Artillery types

How Ukraine responds to Russian artillery

Ait’s the accent of the war in Ukraine has turned to the eastern region of Donbass, Russia is trying to break down Ukrainian defenses and make incremental advances. An important way to achieve this is through the use of heavy artillery, which is capable of firing indirectly (meaning the target does not need to be within sight) over great distances. It has long been at the heart of Russian military doctrine – Josef Stalin called it “the god of war”. In Ukraine, Russian artillery inflicted enormous damage; images from Mariupol and other cities show neighborhoods reduced to rubble. In doing so, however, they repelled Ukrainian artillery fire (“counter-battery” fire), resulting in cat-and-mouse artillery duels. Neutralizing Russian artillery is vital if Ukraine is to halt Russia’s advance. What does it take to take over?

To counter an artillery attack, the other side must know where it is coming from. Artillery batteries can take several minutes to hit a target, risking sitting ducks during that time, partly because shells can take up to 40 seconds to arrive, and aiming needs to be adjusted if the first shots miss. The best way to locate enemy guns is with counter artillery radar, says Patrick Benham-Crosswell, a former British Army tank officer and author of “The Dangerous World of Tommy Atkins: An Introduction to Land Warfare.” This detects shells in flight and traces their trajectory back to the point of origin. America has provided Ukraine with counter-artillery radars, which can locate weapons fire before the first shells land. (Russia has similar systems.) Alternatively, drones can spot clouds of smoke produced by artillery fire. Ukraine in particular has deployed a large number of drones, both military type and repurposed consumer models, to support its artillery.

Where counter-battery fire is likely, the artillery adopts a “shoot and run” tactic, firing at a target before quickly moving on. This is only possible with self-propelled weapons such as the Russian 2S19 Msta, a 152 mm gun that moves on its own tracks. Towed guns, such as the M777 155mm howitzers recently supplied to Ukraine by the United States, or the Russian 152mm 2A65 Msta-B, take time to hook up and move after firing. Their crews are also exposed, making them vulnerable to shrapnel, while SPG crews are protected by vehicle armor. Towed guns are, however, much cheaper and lighter (therefore easier to supply for Ukraine’s allies), and less complex to operate. Another type of artillery weapon, truck-mounted multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), such as the ubiquitous 40-tube BM-21 ‘Grad’ launchers used by both sides, can send a barrage quickly (but not very precisely) before continuing. Their downside is that they can produce very visible clouds of smoke.

The most important factor in an artillery battle is range. The side that shoots the farthest can move out of enemy range. The Excalibur GPS-guided rounds of the American M777 howitzer, for example, have a range of over 40 km, compared to 25 km for the Russian 152 mm 2A65 Msta-B. The desire for longer range is driving Ukrainian requests for American-made mobile MLRS launchers. Their 270mm missiles, which also feature GPS guidance, can hit targets up to 84km away with high accuracy, matching or even beating the best Russian systems. (The same launchers can also fire a single ATACMS missile 300 km, raising concerns in the West about supplying Ukraine with weapons that could hit deep into Russian territory.) On June 1, America announced that it would send advanced MLRS weapons to Ukraine, but only with medium-range missiles. Britain and Germany also plan to send similar weapons. If Ukraine wants to withstand the Russian artillery barrages, it will need a lot more.

Read more about our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis

More The Economist Explain :
Why the Ukrainian army still uses a 100-year-old machine gun
How Ukraine is winning the war against drone jamming
Why Russian Forces Can’t Match Ukraine’s Night Vision Equipment