GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Why Ukraine’s NATO artillery is starting to smash the Russians

Artillery is a key feature of the Ukraine War.  The Russians using massed artillery fire to destroy cities. The Ukrainians racing to bring modern NATO systems into action that can counter their enemy’s superior numbers.  Why is artillery so important? And how is it going to influence this war. 

Today’s Russian army inherited it’s tactics and doctrine from the Soviet army. Joseph Stalin called artillery the ‘God of War’ and Soviet doctrine emphasised using it in huge quantities.  The mighty Soviet armies of World War Two, that crushed Hitler’s armies were large conscripted forces with limited tactical capability.  The Germans they fought were tactically adept with flexible command structures and long-serving non-commissioned officers, features that created a level of tactical flexibility unknown in the Soviet system.  Regular purges of the Soviet officer corps removed most of the remaining tactical flair. Instead, the Soviets concentrated on making sure that they could blunt and crush their enemy’s tactical advantages with massed artillery fire. 

Artillery descending on troops stops them moving or shooting, fixing them on the ground unable to manoeuvre.  Troops fixed in this way can either be slowly destroyed by artillery fire or they can be enveloped and destroyed in detail later.  Using enormous amounts of artillery is an effective way to ‘swamp’ a more tactically proficient enemy, forcing them to remain static, destroying them from a distance and minimising their ability to out manoeuvre or out fight your force.  The British and Americans used artillery and airpower in the same way as they advanced across Europe at the end of World War Two.  Essentially, if you have better logistics, it is economic to use artillery to fix and smash a tactically superior enemy. 

In Ukraine, we are seeing exactly the same style of combat developing. Russian conscripts do not have the tactical competence to fight ‘toe to toe’ with the more flexible and motivated Ukrainians.  Instead, it is more effective to use artillery to fix them in place and slowly destroy them either using more artillery or by conducting many small local attacks each supported by huge amounts of artillery, ‘biting off small chunks’ and chewing up the Ukrainians up a few hundred metres at a time.  

And this is where the battle becomes interesting because until recently ‘mass’ was guaranteed to win.  However, since the 1990s there have been a number of advances in artillery technology that have changed this dynamic and this week, we are starting to see the effects of modern NATO artillery systems on the Russian war machine.  It is likely that the following advances in NATO artillery systems will help the Ukrainians develop artillery supremacy in coming weeks.

Longer range 

In an artillery battle, range is everything and since the end of the Cold War the range of NATO artillery has increased.  Ukraine is now deploying a small number of modern artillery systems delivered by NATO countries including a handful of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), around 200 M777 towed howitzers and another 30-40 modern Panzerhaubitze 2000 and Caesar 155mm self-propelled guns.  In the context of this war none of the weapons is being deployed in huge numbers.  

However, properly used their effects will be disproportionate to their numbers because they have a significant range advantage over their opponents.  Most Russian tube artillery is old Soviet era equipment with ranges of 17 – 24 km. Some equipment can reach 30 km with extended range ammunition, but these shells are rare in the old stocks that Russia is now using.  The NATO artillery systems starting to come to bear on the battlefield have ranges of at least 30 km and with extended range ammunition can reach nearly 50 km.  Tactically this range overlap allows the Ukrainians to fire from positions beyond the range of Russian artillery or to strike targets far behind the frontline. 

Precision strike

Since the 1990s, NATO armies have developed and deployed a wide range of precision weapons. Currently, a handful of modern United States supplied HIMARS artillery systems are roaming Ukraine attacking Russian targets far behind the frontline.  This weapon system fires GPS guided rockets approximately 80 kilometres.  It is an example of a ‘long range precision strike’ capability able to accurately target depth targets. Targets are identified by drones, satellites, aircraft, radars, radio location or human observers and then HIMARs rockets are guided to their targets by GPS. The Ukrainians are using these weapons to strike targets deep behind Russian lines specifically ammunition dumps and the command centres.  Notably, destroying a very large ammunition dump at Nova Kakhovka, north of Kherson.  This system is being used to target Russia’s stockpiles of artillery ammunition and command centres. 

Further, Ukraine is now fielding around 200 M777 towed howitzers and another 30-40 modern Panzerhaubitze 2000 and Caesar 155mm self-propelled guns. All of these weapons outrange their Russian counterparts and can fire long range guided ammunition, artillery shells that literally fly themselves to their targets.   

For instance the combat tested, GPS guided Excalibur round that these weapons can fire is able to engage at ranges of approximately 40km. At this range an Excalibur shell will land within four metres of its target 90% of the time.  Landing 40 kg explosive shells within four metres of a target is likely to destroy most things especially tanks, armoured vehicles, trucks or dug-in positions.  Another round being used by Ukraine is the Bonus shell. This munition has a range of 35 km and releases two smaller bombs that guide themselves towards tanks or other vehicles, detonating above them and taking advantage of the thinner armour of their rooves.  

Conventional shells generally land within 20 to 50 metres of their point of aim depending on the weapon, ammunition and range.  So to destroy a target with conventional artillery requires lots of shells.

Guided shells are expensive, so will only be available in small numbers but the effect of this long-range accuracy is significant.  It means that Ukrainian artillery strikes will hit and likely destroy their targets with fewer rounds and that their guns fire less so are less likely to be located by Russian counter battery radar and counter attacked. Further, it reduces Ukrainian logistics requirements because destroying targets requires less ammunition. 

Modern GPS survey

Artillery fires a very long way so a small error in calculating the location of the weapon firing can lead to large inaccuracies at long range.  Inaccurate fixation of the gun line used to be solved by ‘adjusting fire’.  The forward observer would look at how the shells were landing and ‘walk’ them onto the target in a process known as ‘adjustment’. This took time and creates a vulnerability. Every salvo of rounds is a chance for an enemy radar to locate the guns firing and to organise a counter attack.  

In the olden days (until the 1990s) artillery positions were surveyed in by teams of soldiers using bearings and distances from known points.  In NATO armies GPS is now used to perform this function providing accurate location data quickly.  More importantly reducing the need to adjust.  This means that an army with modern fire control systems (or GPS guided shells) can quickly bring its artillery into action, immediately fire damaging rounds and disappear quickly before counter measures can be taken. 

The Russians are not deploying a lot of modern survey equipment. This is likely one of the reasons we see their guns laid out close together and in straight lines that are easier to survey quickly with manual systems, rather than widely dispersed.  The Russians 1990/80s artillery survey equipment will start to cost them as they are engaged by modern artillery directed by counter battery radars provided to Ukraine by NATO. 

Shortening the sensor / shooter link

‘Shortening the sensor / shooter link’ is military jargon for making sure that information flows quickly and accurately between the soldier, drone or radar observing the target; and the artillery system that is going to engage the enemy.  In NATO armies this information is normally digitally transferred. A NATO forward observer will have laser rangefinders directly linked to GPS that allow them to accurately identify a target’s location. At the ‘push of a button’ the location data is transferred to the gun line and automatically turned into data for the guns to use to fire. In less technically advanced armies, the observer uses a map and ‘figures out’ the location of the target. Then they provide this data by voice over their radio to the gun line. People in the command post write down the data and compute the ballistic information for the guns firing.  This method has lots of human error that is taken out by the forward observer adjusting fire. It doesn’t require military training to see which method is faster and more accurate.  We know that a key weakness of the Russians is a lack of GPS and digital systems. 

The Ukrainians though are proving very adept at making sure that when a target is spotted it can be engaged quickly and accurately.  Throughout the war we have seen Ukrainian artillery engaging Russian targets with effective fire directed from all sorts of observers, especially drones. This is not easy; it takes both good equipment and well-trained soldiers to hit targets like tank columns with indirect fire.  Recently, German officers training Ukrainians to use the Panzerhaubitze 2000 have commented on social media about the quality of their fire control.  

In summary, we are starting to see Ukraine delivering very effective long-range fire even though they have only a small number of systems available.  A measure of their success is that Russian military bloggers are commenting on the effectiveness of HIMARS and are concerned about the situation.  Blogger Igor Strelkov, recently discussing the destruction of 10 ammunition dumps, 12 command posts and numerous oil depots by HIMARS. 

The trend will continue because the best tactic to defeat an enemy with longer ranged and fast-moving artillery is to use airpower to hunt it out their artillery and destroy it.  However, a feature of this campaign is that Russia has not been able to achieve air-superiority. Ukrainian air-defence missiles (also supplied by NATO) and poor Russian planning have combined to mean that Russia is not able to achieve air-superiority across Ukraine.  Recent reports of Russia purchasing large numbers of new drones from Iran are indicative of the pressure the Russians are under to find a way to find and destroy Ukraine’s artillery. Purchasing drones is probably an acknowledgement that conventional aircraft and helicopters will not be able to fulfil the role of finding and destroying Ukraine’s artillery.

Without either side achieving an air advantage, the artillery battle will be confined to ground based artillery and as we have discussed Ukraine is starting to get guns and rockets that can engage more quickly, fire further and are devastatingly accurate.  The new weapons are specifically targeting Russia’s artillery capability, already we are witnessing their ammunition depots and command centres being destroyed.  This limits Russia’s artillery logistics, shaping the frontline artillery battle. Russia’s guns are useless without ammunition and if less Russian guns at the front have ammunition, then counter battery fire is safer. If counter battery fire is easier, then Ukraine can be more aggressive using its artillery to destroy Russian guns.    It is easy to see the steps in Ukraine’s artillery plan and how they could fit into a larger strategy for a transition to offensive operations.   


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

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