Indirect fire (IDF) is defined as aiming and firing a projectile from a weapon without relying on direct line of sight between the weapon and the target.
Several weapon systems are designed mainly to fire indirectly at targets such as artillery, rocket artillery, mortars, machine guns in the sustained fire role, other weapons such as grenade launchers (automatic or rocket propelled) can be used in an improvised indirect role.
Indirect fire has always been a favoured guerrilla tactic as it is a relatively easy way to have an effect on the enemy.
Firing from a distance it can be used without the risk of direct or immediate retaliation, hidden from view, behind hills, in caves, in forests or vehicles. Accurate attacks can cause significant damage and casualties for a low cost, whilst even unsuccessful attacks can have a psychological effect on personnel but even more so civilians, makes this a low cost, effective tactic.
Palestinian groups have conducted sustained bombardments of Israeli cities with short, medium and long range weapons. The IRA improvised various mortars to attack British Army positions in Northern Ireland and Germany.
Indirect fire has used with increasing accuracy against coalition bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and whilst damage and casualties were relatively low, the disruption caused and resources that had to be invested in hardening bases, counter IDF system s and patrols were another drain on scarce resources.
Indirect fire had not been a common feature of the insurgency in the North East until the enemy began capturing several working artillery pieces such as 105mm pack guns and 60mm and 81mm mortars particularly from Gwoza and Bama in 2014. The enemy also deployed improvised rocket launchers and mortars, using them to bombard Nigerian and Camerounian positions.
As the enemy adjusts to the current operational environment in which Nigerian forces have pushed them out of main population centres the enemy will seek various ways to strike back. As has been seen these methods include IEDs against high density civilian areas such as mosques and markets, raids against isolated towns and the use of propaganda. A recent new tactic was the sustained bombardment of built up civilian areas using what were described as rockets. It is unclear whether this attack utilised RPGs in the direct fire role or rocket artillery but it is an easy and efficient way for the enemy to have an effect, cause damage and casualties and stretch the security forces.
In these pieces we will examine the threat and then the potential counter measures.
The threat can be defined in terms of weapon systems available and choice of targets.
Enemy IDF weapon systems:
OTO Melara 105mm: the enemy is known to have captured at least 1x105mm OTO Melera artillery piece, one was recaptured after an attack on Maiduguri. This weapon has a range of 10, 000m and can fire High Explosive (HE), Smoke and Illuminating (illum) rounds. It is light (by artillery standards) and accurate in the hands of skilled user and can be towed by a light vehicle or broken down into 12 pieces for man packing.
81mm mortar: several mortars were captured in various actions, with a large amount captured in Bama. It is not clear what variety Nigeria uses, however these weapons have a range of approximately 5,600m and can fire HE, smoke and illum. They are man portable and can be fired by a skilled or experienced operator (inaccurately) without sights or dead reckoning.
60mm mortar: it is unclear how many of these weapons have been captured or the type but they can have a range of up to 3,800m can fire HE, smoke and illum. They are man portable and are generally fired without sights and can be easily operated with reasonable accuracy by a fairly competent fighter.
T55 Main Battle Tank: at least 2 have been destroyed in combat, it is unclear how many the enemy has or had or how obtained. The main armament is the 100mm D10T gun with a range of up to 2,500m which fires Anti Tank (AT), HE, smoke and illum shells.
Vickers Eagle Mk3 Main Battle Tank: Boko Haram captured at least 1 x Vickers in Baga, which was recaptured and returned to loyal service in Konduga. The main armament is a L7 rifled cannon which fires AT, HE, smoke, anti personnel and canister shells. This weapon has a range of up to 4,000m
ERC 90 Sagaie AFV: is a wheeled armoured fighting vehicle, used in the recce or tank destroyer role. Its main armament is a 90mm F4 smoothbore cannon with a range of up to 1,660m firing HE, AT, AP
23-4 AAA Gun: this weapon consists of 4 x 23mm 2A7 Amur anti aircraft guns. The self propelled variant is popularly called Shilka and this name is generally applied to all the 23-4 variants. It is not clear where Boko Haram captured its example but one was battery operated and mounted on a Toyota Hilux. It fires HE and Anti Personnel (AP) ammunition up to a maximum range of 7,000m (2,500m effective) in the ground role and 5,100m maximum (1,500m effective in the anti aircraft role. At least one was recaptured at Konduga.
14.5mm AAA gun: it is assumed to be the KPV 14.5mm HMG, it is not clear if these were bought from the Sahelian or Central African arms market or captured. These weapons have a maximum range of 4,000m. 3,000m effective range in the ground to air role and 2,000m in the ground to ground role.
12.7mm DshK Heavy Machine Gun: this 12.7mm weapon can be used in the anti aircraft ground direct fire or indirect fire role, it has an effective range of 2,000m and maximum range of 2,500m
Handheld Automatic Grenade Launcher: this weapon fires a 40mm grenade up to 400m maximum range and approximately 300m effective. The exact variants used and sources are not known but common examples have HE, AP and smoke shells.
RPG7: the rocket propelled grenade is a hand held, man portable 40mm anti-tank weapon. It fires HE, AT and AP warheads and has an effective range of 200m and maximum range of 900m. It is an extremely common weapon and could have been captured or purchased.
Improvised indirect fire weapons systems: there is evidence that the enemy has improvised indirect fire weapon systems using contraptions to launch munitions towards targets. There is not enough publicly available information to assess these devices.
Targets: The enemy has used IDF against military and civilian targets. Recent reported attacks have all been against civilian targets. Attacks have been reported in Cameroun (Amchide, Fotokol) and Nigeria.
Tactics and procedures: There is insufficient public information about the enemy’s use of IDF to assessing the enemies’ tactics, training or procedure, however attacks have been reasonably accurate and inflicted damage and caused casualties.
Stages of an IDF Attack
Much like an IED attack an IDF attack in a COIN environment has several stages, which for the purpose of this piece I’ll break down into:
- The Approach
- The Attack
Preparation: preparations for an IDF attack should involve at least 3 distinct stages Target selection, reconnaissance, weapon and ammunition preparation.
Target selection: the firer will chose his target based on a number of considerations. These include target value (military, economic, propaganda), ease of attack, resources and logistics needed etc.
Reconnaissance: once the target is selected the attacker must conduct some form of reconnaissance. This is generally done on the ground but can also be done with maps or nowadays Google Earth or other open source mapping software. It is important to understand that anyone can conduct a recce, a child, woman, man. Even an unwitting person could be told to go and take photographs of a certain area or pace out a distance to a target. A recce in a COIN type op will almost never be carried out by an armed fighter but by an innocuous personality.
The recce should have two elements. Recce for the firing point and recce of the target
Firing point: the firers considerations include, access to the site, concealment from air or ground observation, clearance for the weapons muzzle (from the ground, walls or vegetation), ammunition storage, defence against ground or air attack, exit from site. If the weapon is not man portable then a vehicle access is also important. These considerations vary, thus a mortar needs a smaller ground footprint but a clear open area to fire up through. An artillery piece will need a vehicle to tow it, a DshK or Shilka will need a relatively clear line of sight even if firing in a parabolic or sustained fire mode.
Target: the firer will want to establish the distance from the target to the firing point, he will need reference points to aim at and he will want to identify any particular points in the target he wishes to aim for. This will help him decide what is the best weapon system (if he has a choice) or the best ammunition (if he has a choice), Thus if the firer had a range of weapons as above and he was to attack troops in a FOB he might want to use mortars or artillery, however if he wants to attack troops in MRAPS or APCS he might want to use the MBTS or Shilka. Likewise if all he has are MBTs and he’s attacking fortified bunker, he might wish to use AT ammunition rather than HE.
Weapon and ammunition prep: if the weapon is in storage it will need to be retrieved and prepared for firing. Likewise ammunition will need to be retrieved, checked, fuses set etc. and prepared for firing.
At the end of this stage the weapon and ammunition should be ready for use and the firers should have identified a target (or targets) and appropriate firing points.
The Approach: this involves moving the weapons system, personnel and ammunition from storage or laying up point to the firing point. If they are all stored separately this will involve moving them singly or simultaneously to the firing point. If it is a small weapon system like a mortar or RPG, this they can be easily transported on foot, by motorcycle or concealed in vehicles. However the larger the weapon system vehicle the more vulnerable to detection and attack and the more personnel that will be need for protection and operation. By the end of this stage the weapon should be at the firing point ready for deployment.
Deployment: Once the weapon system is at the firing point, it will need to be set up, ammunition prepared, loaded and the weapon aimed. For some weapons this could include clearing the ground, clearing branches etc. for an artillery piece or medium mortar, this would involve bedding the weapon in, sighting and other processes. Each weapon system has a different setting up process, the more complex the weapon the more stages in the deployment process, thus an RPG will simply need the ammunition loaded, backblast area checked, target acquired and aimed at for it to be ready to fire, a mortar will need aiming markers, sights set up, base plate cleared, mounting, bedding in, etc. at the end of this stage the weapon should be ready to fire.
The Attack: This involves firing the weapon at the target. The firer will have two priorities; speed and accuracy. Speed is required because once the weapon is fired it creates a noise signature, visual signature from muzzle flash, dust, backblast etc, the projectile can also be tracked with sensors if deployed. To aid accuracy the enemy will need a spotter, who can correct fall of shot. For weapons with an effective range of less than 1,000m the spotter can be on the firing point with optical aids such as binoculars or improvised aids such as a camera with a zoom lens, for targets beyond that range or obscured the spotter will need to be in line of sight of the target and in communication with the firing point by phone, radio or any other method, for example in Afghanistan kites and mirrors were used. At the end of this stage the target should have been engaged.
Break down: once the attack is complete the weapon system must be prepared for removal. As before, light weapons like mortars or RPGs they can be easily taken away, larger or more complex weapon systems require a longer process. At this point the enemy is extremely vulnerable as their position should be approximately known to an alert adversary, and most personnel, except for a dedicated guard force will be engaged in packing up the weapon. Any unused ammunition would need to be packed away, conflicts taking place in developed countries, the firers also need to be forensically aware, avoiding leaving items that can be traced back to them. At the end of this stage the weapon system is prepared and packed for transportation.
Withdrawal: In this stage the firers must move the weapon system, generally this means moving it back to storage, however it could also mean moving it to another firing point. During the withdrawal, the firers will need a way to carry the weapon system (man, pack animal or vehicle), protect it from attack (a guard force that can travel at the same speed) and protect it from detection (using a discreet/ covered route or disguising it). Once again the larger the weapon system, the larger and more obvious the footprint of the withdrawal. For an artillery piece, this means some form of vehicle (although the OTO Melara can theoretically be manpacked). At the end of this stage the weapon system should be in storage
Storage: after usage, weapon and ammunition should be stored securely and safely. In many cases the ammunition will be stored separately from the weapon.
The weapon or ammunition could be stored in an enemy camp, they could be hidden in an arms cache, they could be broken up into component parts for storage. In most cases the enemy will ensure that the storage places are relatively safe from attack by a combination of the following methods, disguise/ camouflage, use of difficult terrain, an early warning screen, use of pits, caves etc, a strong guard force, booby traps or mines or IEDs. At the end of this stage the weapon should be hidden away from discovery in preparation for future use.
As we have seen indirect fire is an ideal weapon for an insurgent, it gives them relative safety from detection and retaliation, can be used militarily to support an attack or defence or can be used as a terror weapon to cause damage and casualties.
There are distinct stages that are common to the use of all indirect fire weapons however their length and complexity varies according to the weapon system.
In Nigeria the enemy has access to a variety of indirect fire weapons and has been able to use them with a reasonable amount of success.
In the next instalment we will examine counter measures and cost effective solutions to the use of indirect fire by insurgents.