Ukrainian forces have repeatedly repelled Russian attacks and inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers, as seen yesterday when they attempted to cross a river at Siverskyi Donets that left the area. littered with burned Russian vehicles. While small anti-tank weapons such as the Javelin play an important role, Ukrainian artillery does most of the damage, hitting targets with pinpoint accuracy with long-range indirect fire. How can they achieve this extraordinary precision? The answer may lie in cheap drones.
Hitting a tank with an artillery shell is an unusual feat. A round fired indirectly—launched at grid coordinates invisible to the shooter—will have a “Circular Error Probable”, or CEP, measured in tens of meters, which is the circle within which half the rounds land. For a 155mm weapon, the CEP is typically 25 meters at 15 miles, making it difficult to hit a tank-sized target. This normally requires a laser-guided artillery shell. While Ukraine has a few and successfully uses them, the vast majority of Ukrainian artillery still fires “dumb” 122mm and 152mm unguided shells, now supplemented by supplied M777 155mm howitzers. by the United States.
The inaccuracy of artillery fire comes from several factors, including errors in gun or target placement, weather conditions, errors in the calibration of sights, and variations in the amount of propellant between different lots of shells. However, it is possible to compensate to a great extent using two techniques: pre-recorded fire and adjusted fire.
In prerecorded fire, a battery in a defensive position fires a few shells in advance so that they can aim their guns at specific terrain. This played a key role in the action of Siverskyi Donets: Ukrainian engineers sounded the river, identified the best crossing point and had their artillery range on it. When the Russians arrived and attempted to cross, they were ambushed by fire from several gun batteries and several rocket launchers striking simultaneously.
In aimed fire, an artillery spotter notes where the first shot lands, then instructs the shooter how to adjust their aim, so that a series of shots can be “walked” to the target. Even World War II weapons were accurate at hitting individual vehicles or bunkers with this technique. The challenge however is the need to have a spotter where they can see both the target and where the shot lands, which is usually only possible in a defensive situation. The accuracy of the shot then strongly depends on the ability of the observer to accurately assess the fall of the shot.
As soon as Civil War commanders realized that a spotter in their air – in a balloon – would have a huge advantage in being able to see the enemy from a distance, regardless of obstacles. Modern drones offer a much greater advantage as they can get up close and observe directly above the enemy. This eliminates the parallax problem: if a shell lands somewhere between you and the enemy, it may not be easy to tell how far it is from the target. The bird’s eye view of the drone makes it much easier to guide shots to a target.
The Ukrainians now have operators equipped with small consumer drones attached to their artillery units; some reports suggest they may have literally thousands of drones in use. A few can call upon larger, purpose-built military drones like the Leleka-100 but smaller drones are much more common. This gives each battery what it could only dream of before: an eye in the sky that can not only locate opponents over hills or hide among trees or buildings, or far behind enemy lines, but look the shells land and guide them to the target.
We saw the results of this deadly combination of drones and artillery in videos posted on social media again and again and again and again…and many other such videos will not be shown for operational security reasons.
The Russian forces are mostly suffering because of their own poor tactics. They don’t seem capable of finding and suppressing Ukrainian artillery, or conducting effective counter-battery fire. Under artillery fire, command and control is not enough to get units to maneuver out of the danger zone or even put out smoke to obscure their position. Instead, they stay in place until relentless artillery fire finds them.
Ukraine’s very precise use of artillery contrasts sharply with the Russian approach. Images of areas attacked by the Russians show widely scattered shell craters over a large area like a WW1 battlefield. This is random mass shooting with no attempt to hit individual targets and little sign that they don’t hit any. A video of Russian mortar crews pull without fixing the base plates of their weapons may be a sign that marksmanship is beyond their capabilities.
Stalin described artillery as “the god of war” and it has always been one of the great strengths of the Russian army. But in the age of cheap, expendable and readily available drones, Ukraine may be beating the Russians at their own game, with highly effective precision strikes rather than ineffective mass fire.