A report by the UK-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank reveals fascinating new details about Russian artillery tactics gleaned from face-to-face interviews with Ukrainian soldiers by military analyst Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds.
While the report deserves read in full herethe article highlights the main conclusions regarding Russia’s artillery-based mode of warfare.
It’s no secret that after Russia’s first ambitious attacks ended in disaster in February-March, from April Russia turned to an attrition style of warfare focused on artillery in eastern Ukraine, hitting Ukrainian units with overwhelming shelling.
Watling observes: “The generally poor performance of the Russian ground forces was increasingly offset by their use of massive artillery fire to facilitate a slow and methodical advance. Sustained shelling gradually displaced the local population and razed settlements and infrastructure that were being defended, forcing the Ukrainian military to abandon the territory after it was devastated.
Heavy shelling gradually dislodged Ukrainian troops from the symbolically important towns of Severodonetsk and Lyschansk in late June, while preventing Ukrainian forces from concentrating with sufficient speed and numbers to counterattack effectively. More worryingly, Watling estimates that Ukrainian personnel losses could now approach parity with those of Russia.
The silver lining is that Ukrainian units repeatedly avoided encirclement and annihilation – which were among Moscow’s initial objectives in the Donbass – through timely and relatively orderly withdrawals, and in fact won around Kherson in southern Ukraine.
Russian artillery has a firepower advantage of more than 3:1
Russia doesn’t actually have a huge quantitative advantage in combat troops over Ukraine (because it’s not fully mobilized) – but it has a lot more artillery and generates a lot more artillery fires.
According to the report, Russian howitzers fire an average of 20,000 shells per day, compared to 6,000 fired by Ukraine. The ratio for artillery rocket and ballistic missile launches is even worse. And Ukraine still risks exhausting its supply of Soviet-standard 152-millimeter shells even faster than Russia.
Russian artillery remains more centralized than expected.
The Russian Army was thought to have decentralized much of the artillery to its key tactical unit, the Tank or Infantry Battalion Tactical Group (BTG), which was supposed to incorporate a powerful (and theoretically more responsive) complement of 1 3 artillery batteries.
But according to the study, the BTGs often have in practice only a modest number of older mortars and howitzers. Instead, the brigade and division command echelons jealously retain control of more modern artillery assets in centralized “artillery tactical groups”.
Additionally, the artillery in the BTGs struggled with an incredibly poor communications architecture, requiring units to verify fire missions via unencrypted civilian cell phones, resulting in a cumbersome “kill chain”.
The result, according to the report: “…Russian artillery largely operated independently of – rather than in close support of – its maneuver elements [ie. tanks and infantry]with support fire missions having long delays.
Russian artillery becomes a lot more effective when tied to drones.
Prior to 2022, the Russian military was perceived to have developed a Western-style “reconnaissance fire complex” where advanced drone surveillance means (especially Orlan-10 surveillance drones) could unleash precise and timely strikes, aided by digital fire direction/combat management systems.
This was not obvious at the start of the war due to rushed war preparations, but since then it has been clear that Russia sometimes can implement this doctrine and deliver deadly precision attacks – this is just not a widespread ability, due to the lack of properly trained personnel and computer equipment, in particular communication systems and drones.
For example, when supported by drones, Russian artillery can adjust fire in real time to hit moving targets. Drone spotters also allow the deployment of small sub-units of only one or two guns to carry out effective strikes, rather than full batteries of six guns.
But a lack of competent personnel and equipment (especially the larger Orlan-30 drone, which has a laser designator) led Russian units to waste laser-guided Krasnopol munitions in unguided barrages.
Russia assigns different roles to different types of artillery.
According to Watling, while Russia uses howitzers to attack inconspicuous point targets, multiple rocket launcher systems are often used to impede the movement of Ukrainian forces by laying a curtain of destruction between them and their desired objective.
Counter-battery attacks targeting Ukrainian artillery, as well as Ukrainian drone operators, are the preserve of Tochka-U ballistic missiles and longer-range Russian guns controlled at divisional level: the 2A65 Msta and 2A36 Giatsint towed howitzers, their self-propelled variants 2S19 and 2S5, and the 2S7M Malka 203 mm self-propelled howitzer.
This is how the Russian artillery deploys
Ukrainian sources claim that Russian artillery units typically deploy around a third of their maximum firing range from the front line to shield themselves from enemy attack.
Watling writes that “…the mortars are largely positioned at 1.5 km [1 mile] set back from the front line of own troops, artillery tactical groups subordinate to brigades 8 km [5 miles] rear and artillery tactical groups armed with longer range systems dedicated to deep firing at 10-15 km [6-9 miles] return.”
Howitzer units typically deploy in an area of 100×300 meters, with 20–40 meters between guns. Rocket launcher units instead use a linear formation, with up to 150 meters separating each launcher truck.
The report also describes Russian units deploying “dummy” artillery batteries consisting of mostly damaged/destroyed guns to deflect and absorb Ukrainian strikes.
Russia’s counter-battery play is slow except when aided by drones.
Counter-battery artillery seeks to eliminate adversary artillery, using radar and acoustic sensors to trace incoming shellfire back to its point of origin. The faster this can be accomplished, the more likely it is that counter-battery fire will catch the attacking battery before it can move.
But according to Watling & Reynolds, the Russian counter-battery is slow, averaging 30 minutes to launch a counter-battery strike. That’s more than enough time for the artillery, even when towed, to fire, hook up to the trucks, and get out of the dodge.
But when networked with a drone spotter, Russian guns can execute accurate counter-battery strikes in just 3-5 minutes. Only Ukrainians the most modern mobile artillery systems supplied by the West can shoot and trot fast enough to avoid this. As a result, Ukrainian artillery batteries regularly deploy man-portable air defense missiles – preferably optically guided Starstreak/Marlet missiles – to shoot down drones.
Watling notes that Russia has made surprisingly extensive, if not useless, use of Tochka-U ballistic missiles for counter-battery strikes, noting an incident during Three of these powerful but inaccurate weapons were fired from a single Ukrainian M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzer, causing only light damage.
Russian artillery does not fire and does not fire.
While the report notes that Ukrainian units report that they can “consistently evade” Russian counter-battery fire (at least when the drones aren’t around), Russian artillery crews generally didn’t budge after shooting, only moving after to have been attacked, that is to say. ‘catch fire and then toddle.
Ukrainian sources also claim that Russian howitzer crews, when coming under shellfire, usually abandon their guns for cover, even when mounted on a vehicle.
Ammunition supply is Russia’s Achilles’ heel
Russia’s use of artillery may lack finesse by Western standards, but it has always played a dominant role in facilitating the capture of key objectives and inflicting unbearable casualties. How do you tackle such a largely destructive, albeit clumsy, behemoth?
Watling argues that the key is to starve the beast, ie. “…the logistical burden posed by transporting and storing the large amount of shells that allows Russia to continue to maneuver through fire.”
Indeed, Moscow’s ground forces are sadly dependent on rail logistics to supply forces compared to Western armies, lacking adequate trucks and modern palletized load-lifting equipment.
Watling writes: “…divisional and brigade-level ammunition depots are large, distinct, difficult to conceal or defend, and slow to move…given the disparity of guns and dearth of fire of Russian precision, the quickest way to level the playing field is to allow Ukraine to strike Russian artillery logistics.
Although the report claims that Ukraine has not systematically exploited this weakness, this has no doubt changed, given an astonishing succession of precision attacks against Russian ammunition dumps deep behind the front line in July. .
These are made possible by Ukraine’s use of Supplied by West HIMARS and M270 rocket artillery systems, which can accurately attack targets nearly 50 miles away using GPS-guided rockets.
Such strikes could cripple Russia’s artillery war, but only as long as Ukraine receives sufficient HIMARS / M270 and western long-range howitzers quite quickly, and if NATO states adequately increase production of 155 millimeter shells in order to maintain deliveries to Ukraine. He also advocates that the West rationalize the number of artillery types delivered to Ukraine to simplify the resulting “logistical nightmare” for the Ukrainian military, but this seems unlikely given the distributed nature of Western aid to Ukraine.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications such as national interest, BNC News, Forbes.com, war is boring and 19fortyfive, where he is the editor of Defense-in-Depth. He holds a master’s degree from Georgetown University and served in the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.