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- Ukrainian military forces credit their artillery with the biggest breach in the war with Russia.
- The Western coalition that supplies arms to Ukraine is now sending NATO-standard heavy artillery to the theater to reinforce Ukrainian field artillery units.
- The switch to NATO equipment will also make available a whole host of smart artillery shells that will make kyiv’s artillery deadlier than ever.
As Western nations ship increasingly heavy weapons to a beleaguered Ukraine, one of the largest transfers to date is the equivalent of a field howitzer arsenal. Unlike the Ukrainian Army’s existing big guns, these artillery pieces are NATO caliber and are the key to unlocking the West’s precision-guided artillery technology. The technology, which includes GPS-guided artillery shells and tank-hunting ammunition, could make Ukrainian gunners exponentially more powerful.
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The Ukrainian military halted Russia’s advance into the country and in some cases, such as northwest of kyiv, even turned Russian ground forces back across the border. The Ukrainians relied heavily on field artillery to repel the Russian invasion and consider it their most effective weapon. A recent study of the UK-based Royal United Services Institute quotes a Ukrainian military official as saying that “anti-tank missiles slowed the Russians down, but what killed them was our artillery. That’s what broke their units.
Ukrainian ground forces have a considerable amount of artillery, both traditional tube and rocket artillery. Total includes 2S3 Akatsiya 152 millimeters and 2S1 122 millimeters Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers; BM-21 Grad 122-millimeter truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher systems; and D-20 152 millimeter and D-30 122 millimeter towed artillery pieces. Although theoretically numerous, the parts are almost all old, produced by the Soviet Union before its collapse in 1991. Weapons are also produced in Soviet-era calibers, which a decreasing number of countries (including Russia and Ukraine) continue to operate.
NATO forces, on the other hand, use standardized 155 millimeter artillery shells. These three millimeters make all the difference, making Western and Soviet shells incompatible with each other. But now, as the West emboldens itself to send advanced weapons, Ukraine is ready to receive more than 100 155 millimeter artillery pieces. The United States is expected to send 90 M777 towed howitzers, the towed artillery piece currently used by the US Army and Marine Corps; Australia is sending six M777s and Canada is sending four. The Netherlands has pledged six Pz2000 155 millimeter self-propelled howitzers, while France will send between 10 and 12 CAESAR 155 truck mounted.
These howitzers have powerful implications for Ukraine’s striking power. Current Ukrainian artillery pieces are at least three decades old, have fairly short ranges and, with the exception of Kvitnyk laser-guided artillery shells, are unable to take advantage of the past four decades of technological progress and innovation. All given pieces, on the other hand, were developed and put into service long after the entire Ukrainian artillery fleet was built. The Soviet-era 2S3 Akatsiya self-propelled howitzer has a range of 10.5 miles and can fire up to three 152 millimeter shells per minute. By comparison, the French CAESAR self-propelled howitzer has a range of nearly 25 miles and can fire up to six rounds per minute.
Ukraine will almost certainly receive Western precision-guided rounds as part of the package. The US-developed Excalibur M982 and M982A1 artillery shells can home in on a set of GPS coordinates and, unlike artillery of the past, can hit a target on the first shot. Excalibur is so precise, the US military claims, it will hit within two meters of the target “regardless of range”. This level of accuracy will allow Ukrainian gunners to hit more targets faster and without so-called “collateral damage” to civilians still living in combat zones.
Excalibur will allow Ukrainian forces to take out enemy forces faster and more efficiently than ever before – a major boon for a defense force that may find themselves outnumbered. A Bayraktar-type drone, for example, could serve as a spotter for an Excalibur armed artillery unit, locating dozens of enemy targets in a single sortie and returning the GPS coordinates of nearby gunners. The Excalibur could take out stationary enemy vehicles one by one, or even rain down a curtain of well-placed HE shells along a line of enemy troop trenches. A target that might require a battery of six howitzers to destroy might well only require a single howitzer armed with Excalibur to destroy.
Another shell likely heading for Ukraine is the British/French BONUS artillery shell. BONUS was developed for one thing and one thing only: to kill tanks and other armored vehicles. BONUS, when fired from the muzzle of a howitzer, flies down and ejects two smart submunitions. Both submunitions use an array of multispectral sensors to detect enemy armor over an area of up to 32,000 meters. Once an enemy tank or armored vehicle is detected, the submunition fires a self-forging warhead that pierces the top of the vehicle, penetrating thin armor and destroying it.
BAE Systems, which is providing BONUS to the US military, claims that one shell will eliminate one target on average. Imagine a Russian tank company of ten tanks advancing through an open Ukrainian field. A nearby battery of six M777 Howitzers responds to the attack, firing six BONUS on the column. The Russian tank company could lose up to six tanks in a single salvo, instantly rendering the company’s combat ineffective. BONUS would be devastating against Russian artillery units in firing position, seeking out and destroying howitzers, ammo carriers and headquarters vehicles.
The United States and its allies believe Ukraine can win, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said at the end of last month. The new generation of field artillery on the way to Ukraine, as well as a completely new generation of smart shells, will greatly contribute to kyiv’s victory. Russia has faced serious setbacks in its “special military operation”, many of which are of its own making, but injuries inflicted by new Ukrainian artillery could cause the Russian military a whole new level of pain.
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