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‘Our reserves will run out:’ Ukrainian artillery sounds alarm on Western shell shortage

by Francis Farrell February 22, 2024 8:58 PM 10 min read
Ukrainian artillery crew commander Vitalii "Skyba" with 155mm shells at positions in Donetsk Oblast on Feb. 3, 2023. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)
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DONETSK OBLAST – Hiding beneath sparse winter cover in a crude, muddy ditch, a great steel monster lies in wait for an opportunity to attack.

Adorned on either side with painted plus signs, the gun’s huge barrel looks up at the sky over the Bakhmut front line, across which thousands of shells, rockets, missiles, and drones fly back and forth each day.

The weapon, serving in the hands of Ukraine’s legendary 93rd Mechanized Brigade is a U.S.-built M109 self-propelled howitzer, better known as the Paladin.

Over winter, Russian forces have been on the offensive in the area, pushing past the ruined Bakhmut towards the Ukrainian stronghold of Chasiv Yar.

On this day in early February, despite the near-constant sounds of fighting nearby, the Paladin stays silent.

Assaults on Ukrainian positions are carried out on a daily basis, but the shells lined up in the gun’s storage racks are only used when absolutely necessary.

A M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzer at positions in Donetsk Oblast on Feb. 3, 2023. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

Bit by bit as Russia’s full-scale war progressed, Western howitzers like the Paladin, which shoot the 155mm shells standard to all NATO armies, have largely replaced Ukraine’s legacy Soviet-era artillery pieces.

Kyiv has received hundreds of 155mm howitzers to deploy along an active front line stretching over 1,200 kilometers across the country.

With their overall increased accuracy compared to Russian artillery pieces, the weapons have been crucial in keeping Ukraine in the fight against an enemy with a marked ammunition advantage.

Now, despite having plenty of guns themselves, Ukraine is running out of shells, and the situation is slowly growing desperate.

As the transition toward NATO-standard artillery progressed, Ukraine's military relied largely on shells from U.S. stocks, boosted by those bought from outside the alliance, particularly from South Korea.

Seeing the urgent need, European countries have moved to scale up production in their own countries, but have been widely criticized for the time taken to do so.

With the blockade by Republicans of U.S. military aid funding for Ukraine since late last year, the lack of new deliveries is sorely felt on the battlefield.

As both Washington and Kyiv have noted, one of the main reasons for recent Russian success in taking the city of Avdiivka, Moscow’s first major territorial gains since May last year, has been Ukraine’s shortage of artillery ammunition.

The Kyiv Independent spoke to 155mm artillery commanders in two separate brigades fighting in Donetsk Oblast to understand how shell hunger had begun to impact the day-to-day flow of the battlefield.

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Painful rationing

Across Ukraine’s vast land forces, with different levels of intensity in different sectors of the front line, it can often be difficult to visualize how shell hunger affects the work of Ukrainian forces on a tactical level.

By now, said 36-year-old Paladin crew commander Vitalii “Skyba,” whose last name is not disclosed as per the rules of the unit, the difference between Ukraine’s and Russia’s ammunition availability is acutely felt.

“It feels like we shoot only when we see a target, while their guns are firing 24/7, they dismantle whole villages just for fun,” he said.

“We can't work like that, we often get only three shells to hit a target and the expectation is that that will be enough, whereas they can easily fire 20 shells at one target.”

Ukrainian artillery crew commander Vitalii "Skyba" inside a M109 self-propelled howtizer at positions in Donetsk Oblast on Feb. 3, 2023. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

Sometimes, Skyba added, targets that would normally be obvious choices to be engaged with artillery are left alone because of the need to be frugal.

“If they spot five enemy soldiers standing together, that's not always enough to give the order to fire these days,” he said.

“Our command does its best to get us to support our infantry. It would be great if we could work non-stop like the Russians, but we can’t.”

Twenty kilometers south of Chasiv Yar, the Kyiv Independent also spoke with Roman Holodivskyi, battery commander in the 43rd Artillery Brigade, which has divisions deployed across the front line and transitioned completely from Soviet-era Pion howitzers to German-made PzH2000 self-propelled guns.

Holodivskyi, whose seniority provides a wider view on the ammunition situation that crew commanders like Skyba may lack, also reported receiving limits on how many shells can be used on a target.

“Last time I commanded a fire mission personally, we saw an enemy assault group, it was the perfect distance to work. I asked for permission to engage from my senior commander, and also asked for the maximum expenditure,” he said.

“They gave me permission to fire five shells. That's three to dial in, and two to actually damage. If we had been allowed 10 shells for that large enemy grouping, it would have been obliterated, but like that, we only managed to give them a bite.”

Roman Holodivskyi, battery commander of Ukraine's 43rd Artillery Brigade, at his base in Donetsk Oblast, on Feb. 8, 2023. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

Even while working as miserly as possible, Ukrainian howitzers’ current rate of fire is unsustainable.

When 155mm shells were more available, Holodivskyi’s unit saved up a reserve, which he is now forced to begin using up.

“Now, the stores that we saved up are only half-full, and they deliver a lot fewer and a lot less often,” he said.

Earlier in January, a different artillery commander in the 93rd Brigade reported to CNN that Russia was firing 10 shells for every Ukrainian one.

There is no strict mechanism for gathering data on Russian shell expenditure, but the order of magnitude is roughly correct, Holodivskyi said in reaction to the figure, noting that for counter-battery suppression missions, Ukrainian artillery usually fires only one shell, while the enemy can fire up to a dozen for the same task.

Making matters worse, he said, recovered fragments and unexploded shells fired from the Russian side show that they are often fresh off the production line of Russia’s gargantuan military-industrial complex.

“The shells they are mostly shooting with now, they were produced in 2022 or 2023,” he said.

“They don't have any hunger, their production lines are running smoothly.”

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Sluggish scramble

The initial decision to supply Ukraine with NATO-standard artillery was made in the first months of the war, as it soon became clear that available stocks of Soviet-era ammunition in allied countries would eventually dry up.

With a handful of different 155mm howitzers being delivered by the U.S. and European countries, Ukrainian artillerymen were quick to master them.

By the end of 2022, the transition was in full swing, with ammunition readily available for the Western guns, according to Holodivskyi.

“The first time we rolled out on the PzH2000, we had hundreds of shells,” he said, “our stores were overflowing.”

Over 2023, with Ukraine needing a higher rate of fire to support its summer counteroffensive, it became clear that even all of NATO’s production capacity wasn’t enough on its own, and that other stocks worldwide needed to be accessed for Ukraine to keep up.

Taking steps to up domestic production, Washington found a stop-gap solution in the form of South Korea, from whom hundreds of thousands of 155mm shells were transferred unofficially.

In July last year, a separate U.S. stockpile was released for Ukrainian use, that of the DPICM (dual-purpose improved conventional munition) cluster shells, widely controversial but highly effective against enemy infantry in trench warfare.

155mm shells inside a self-propelled howtizer at positions in Donetsk Oblast on Feb. 3, 2023. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

Meanwhile, the European Union had pledged to give Ukraine one million shells per year starting from spring 2023, but has fallen well short of the target by all accounts.

By January this year, just two months before the March deadline, the EU had delivered just over half that amount, the bloc’s chief diplomat Josep Borrel said.

As the war stands currently, Ukraine needs around 200,000 155mm shells per month, according to a Defense Ministry communique seen by Bloomberg.

Compelled to prop up Ukraine in the absence of U.S. aid, and concerned about their own defense in the scenario of a potential second Donald Trump presidency in the wake of his repeated controversial remarks about NATO, some European countries are taking more action to ramp up domestic defense production.

But European private munitions companies need massive government orders to justify expanding facilities, and those orders require major political decisions on funding and procurement to be made quickly.

Germany aims to deliver “three to four times” as many shells in 2024 as it did in 2023, Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said on Feb. 14, noting that Berlin will spend an unprecedented $3.75 billion on ammunition production this year.

A Ukrainian artilleryman inside a M109 self-propelled howtizer at positions in Donetsk Oblast on Feb. 3, 2023. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

As part of the announcement of a new “artillery coalition” in January, France promised to send Ukraine 3,000 155mm shells a month, less than what Ukraine would ideally fire in a single day on the front line.

A few weeks later though, Politico reported that Paris was blocking EU efforts to procure shells from outside the bloc.

Hoping to quickly bridge the gap before Europe is able to produce more, Czech President Petr Pavel announced at the Munich Security Conference that Czechia had located half a million 155mm shells and another 300,000 Soviet-era 122mm shells ready to deliver to Ukraine from outside the EU “within weeks” if funding was approved.

“When you talk to Ukrainian soldiers, does it matter for them where their artillery shell is made?” said Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson said to the Kyiv Independent in Munich.

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X-factor endangered

“There is a saying,” Holodivskyi said. “‘The price of an artilleryman's sweat is measured in the blood of the infantryman.’”

For the commander, who has been part of Ukraine’s successful transition to NATO artillery every step of the way, the idea of his howitzers going quiet is a terrifying one.

“This is a problem, there is no way around it,” he said. “If they continue to deliver less and less, the reserves that I saved up over time will eventually run out.”

“It's these guys, in their trenches and dugouts, that need our support more than ever, as the enemy is assaulting. If we stopped working completely here, that would be just scary, to be honest.”

A Ukrainian artilleryman inside a M109 self-propelled howtizer at positions in Donetsk Oblast on Feb. 3, 2023. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

To some extent, Ukraine’s shortage of artillery ammunition is alleviated by the widespread use of FPV (first-person view) drones for similar targets on or near the zero line.

While carrying much less explosive force than a shell, FPV drones are a high-precision weapon, much cheaper to produce, and can be constructed at home rather than on an expensive assembly line.

But the idea that drones can truly replace artillery is deeply flawed, according to Holoditskyi.

“Artillery has always been the X-factor on the battlefield,” he said.

“There is a reason why still to this day, our infantry calls for artillery support, not FPV support. The explosion, the shockwave, it all has a major demoralizing effect on the enemy, and artillery can do many things FPVs cannot.”

Ukrainian artillery crew commander Vitalii "Skyba" at positions in Donetsk Oblast on Feb. 3, 2023. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

While Europe takes its time to procure more shells and U.S. funding for Ukraine remains blocked from reaching the House floor, artillerymen like Skyba and Holodivskyi could be left unable to provide proper cover for their infantry.

“If they want the war to end, there is no need to wait, to hold endless summits and spend time thinking,” said Skyba.

“The longer they take 'preparing to help' Ukraine, the longer this war will drag on.”

Editor’s Note: The Kyiv Independent is grateful to our members and donors. This story wouldn’t have been possible without a donation from The Charles Douglas-Home Memorial Trust.


Note from the author:

Hi, this is Francis Farrell, cheers for reading this article. We are in new phase of the war, which could potentially be stranger, tougher, and more uncertain than it has ever been so far. In a time when instability around the world is growing, and attention is fading when it is needed the most, please consider supporting our reporting.

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