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

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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. 

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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.

82 COMMENTS

    • “Nick J”, “Nathan” and “Kevin” are the same poor russian secret service guy sitting in his bankrupt, internationally isolated and hated shithole country typing in russian propaganda points in exchange for another glas of cheap potato vodka. Really, so butthurt over Nova Khakova and the fact that more than 4 months in your loser army is being put through the meat grinder for the whole world to see? Man, how I would hate it to live in this dictatorship, thank god I live in the civilized part of the world.

      Thanks for the well investigated article Ben, learned a lot a didn´t know so far!

    • That link is just garbage propaganda urging Ukraine to surrender. And if the Russians really had intact HIMARS and Caesars as the link claimed, they’d be parading that equipment back and forth for propaganda purposes.

      • That link is from an ex US military and CIA man. I’d suggest you work out what is propaganda or not. Truth is not what you wish, facts are facts. Fantasy however seems popular, as is rage when facts are adverse.

  1. EU will sue for Peace by November due to Winter coming, and the need for Russian Heating Gas and Oil…NATO will be discredited by this time.

    • Russians will beg to sell anything just to have food and basic necessities. For the next 50 years, russian will be sinonim with pedofile, criminal, rapist, thief and a pariah among pariahs.

      • Food? — Russia has the world’s largest growing areas…plus, they have supply and demand agreements with China, aka the world’s factory…it is EU that will be begging for Russian heating gas and oil by November, just before winter sets in…

  2. The only way Russia can win is if NATO, specifically Germany, fold like a deck of cards under the threat of gas shortages.
    If the remainder of NATO can force Germany to follow through on the rhetoric, then Ukraine will eventually grind Russia to dust.
    From the USA’s point of view, this is strategic cat nip as they are demolishing the Russian war machine piece by piece without a single shot fired and for a paltry sum of perhaps $150 Billion when all said and done.
    The only real cost us Ukrainian lives, cities and culture and that is a price the US is willing to pay.

    • Russia will win by simply turning off the heating gas, and oil to the EU, and waiting for Winter…already the EU are sending peace feelers to Russia due to this.

      • That is possible and the only way this ends in Russian terms.
        Trump of all people warned the Germans about reliance on Russian gas and they laughed at him, literally.
        The truth is that the German elites are duplicitous self serving pricks just like the elites in all other countries and unless forced to, will do what is in their own short term interests rather than anyone else’s.
        Russia will be a shell of it’s former self within 30 years as the demographic crunch hits, but if unchecked can still do a lot of damage in the meantime.

  3. Hahahah, the only thing the Zelensky regime is using its new garbage NATO MRLS systems (maybe 80km range vs 200km for Smerch and Tornado systems) for is trying to provide aerial decoys to help them slip their old Tochka missiles in to hit kindergartens in the Donbass. Fortunately, Russia is supplying the independent Republics with updated SAMs to help them shoot down Zelensky’s terror missiles.

    • Is that the same SAMs Russian backed forces used to shoot down MH 17? I guess with those knuckle dragging bastards firing off missiles it would pay not to fly over Eastern Europe

      • That was Ukraine, the debris field proved it. Inconvenient truth covered up, jut like OPCW.
        There’s a reason Russia always gets tried in the media, not by actual international processes, despite Russia always vocally willing to engage with any processes initiated. UK & US only have to win in the media to get the “outraged Western public” to fall in line.

      • Well you have to hope to hell Ukraine has learnt its lesson and has closed the airspace to civilian airliners.
        Russia has closed its airspace to “unfriendlies” anyway, so they’re taking the long and much more expensive way round

    • Russia is suplying it;s own army with pedophiles, thieves and criminals. You know, basic russians.

      • says someone called the turk who can’t remember lawrence of arabias emm emm ‘experiences’ in turkish captivity or the armenians.

        • I also don’t believe the MSM like a drone?
          I also don’t believe the earth is flat. So your point is what?
          ONLY the MSM reckons Ukraine is winning and can be victorious. NO ONE else from any independent source agrees with the USA propaganda media, which includes the puppet western countries media.
          I just wish American would stop purposely causing wars anywhere in the world for it’s own empire reasons and then using the puppet/corrupt media to ‘blame the other guy’……….wake up sheeple.

    • This is delusional thinking.
      Yes, if the West keep the weapons coming and the sanctions in place then Russia will eventually be worn down. But in a month is ridiculous.

    • tell you what mfp do the decent thing and sign up for a ukrainian militia, I’m sure they’d welcome such an accomplished military theorist with open arms.

  4. The only thing the Ukrainian forces are using HIMARS for is what they’ve been doing the last 8 years, is terrorise their own citizens. like the 100+ casualties in Novaya Kakhovka.

    • Stop making stuff up. The shot down of mh17 is well documented by multinational board of experts shot down by Russian separatists with Russias supplied buk system.
      As for himars, they aim for valid military targets. People can see right thru your bullshit.

  5. So your argument is that Russian logistics will be adversely affected by a limited number of NATO wonder weapons enabling a transition to offensive operations yet you fail to apply the same reasoning to the Russians with their plethora of missiles which far outrange anything Ukraine has ?

    • Russia do not have a plethora of missiles. They are recently using anti air missiles to attack land based civilian targets! If they had the missiles, they would use them. The corruption and the theft at all levels of the russian government and millitary mean most of the things that are supposed to exist simply do not. They exist as oligarchs boats only. You can see they have hardly anything in reserve because the stuff going in to war is getting older and older. Even if russia has plenty of people and mobilise for full scale war they cant arm them and they will get nowhere. Its clear russia can not win this war, and after 5 months things are already very quickly turning in Ukraine’s favor. Unfortunately for russians, they have been lied too, hate Ukrainians (and the west) for false reasons which they have been taught by their elite because they think they need to have an enemy and now we see the end of the russian federation coming, amidst the country committing terrorism on a large scale after being the ones to invade a sovereign state, not vice versa like they would have you believe.

  6. We need peace and we need advocates for it. Why aren’t world leaders calling for peace. Why aren’t world bodies, the UN for example, calling for peace? What the F is going on here….

  7. Judging by the number of Russian trolls you’ve attracted, you’re obviously doing something right.

  8. Do the Math? Russia has destroyed 80% of Ukraine Military assets & losing 500 Soldiers a Day! ITS OVER.

    • I’ve been saying for ages that Ukraine needs to negotiate whilst they still have something to negotiate with. Meanwhile Ben and his acolytes have dreamed of beating Russia with Ukrainian life’s.

  9. “Give us the tools and we will finish the job”

    Is the HIMARS weapon system, the weapon that could end the war?

    “In the context of this war none of the weapons is being deployed in huge numbers.”

    In 1941, if Poland had had the capacity to give the Nazis a bloody nose, and push Germany back to its borders, And Germany learnt to live within those borders as it does now. WWII could have been averted

    If Ukraine can push the Russian Federation back to its internationally recognised legal borders, and especially if Russia learns to live within them, then WWIII could be averted and the whole world will owe the people of Ukraine a debt of gratitude.

    “Here is the answer which I will give to President Roosevelt: Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and, under Providence, all will be well.
    We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”
    Winston Spencer Churchill
    February 9, 1941
    Broadcast from London

    In your estimation Ben; How many HIMARS would Ukraine need to totally overwhelm and destroy Russia’s current advantage in massed artillery and send them packing?

  10. Lots of comments from the 3 Ivans. If you don’t know what that refers to, check out Act III of Tchaikovsky’s Спящая Красавица

  11. A Russian troll named Nathan. How evolved the trolling names have become. Back in the day, you could find an Ivan or a Vlad.

    • Nutin Putin aka Uncle Sam aka NATO Lover…hey, this is fun…you just have to turn off your brain, and say Russia Bad, NATO Good…

  12. Anyone interested in qualified, no nonsense military assesment should follow Austrian Oberst Markus Reisner on YouTube. If you search “Colonel Markus Reisner” his videos will be in English.
    A.E.I.O.U.

  13. The Ukrainians can, and need to, drive the Russians back to the 2014 lines. Or maybe a major pushback and peace will do it. A way out for Putin and then let Russia stew in its mess.

  14. Ukranian separatists in ukraine need to be struck with American planes with American pilots. Donbas is Ukraine. And their puppet state is illegitimate. A strike on the donbas is not a strike on russia.

    • Nathan, if you read history you would know that Donbass and Crimea were added to Ukraine by the Soviets. They were Russian provinces with Russian populations, but to the Soviets nationalities didn’t matter. It was an administrative arrangement. Now we have the consequences of the messy dissolution of the USSR. It doesn’t help when people argue rights and wrongs without knowing the history.

  15. Lets hope the ethnic Russian civilians being murdered by their NATO backed government in the Ukraine get some long range missiles of their own and repay NATO the favor.

  16. The LPR and the DPR with the assistance of the SMO by the Russian Federation have destroyed UKR resistance in the Donbass : the war is WON! No amount of HIMARS will change that. If peace is not agreed by the NAZI scum of Zelenkski the Russian Federation will declare war on what’s left of the UKR scum and invade and take over all Ukraine. All the scum rubbish like the originator of this post won’t change that. The NATO WANKERS will jerk off relentlessly to no avail. The useless coward Daily Blog can get Buggered as well.

  17. This is all crazy . Russia has complete air control in Ukraine. If they were Americans they would use it as the US did in Mosul or Raqqa . That they are not doing so reflects that they don’t want to destroy more civilians or civilian facilities than they can help and are prepared to loose time, equipment and men to avoid doing any more damage than is necessary to secure their stated objectives.
    It is interesting to notice as an aside that there are no comments from people who favour the cause of one side but acknowledge that the other side is prevailing. This includes myself of course, but it seems that we read what we want to read to confirm our predilection , and ignore or dismiss what does not confirm it.
    The only way Russia could be seriously challenged in Ukraine is if Nato seriously contested the air cover. And then it would all be on.
    D J S

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