries. The Marine Corps mastered the integration of artillery and aviation with maneuver as early as the interwar period. Now, however, emergent capabilities need to be mastered as well. Our conceptual idea of fires must be modernized. Electronic warfare has been a presence on the battlefield since World War II, but it is becoming more and more relevant as digital communications systems become the norm. Information warfare has always played a part in war but is now more potent given today’s global digital media environment. Lastly, cyber warfare may be the newest form of fire support, but its use is rapidly proliferating. On top of these three major developments, unmanned systems are increasingly the means by which fire support is delivered. The firepower evolution driving change on the 21st century battlefield, then, is not a singular weapons system but rather the ability to integrate the myriad forms of fire support and bring them to bear on the enemy.

Task Analysis

A quick task analysis of these forms of fire support reveals their inherent possibilities and demonstrates how much they overlap when it comes to effects achieved. (See chart.)

There is a great deal of overlap in effects between the more kinetic forms of fire support (artillery and aviation) and the more non-kinetic emergent capabilities of information, cyber, and electronic warfare. The problem is that none of these emergent capabilities are in any way as integrated as artillery and aviation fires are with maneuver. In order to effectively employ them, the Marine Corps needs to both develop processes for their employment and modernize the employment of kinetic fires to integrate newer capabilities.


There are three conceptual prerequisites to modernizing fires across the MAGTF, integrating new forms of fire support, and maintaining a fast enough tempo to compete on the modern battlefield: 1) Adopt a flattened coordination organization, 2) Adopt a modern coordination methodology, and 3) Decentralize authority.

Flattened coordination organization. In 2004, then MG Stanley McChrystal, USA, took command of the forward Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) task force in Iraq. He found that insurgent and terrorist leaders repeatedly evaded capture because their flat hierarchy facilitated rapid decisions and actions. He replicated that success by restructuring the JSOC task force along similar lines, eliminating divisions between staff functions and long process chains. He labeled the concept “Team of Teams” (as depicted in the book of the same name).3 The conceptual change in the command organization allowed JSOC to outpace their targets.

This idea is not as new as portrayed in the book—the same concept is already at play in fire support coordination centers (FSCCs) that bring together representatives from maneuver, artillery, and aviation units. For the FSCC to modernize, it must now be expanded to add information, cyber, and electronic warfare subject matter experts at every level and must use a modern coordination methodology.

Modern coordination methodology. Fortunately, the Marine Corps already uses a modern coordination methodology: targeting. It just does so only at higher levels of command. Joint doctrine describes targeting as

The process of selecting and prioritizing targets and matching the appropriate response to them,

and suggests that,

The primary purpose of joint targeting is to integrate and synchronize all weapon systems and capabilities.4

Essentially, the targeting process is focused on choosing a strategically appropriate target and affecting it with a tactically appropriate system or capability. It seeks precision—striking the accurate target effectively.5 Whereas, FSCCs at lower levels coordinate fires to ensure they are safe and accurate, the targeting process keeps an eye on the strategic context of the operation.

The time where fire support coordinators could ignore the demands of strategy and focus solely on tactics has long passed. The occurrence of mistaken target prosecution in Iraq and Afghanistan is ample evidence of that. Rather than employing the targeting methodology at lower levels, however, commanders responded to the need to integrate fires with strategy by reserving authority at ever higher levels, thus degrading the responsiveness and timeliness of every type of fire support.

Responsive, timely, tactically accurate, and strategically precise fires can only be achieved on the modern battlefield by adopting a modernized methodology that marries and employs the combination at every level. Additionally, the FSCC is the sensible link between maneuver units and the information warfare coordination center (IWCC) IWCC at the MAGTF command element. The relationship between the two will necessarily be a two-way relationship; information warfare cannot be effectively planned by the IWCC without the real time ground truth available to the FSCC and the FSCC will not have the organic capabilities to execute information warfare. This will require a training investment, especially when it comes to fire support personnel, but also the trust of commanders to empower their fire support coordinators with more authority.

Decentralized authority. Marine commanders are already comfortable with delegating authority in accordance with MCDP 1, Warfighting, when it comes to many operations, but not when it comes to the authority to approve fire support. Today, fires cannot be employed fast enough unless fire support coordination is ignored (which is not an option) or it is performed on the spot at the lowest level possible. Adversary forces now routinely process fire missions 10 to 15 minutes after observation via unmanned system.6 We cannot maintain a high operational tempo in relation to enemies who do not bother with fire support coordination. Still, the commander is responsible for the employment of fires and needs some assurance that fires will be employed in accordance with the rules of engagement and his intent.

The key to decentralizing but ensuring supervision is to empower all officers with the authority and training to act as fire support coordinators on the spot. Marine officers are already equipped to act as provisional platoon commanders, but future battlefields require that every Marine officer must also be a fire support coordinator. This can be achieved by increasing the fire support coordination training at TBS and increasing billets for field artillery officers in more non-artillery units to act as subject matter experts. Achieving rapid and precise targeting can only be done in a distributed manner, and empowering officers to perform those duties is the only safe way to distribute it.

Once these three conceptual prerequisites are met, there will be follow-on effects caused by this profound change in fire support across the DOTMLPF (doctrine, organization, training, material, leadership, personnel, and facilities) spectrum. Integrating information, cyber, and electronic warfare at targeting centers at every level of command is one piece of modernization; modernizing artillery and aviation employment is the other. To do this, some major organizational changes are required.

  • • Fire support organizations
  • n The Marine Corps already employs a dedicated fire support structure in the form of Air-Naval Gun Fire Liaison Companies (ANGLICO) across the Operating Forces but only at the MEF level. The concept should be expanded into the artillery regiments themselves, creating teams of fire supporters with the level of training available to ANGLICO units. The only way to do this in a budget-constrained environment by consolidating ANGLICO units and the fire supporters resident in the artillery regiments at each MEF into a fire support battalion under the artillery regiment (to include information, cyber, and electronic warfare personnel). These battalions would then be responsible for deploying fire support teams and supporting arms liaison teams wherever they are needed.
  • • Fires delivery organizations
  • n Due to the increased threat of enemy supporting arms on the battlefield, the way in which fire support systems themselves are employed must change as well, especially in the artillery community. Emplacing six howitzers in the same field is now only possible in low-intensity conflicts in permissive environments. This will require the adoption of “distributed delivery, converged effects” employment mindset and more expeditionary-ready fire support systems. Sections of two systems with rapid emplacement/displacement capabilities will have to become routine rather than exceptional. The pace and distributed nature of 21st century warfare will also necessitate a greater reliance on guided missile artillery vice conventional shell artillery, although the need for the latter will by no means disappear. Where rocket artillery systems are in use on today’s battlefield, they cause roughly 85 percent of opposing force casualties.7
  • • Artillery career tracks
  • n The need for more numerous and more capable fire supporters at every level in addition to the increasing complexity of fire delivery due to airspace coordination requirements and more distributed employment methods requires a diverged career track for artillery officers: fire support officers and field artillery officers, one to be an expert in the employment and coordination of fire support and the other to be an expert in the logistics, placement, and functioning of the delivery system itself. Both disciplines are now far more complicated than they were even 16 years ago. Officers assigned the field artillery MOS should still go through the same course of education at Fort Sill, OK, but based on their performance, there should be assigned to one track or the other.
  • • Advanced integration of sensors with firing and C2 systems
  • n There are no unobserved fires. UAS provide a key ability to observe fires, and their effects. But, UAS are more than just a camera in the sky; depending on the asset, they have the ability to be forward observers. In many cases, there is software that can eliminate the need to bracket, shortening the time from request to effects on target. There is the potential for actual fires given the right UAS Group 4/5 system (like the MQ-9 Reaper). Regardless, the persistent supervision and potential situational awareness is crucial for fires. The loiter time distinguishes UAS from other aviation assets and lends itself to supporting all types of fires. This would empower all levels (EW/C/IO/arty) to observe their effects. Smaller UAS Group 1 or 2 (Puma/Raven), which are located organic to battalions, should have the capacity to spot indirect fires at a minimum. UAS operators inside fire direction centers and FSCCs, under the tactical control of fire direction officers and fire support coordination officers, would vastly increase the tempo of fire support.
  • n The conventional “kill chain,” from visual target identification and location through transmission of a call for fire to approval and delivery of fires, is not responsive enough to compete with an advanced adversary in the contested battlespace of the 21st century. To the greatest extent technology will allow, processes such as target location and handoff to firing agencies must be automated. New systems will be required that integrate advanced sensors (manned and unmanned) with firing platforms and C2 systems to allow rapid cueing and prosecution of targets across a dispersed, contested battlespace. This must be done in conjunction with fire support systems that provide the necessary balance of range, mobility, precision, responsiveness, and concentration to regain an overmatch of fires capability against a peer adversary.
  • n Integration of advanced sensors and surveillance capabilities means that fire support will not only perform a fires function but also an intelligence function. More importantly, intelligence gained by fire support sensors must be disseminated throughout the MAGTF rather used solely to assist in fire support. Reconnaissance/counterreconnaissance units especially will gain a great deal of intelligence data through their fire support planning and prosecution. (See “21st Century Reconnaissance,” MCG, January 2017.) This will increase the need for intelligence analysts and other personnel in fire support units and in FSCCs.
  • • Ground fire support systems
  • n Current ground fire support systems (to include weapons and munitions) lack the range, mobility, and firepower to compete on the modern battlefield with the counterpart systems of a peer adversary. The vehicular lift alone required to displace and sustain towed artillery systems requires a large footprint ashore and presents a major ship-to-shore sustainment challenge in a contested environment where large built-up stockpiles ashore are vulnerable to enemy fires. The Marine Corps will require fires capable of supporting widely dispersed units over long ranges, delivered and sustained from the sea. We must be able to concentrate effects over long ranges, while dispersing assets for survivability. The requirement for responsive fires at the small unit level will drive the need for lightweight, mobile, sustainable systems capable of delivering precision fires in support of companies, platoons, and squads in operating environments where deployment and/or sustainment of large batteries ashore is precluded by the threat of enemy fires and observation. At the same time, the ability to achieve local fires overmatch in an objective area will require that Marine forces ashore can reach back to long-range sources of fires, whether from ships, aviation platforms, or expeditionary advance bases, with access to sufficient mass of fires to defeat enemy fire support systems and gain and maintain a local fires advantage for the duration of their mission.
  • • Manned aviation
  • n Manned aviation, among its other functions, will continue to be a key component of fires and a combined arms approach. However, close air support will not always be the go to tactic in future conflicts. The air supremacy that has characterized the last 15 years of conflict will not last forever. Manned aircraft may be constrained in both time-on-station and in where it can safely be employed due to proliferation of air defense systems. Additionally, Marine Corps aviation will be called upon to conduct combat air patrol missions which will degrade the availability of aircraft for close air support. Marine aviation will continue to be one of the most flexible and responsive assets available to the MAGTF but that very flexibility and responsiveness means that adversaries will increasingly seek to mitigate it.
  • • Naval surface fire support
  • n The paltry number of naval fire support vessels available for naval and amphibious operations has been a long-lasting problem for both naval Services. The decline of the Zumwalt-class destroyer purchase order to only two hulls will only exacerbate it. Due to the risks of modern ASCMs (anti-ship cruise missiles), reversing the declining numbers of destroyers is not a prudent option. Instead, both the Navy and the Marine Corps have a vested interest in small, survivable, swift, and stealthy naval platforms that can deliver precision fires in support of both amphibious operations and a variety of other missions carried out by the naval Services. Integrating such systems with existing destroyers armed with 5-inch guns, the Zumwalt-class which will be armed with 155mm Excalibur rounds, and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles will be an additional fire support coordination challenge.

Fires/Maneuver Relationship

These drastic but necessary changes in fires must be implemented while maintaining a strong relationship between fires and maneuver. As mentioned in “21st Century Maneuver,” maneuver forces will increasingly be called upon to maneuver in order to facilitate fires. However, the traditional need to employ fires to facilitate maneuver will not decrease. In fact, it will surely increase. Modernizing fire support coordination in the manner described above will go a long way toward ensuring the fire support community upholds its part of the relationship. Traditional missions, such as fixing enemy maneuver forces and eliminating high payoff targets and threats, will be as important as ever, but integrating information, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities into Marine Corps fire support will offer more options to accomplish them. Rarely, however, will fires be able to completely overmatch enemy assets in such a way as to grant complete freedom of maneuver for friendly forces. Rather, special attention will need to be paid to creating bubbles or pockets within enemy ISR and fires threat envelopes to facilitate maneuver at decisive places and times. Increasingly, the concepts at work in suppression of enemy air defense missions will need to be applied with large and fire supporters not just needed to facilitate aviation fires but myriad other friendly actions as well.


The application of firepower in support of infantry forces is as old as war itself—rarely has any grunt entered battle without someone ready to fire in support. Although the centrality of firepower ebbs and flows with changes in both fire power systems and warfare itself, its importance and presence never does. The Marine Corps has always been at the forefront of innovation in terms of firepower and—with some modifications to methodology and structure—it can continue that tradition despite the rapid change of technology on the modern battlefield.


2013 MajGen Harold W. Chase Prize Essay Contest: Honorable Mention

1. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-16, Fire Support Coordination in the Ground Combat Element, (Washington, DC: 2001), 1-1.

2. Headquarters Marine Corps Marine Corps Operating Concept, (Washington, DC: December 2016), 8.

3. Stanley McChrystal and Tantum Collins, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2015).

4. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-60, Joint Targeting, (Washington, DC: 2013), 1-1.

5. Olivia Garard, “Targeting Clausewitzian Judgment: Fusing Precision and Accuracy to Strategy and Tactics,” The Strategy Bridge, (online: 20 September 2016), accessed at http://thestrategybridge.org.

6. Mary Ellen Connell and Ryan Evans, “Russia’s Ambiguous Warfare and Implications for the U.S. Marine Corps,” Marine Corps University Journal, (Quantico, VA: Spring 2016), 38.

7. Ibid., 38.