GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Are the Ukrainians winning? And why artillery is so important.

Recent articles have discussed the battle for Severodonetsk and how it could fit into both sides’ wider strategy. The Ukrainians using the battle for the city to ‘fix’ a large Russian force in the east.  Letting the Russian’s wear themselves down attacking an easily defended position and reducing their forces available so that they are unable to defend in the north-east or the south.  The Russians on the other hand trying furiously to take the city so that they can declare ‘victory’ and start negotiations that will give them strategic room to manoeuvre.   

The fight for Severodonetsk, continues amid reports that the Russians are sending more troops to the area.  The front arcs in a semi-circle from Izyum in the north for about 150km to Poposna in the south.  The Ukrainians inside the semi-circle are holding and the Russians have not been able to find a way to out flank Severodonetsk or to make an indirect approach.  Each Russian advance is met with Ukrainian counter attacks.   It seems that the Ukrainians are currently setting the tempo of the operation, drawing the Russians into a damaging fight for Severodonetsk. The Russians continue to commit to this battle that from a military standpoint has little value.  

In the south, the Ukrainian offensive is still slowly gaining ground between Mykolaiv and Kherson. The offensive is big, the Ukrainians advancing on a front about 70km long spreading the Russian defenders and looking for a weak spot that can be used to encircle the Russians near Kherson.  It is possible that the Ukrainians will turn the Russian’s north flank and advance from the north and west towards Kherson.  At this time their forces are fast approaching artillery range of Kherson.  Likewise, in the north Ukraine is also attacking near Kharkov. Recently, the Russians made small moves from Izyum trying to push south towards Kramatorsk and Sloviansk and it is likely that this offensive is a counter to that activity, forcing the Russians to defend rather that to attack.  

Although there is little movement ‘on the ground’ there is a certainly escalation as pressure from on both sides’ mounts. The Russians trying to take Severdonetsk, the Ukrainians using this battle to attrit the Russians and looking to attack elsewhere either to draw forces away or looking for a weakness that they can exploit. 

International commentators are noting the situation too, on 7 June 2022, Professor Michael Clarke, a well-respected defence analyst and retired director of the Royal United Services Institute stated that the Ukrainians were ‘pinning the Russians’ at Sverodonetsk.  At the same time General David Petraeus, ex-director of the CIA and a commander of note, stated that he thought the Ukrainian operations in the north and south may signal a larger operation to pin the Russian ‘centre’ at Severodonetsk then, turn a flank and get behind their defences.  His assessment was that if the Ukrainians could get behind the Russian front lines then they had the potential to re-capture large areas.

This commentary, from highly credible reviewers adds weight to the theory that the Ukrainians are fighting to larger plan.  Using the battle of Severodonetsk as an opportunity to hold the Russians in place, attrit them and then move to offensive operations. In fact, today the Institute for the Study of War described the battle as follows “Ukrainian forces are continuing to conduct a flexible defense of Severodonetsk and are likely focusing on inflicting high casualties on Russian personnel rather than seeking to hold the entire city”. Previously, media commentary was that Russia was winning and that Severodontesk would collapse.  It is still not certain that this won’t happen but it is becoming more credible that this battle is being orchestrated as part of a larger Ukrainian plan. 

The big question is when can the Ukrainians transition to offensive operations? The answer to this question is related to international aid, most specifically artillery.  In previous articles we have discussed the infantryman in detail, because Russia is running out of them.  This means the Russians are trying to win battles with artillery by smashing cities and defensive positions into rubble.  It is likely that the Russians would have pounded cities into rubble even if they had lots of infantry because massive use of artillery is part of both their own and their Soviet predecessor’s doctrine.  However, at this point in the campaign with so few infantry their only realistic option is to demolish any area that can be easily defended because they need to minimise the loss of their remaining infantry.   

The term artillery describes all long-range weapon systems and includes:

  • Tube artillery; big guns or mortars that have barrels. The tube artillery used in this war mostly fires approximately 40-50kg shells to ranges of about 20-30km.  Taking Auckland for example, tube artillery firing from the CBD could shell Manukau, Drury, Albany or Silverdale.  
  • Rocket artillery; includes both Multiple Launch Rocket Systems that fire lots of smaller rockets and large single rocket launchers.  Rocket artillery has a longer range and does more damage; however it cannot persistently shell an area like tube artillery can.  The Soviet era Multiple Launch Rocket Systems being used in Ukraine at the moment can hit targets between 25-90km away.  The older systems have shorter ranges, roughly 25-30km. However, more the modern Smerch system firing from the Auckland CBD could bombard Huntly in the south or Mangawhai in the north. 

Artillery is a powerful weapon able to switch its fire almost immediately to engage any target within range.  Its impact is devastating, soldiers that are not ‘dug in’ stand little chance, tanks and armoured vehicles can be destroyed and logistic bases crushed.  If a target can be seen, it can be hit.  Artillery weapons have long ranges and hit targets they cannot see themselves, so armies send observers forward to locate targets, use drones, spot fire from helicopters and use radar to locate enemy units.  If the Ukrainians are going to transition to offensive operations, they need to win the artillery battle, otherwise every time they concentrate their forces to attack, they will be smashed by Russian artillery. 

Winning the artillery battle relies on a military tactic called ‘counter-battery fire’. This term refers to artillery hunting down and destroying other artillery.  The ‘Gunners’ (artillery soldiers) chase their opponents across the battlefield using a detailed system of intelligence reporting from the front-line, their own observers on the ground, aerial observers (including drones) and radar.  Over time, an intelligence picture is developed allowing them to target and destroy enemy artillery. 

Key advantages in the counter battery battle are range and digital communications. If your artillery outranges the enemy, you can stay out of their range and still engage the enemy’s without worrying about return fire.  Communicating digitally allows artillery to ‘talk’ almost instantaneously with observers, shortening the time between a target being identified and it being fired on. In the counter battery battle, speed of response is vital because artillery will ‘shoot and scoot’, firing then moving quickly to avoid return fire. 

Ukraine is receiving large artillery donations from other NATO members including: 

  • More than 100 modern, light weight, modern, towed M777 medium guns from the United States, Canada and Australia. Long-ranged sophisticated weapons. 
  • Donations of undisclosed numbers of towed FH70 medium artillery guns from Italy, Estonia and probably the United Kingdom.  
  • Norway, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia are sending older self-propelled guns.  Total numbers have not been disclosed but at least 40 are confirmed. Czech Republic is also sending older Soviet era Multiple Launch Rocket Systems.  
  • An important donation is France’s twelve, modern CAESAR self-propelled guns that with Netherlands and Germany’s small but significant donation of twelve very long range Panzerhaubtize 2000 self-propelled guns provides digitally enabled, very mobile counter battery systems. Panzerhaubitze 2000 has a range of 40-67km.  Both systems have a ‘burst fire’ capability allowing them to fire salvos of shells very quickly then move away while the shells are airborne. A very useful feature that makes them harder to target. 

Currently, Ukraine is receiving and starting to put into action a pool of modern artillery augmenting their large existing pool of Soviet era-artillery.  Donations of digitally enabled self-propelled guns and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems are particularly important because these systems are fast moving and have digital communications that allow almost instantaneous transfer of target locations from counter battery radars to the guns. 

And with regards to this battle, the most important donations are likely to be counter battery radars from the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom.  Although barely mentioned in the media, these devices are vital for building Ukraine’s ability to fight Russia’s artillery.  Counter battery radars monitor the battlefield and a spot the trajectory of artillery shells in the air. Then they use this information to calculate exactly where the shells were fired from, then that target location is provided to friendly artillery who fire back.  Modern digitally enabled weapons can data-link to their supporting radar performing these operations almost instantaneously. This link can mean that seconds after a Russian artillery unit fires, its location can be transmitted to a Ukrainian artillery unit allowing little or no time for the Russian unit to get away. 

Winning the counter battery battle is a pre-requisite for offensive operations against the Russians and destroying their artillery or forcing it to become less effective as it ‘shoots and scoots’ is an important step without which the Ukrainians will find it difficult to transition to offensive operations.  The new weapons systems and radars arriving in Ukraine will help and there is already footage of donated weapons in action. 

In summary, although there is little territory being exchanged between the sides there is certainly escalation as Russia feeds resources into the battle around Severodonetsk. On the other side Ukraine is either desperately holding on; or fixing the Russians, forcing them to commit resources at Severodonetsk while they look for weakness elsewhere and an opportunity to ‘turn a flank’ and get behind the Russians. Artillery and NATO supplying it is such a prominent topic of conversation amongst commentators and politicians because this weapon is a key factor in this escalation.  The Russians need to maintain artillery supremacy, without that they have nothing.  If Ukraine wants to win the war and regain territory it needs to win the counter battery battle. 

The key question is whether the international community’s commitment to collective security and Ukraine’s rights under international law continues, helping Ukraine build this capability?  Or will politicians, procrastinate and falter?  Either way it reminds the world that Mao’s pragmatic view that ‘political power comes from the barrel of a gun’ has some weight, so it is vital that members of the international community who believe in the rule of law, continue to put artillery in Ukrainian hands rather than letting the man with more guns define ‘right’ with ‘might’.  


Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.

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