Other bright weapons attract more attention. The Javelin anti-tank missile has become the star of a series of memes. The Turkish drone TB2 has its own song with a catchy melody. Now nothing has surpassed the importance of artillery in the Ukrainian war; and it is likely that it will become even more relevant in the coming weeks.
An adviser to General Valeriy Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s supreme military commander, recently described how his troops stopped the Russian advance on Kyiv. “The anti-tank missiles slowed the Russians down,” he said, “but our artillery finished them off. That’s what destroyed their parts.” In the current fighting in the south and east of Ukraine, where both sides have entrenched themselves, artillery plays an even more important role. And the more sophisticated parts that Western countries have begun to supply to Ukraine could make a difference.
More complex parts shipped to Ukraine can make a difference
The basic idea of artillery is very simple. Soldiers’ rifles and cannons mounted on tanks fire what is called direct fire: they hit what they see. The artillery fires from indirect positions, which means that the target may be on the other side of the hill or even tens of kilometers away. And it ranges from compact mortars to 30-ton tracked guns capable of devastating fire over a wide area. It was artillery that inflicted the greatest losses in the First World War, and in all theaters except the Pacific, in the Second.
The purpose of firepower may be to immobilize enemy forces and prevent them from moving, or to destroy them, often to ensure the advance of infantry and armored vehicles. Russia has made artillery the heart of its military ever since the days of the Russian Empire and has significantly more artillery than most Western military forces, not to mention Ukraine. So he should dominate that aspect of the fight. However, a recent report by Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds of London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) explains how Ukraine managed to turn the tide.
In the early hours of the war, Ukraine used its artillery to hold back lightly armed paratroopers who landed at the Gostomel airport near Kyiv. While artillery was the first aid in pushing Russian ground forces south toward Kyiv, the reliance on paved roads made them easier to spot by Ukrainian special forces and drones, who provided the artillery with their location data. When the Russian troops approached the capital, they were met with devastating artillery fire, which remained unanswered.
Theoretically, you can use artillery to counter artillery. As you know, counter-battery fire uses radar to determine the trajectory and therefore the likely origin of the projectiles. The coordinates are immediately transmitted to friendly guns, which fire back at the source. However, Russia had problems with counter-battery fire for a very prosaic reason: its guns got into a giant traffic jam (remember the 60-kilometer column that was forming northwest of Kyiv) and could not fire effectively.
Another problem was that the firepower was not superior to the intelligence it controlled. In previous wars, Russia has used drones to detect electronic emissions from enemy artillery units and aim its own artillery at them, theoretically within a minute or two. However, in Ukraine it was difficult. “Although the Russians had heavier artillery,” write Watling and Reynolds, “they lacked a clear idea of where the scattered Ukrainian positions were.” Instead, Ukraine received accurate US information about Russia’s positions.
Artillery has played a prominent role in the fighting in Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern region already captured by Russia in 2014. Since then, Ukraine has used eight years to build trenches, fortifications and other defensive positions. It will take a lot of firepower to get through them.
This is what is already being applied. “In some of these cities, not a single building was left intact after the bombing,” says a Western official. “The indiscriminate use of firepower is really remarkable.” Russia is beginning to use artillery more effectively, the official said; he is concentrating it on fewer targets on a narrower front, but is still having trouble getting “timely and accurate targeting” as he did north of Kyiv.
Artillery also plays a vital role in the Ukrainian counterattacks that occur every time Russia takes a city. And this is one of the reasons why Western countries, which initially supplied Ukraine with mainly lighter and smaller weapons (for example, Javelins and Stingers), are now sending heavier weapons, despite initial fears that such assistance would be perceived as a provocation. from the Russian side.
Ukraine has received an avalanche of artillery pieces in recent weeks
In recent weeks, Ukraine has received an avalanche of artillery pieces. On April 21, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would send dozens of howitzers, large artillery pieces that fire 152mm projectiles. On May 2, a US Department of Defense spokesman said that 70 aircraft had already been delivered; and that more than 200 Ukrainian soldiers have been trained in its use. Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia also sent or said they would send artillery pieces. It is believed that other countries do this in secret.
Michael Jacobson, Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve Artillery, writes on the War on the Rocks website that NATO artillery systems are more advanced, faster-firing and more deadly than existing Ukrainian weapons. They handle battery fires better, are easier to repair because they have modular parts that can be replaced, and are easy to use. Colonel Jakobson notes that the French artillery-equipped CAESAR truck already bound for Ukraine is “perhaps the best in the world today” along with the Swedish Archer artillery system.
In addition, these systems are well suited for Ukrainian mobile counterattacks. In previous battles in the Donbas, in 2014-2015, Russian counter-battery fire could reach Ukrainian guns in four minutes, notes another Russia expert Sam Crannie-Evans: a towed gun.” Systems such as CAESAR are self-propelled, wheeled or tracked, which means they can get away from the scene faster.
Now firepower has its price. Artillery consumes ammunition at a tremendous rate. Specialized projectiles, such as the M982 Excalibur that Canada is donating to Ukraine, can be accurately targeted using lasers or GPS, so some of them could make a big difference. However, they are likely to be rare. If the artillery is used for “mass fire,” that is, to bombard an area, the US stockpile of 144,000 rounds could “run out in a matter of days,” says Crannie-Evans. In addition, Ukrainian artillery uses Soviet and Russian standard 152mm rounds, so ammunition will not be interchangeable between old and new guns.
And the task is not only to get ammunition, but also to deliver them to the front line. A 155 mm artillery shell weighs about 50 kg; replenishment of a dozen cannons that fired a couple of hundred times, this is a cargo of over 100 tons. Moreover, subsequent supply convoys could in turn be attacked, as Russia painfully discovered last month.
In general, Ukrainian artillerymen have reason to believe that there will be no shortage. On April 19, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US would continue to supply Ukraine with new howitzers for as long as needed. “I think it can be taken for granted that if more 155-pound artillery shells are needed in the future [mm]”, he promised, “the United States will be the first to do everything possible to help get them.”
© 2022 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.
Translation: Juan Gabriel López Giks
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