Artillery vehicle

Ukrainian artillery could win the war against Russia

As Russia expanded its war in Ukraine in late February, many observers assumed Russian artillery would dominate the fighting.

After all, the Russian military deploys one of the largest artillery arsenals in the world: 4,700 towed and self-propelled guns and rocket launchers.

And Russian doctrine subordinates other forces – tanks, infantry – to big guns. Mechanized forces punch through enemy defences, immobilizing enemy troops so artillery can finish them off.

But when the Russian army, 125 battalion-strong tactical groups, arrived in Ukraine from three directions on the morning of February 24, they encountered fierce opposition. Nothing more ferocious than that of the Ukrainian own artillery.

“The anti-tank missiles slowed down the Russians, but what killed them was our artillery,” a senior adviser to General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, told Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds of the Royal Services Institute in London.

In theory, Russia has developed a sophisticated fire control system that combines wiretapping, radar and unmanned aerial vehicles identifying artillery targets. This system had a devastating effect during the initial phase of the war in the eastern region of Donbass in Ukraine from 2014.

But in the fluent phase of the war, Ukraine’s own fire control system proved to be the most effective. Radars, standard drones, special operations forces and even civilians calling enemy positions on their mobile phones helped Ukrainian army artillery relentlessly pound Russian formations. Moscow is said to have lost more than 1,700 vehicles in just over 60 days of fighting.

And it will probably get worse for the Russians. Foreign donors are sending no less than 200 pieces of artillery to Ukraine, including some of the latest European self-propelled howitzers.

The donated weapons are expected to more than offset Ukraine’s battlefield losses, totaling around 60 artillery pieces that outside analysts can confirm. As the wider war enters its bloody third month, Ukraine stands ready to deploy more, and better, artillery than it had at the start.

If there’s a catch, it’s that kyiv is getting fresh artillery from everywhere. The eclectic mix of guns and launchers could pose a logistical challenge.

Ukraine began the war with 1,800 artillery pieces assigned to 25 active line brigades, five separate artillery brigades, and reserve and territorial formations. Almost all the guns and launchers were old Soviet designs, including 300 2S1 122mm and 2S3 152mm self-propelled howitzers, a dozen or more 2S7 203mm self-propelled howitzers plus 500 towed guns, 400 wheeled rocket launchers and 300 heavy mortars.

At the start of the war, Ukraine concentrated its guns and launchers around kyiv. They were in position as Russian battalions rolling south from Russia and Belarus attempted to capture the capital.

“As the Russians moved through the towns, local residents began to report their movements, while Ukrainian special forces and drones marked targets for artillery,” Watling and Reynolds wrote.

“Although the Russians had heavier artillery, they did not have a good idea of ​​where the scattered Ukrainian positions were,” the analysts continued. “Congestion on the roads, meanwhile, meant that Russian guns were often out of range of Ukrainian batteries, even when the Ukrainians were within range of Russian forward positions.”

The undersupplied and poorly led Russian army never managed to fully deploy its artillery fire control system. In a very telling incident on the Desna River near Chernihiv in early April, Ukrainian commandos aboard speedboats intercepted a Russian convoy and captured one of the Russians’ last SNAR-10M1 radar vehicles.

Ukraine’s own fire-control system, on the other hand, became more sophisticated as the war progressed. A volunteer organization operating custom octocopter drones equipped with laser spotters has begun shining targets for locally-made Kvitnyk laser-guided shells, allowing the Kyiv gunner to precisely destroy armored vehicles in backyards and alleys.

The Russian army has a chance to do better. After withdrawing beaten battalions from the outskirts of kyiv at the end of March, the Kremlin reinforced its combined arms armies in Donbass and southern Ukraine. Russia’s original war objective – regime change – is out of reach. But Moscow could still succeed in expanding the territory it controls in Donbass as well as securing a land bridge between Donbass and occupied Crimea.

The Russians have to do it with far fewer weapons. The Russian army lost no less than 200 artillery pieces in Ukraine as well as dozens of support vehicles. And it cannot easily make up for all its losses due to tougher foreign sanctions.

As pointed out by Watling and Reynolds, the Russian military’s 9M949 guided rocket includes an American-made fiber optic gyroscope for inertial navigation. This is artillery ammunition which the Russians can do no more.

The Ukrainians, on the other hand, are better armed by the day as significant foreign military aid begins to flow. The United States provides 90 155 millimeter towed howitzers compatible with Excalibur laser-guided shells. Poland and the Czech Republic together send at least 20 2S1s.

Perhaps most impressively, the Netherlands donated eight PzH 2000 155 millimeter tracked howitzers and France provided a dozen Cesar wheeled howitzers of the same caliber. These are some of the most modern weapons in the world.

The artillery mix is ​​unwieldy, as each different type requires different spare parts and specialized support. But most new foreign weapons use the same NATO-standard 155 millimeter ammunition, which any country can supply in large quantities.

More importantly, Ukraine’s fire control system is robust, while Russia’s is fragile. As the war in Ukraine proves every day, it doesn’t matter how many guns you have if you don’t know where to point them.