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Why Ukraine struggles to combat Russia’s artillery superiority

by Illia Ponomarenko August 12, 2022 9:28 PM 7 min read
Ukrainian military servicemembers fire a 152-millimeter Msta-B howitzer at the Divychky training range in Kyiv Oblast on Oct. 21, 2016. (Vladyslav Musiienko)
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Russian heavy artillery — the Kremlin’s deadliest weapon against Ukraine — is still a superior force that has no mercy.

Almost six months into the full-scale invasion, Russian advances remain generally stalled.

But despite much effort with Western-provided advanced weaponry, Russia's artillery force is still inflicting heavy losses on Ukraine and goes unanswered much too often.

Counter-battery fire, the tactic of hunting for and firing at the enemy’s artillery pieces, remains a weak spot in Ukraine’s military.

The Russian military indeed enjoys very strong numerical superiority. But Ukraine, in turn, often lacks proper organization of counter-battery activities on the battlefield. It also falls short of qualified top-level specialists.

As a result, Russian artillery continues to devastate Ukrainian lines, causing Ukrainian infantry to pay an inflating price in blood.

A Ukrainian crew fires a round with an M777 howitzer on May 27, 2022. (ArmyInform)

New found power

A lot has changed since Ukraine ran out of its old Soviet-standard munitions stock as early as June. It had to essentially switch to NATO-standard munitions of foreign supplies and acquire dozens of Western-provided artillery pieces — and it had to do it fast.

Fortunately, this transitional period, one of the war’s most dramatic moments, was quick.

If it weren’t for scores of Western artillery pieces like U.S.-provided M777s and extensive munition supplies, Kyiv would have been beyond hopeless at this point.

Read also: Battle to end the war: Ukraine's chance to get edge over Russia

Russia's numerical superiority, and its endless munitions stock, the result of decades of Soviet production, have had a devastating effect on the course of the war.

Russian tactics of rolling artillery barrage, simple but brutal and overwhelming, have paved the way for Russian infantry through charred Ukrainian ruins. It has left many cities in ashes.

The disproportion between the number of Russian and Ukrainian pieces deployed to a particular front line area can go as far as 10 to 1.

But the acquisition of Western artillery, which is technologically superior to older Soviet pieces used by Russia, has saved Ukraine’s defensive campaign.

Of even more significant effect was the ongoing campaign to destroy dozens of Russian munition and fuel depots across the occupied territories of Ukraine with U.S.-provided HIMARS rocket systems.

Read also: Why is Russia so vulnerable to HIMARS in Ukraine?

The HIMARS campaign expectedly did not cause total munitions hunger in the Russian military. But it made Russia’s problematic logistics even more complicated and greatly reduced its ready-to-go munition stocks.

According to estimates by Ukrainian artillery commanders polled by the Kyiv Independent, daily Russian munition expenditure in Ukraine’s east has been reduced from nearly 12,000-15,000 rounds to nearly 5,000-6,000, quite a relief to Ukraine’s military.

The fight between the two nations’ artillery forces has been beyond brutal.

According to Oryx, an investigation project documenting war losses in Ukraine, Russia has lost at least 75 towed artillery pieces (including 32 152-millimeter 2A65 Msta-B howitzers) and at least 152 self-propelled pieces (including 46 152-millimeter 2S3 Akatsiya and 58 152-millimeter 2S19 Msta-S heavy pieces).

Ukraine’s losses are also significant: Oryx has documented at least 50 towed and 51 self-propelled artillery pieces being destroyed, damaged, or abandoned. Oryx also knows of eight M777A2 pieces destroyed or damaged, formerly part of over 100 pieces sent to Ukraine by the U.S., Australia, and Canada.

However, it should be noted that on both sides, not all artillery pieces were lost to counter-battery fire.

Read also: How Western heavy weaponry can make a difference in the war in Ukraine

According to estimates by Ukrainian experts, Russian numerical superiority has been somewhat reduced. Ukraine currently deploys nearly 500 artillery pieces against over 2,000 Russian systems. Some limited supplies of 152-millimeter rounds from former Warsaw Treaty nations re-enabled some of the older Soviet-standard Ukrainian pieces.

Ukrainian military servicemembers fire a 152-millimeter Msta-B howitzer at the Divychky training range in Kyiv Oblast on Oct. 21, 2016. (Vladyslav Musiienko)

A weak spot

The progress was notable, but the introduction of superior Western systems has not brought radical changes in Russian superiority.

Russian artillery is still extremely overwhelming and deadly as it continues to shell its way through Ukrainian defenses with extreme power.

Yet another wake-up call occurred on Aug. 2, just days after the Russian-led militants launched a massive offensive in the town of Pisky, a ruined suburb just northwest of occupied Donetsk next to the city’s destroyed airport.

Amid fierce hostilities, Serhiy Gnezdilov, a squad leader with Ukraine’s 21st Motorized Infantry Battalion Sarmat, published a headline-making post on his Facebook page.

The soldier’s message, full of desperation and anger, describes the horrific situation in Pisky, attacked by Russians.

Within less than 24 hours, according to Gnezdilov, Russian artillery fired nearly 6,500 rounds upon Ukrainian defenses in the town.

“It’s beyond one’s understanding how some of our infantry manages to survive under this burst of enemy fire,” he wrote.

Russian artillery methodically destroyed Ukrainian concrete defenses without facing any resistance from the Ukrainian side. Ukrainian counter-battery was not working at all, according to the message.

“It’s a f*cking slaughter in which the battalion personnel is just deterring the offensive with their bodies,” the soldier wrote.

The Facebook post triggered a stir in Ukrainian media. Shortly after, the Ukrainian command sent reinforcements that gradually stabilized the situation in Pisky. Russian forces currently have nearly a third of the town under their control, following over two weeks of brutal combat.

Despite all the damage done by HIMARSs, Russia, especially in the Donbas, is still capable of concentrating its massive artillery power in certain front-line sections.

Read also: Ukraine targets Russia’s ammunition depots, undermining its artillery advantage

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, serving Ukrainian artillery officers polled by the Kyiv Independent admitted that Ukrainian counter-battery activity remains largely problematic, mainly due to the lack of effective top-level organization.

From their perspective, all main components of counter-battery warfare, especially target acquisition via observation points, radar detection, drones, and sound ranging, need to be improved. And target acquisition must be better synchronized with artillery pieces reacting fast to destroy revealed Russian weapons.

And all components need to work as a system and in cooperation with infantry units that should be holding the important local high ground points for artillery, which is often not the case, as artillerists said.

In many cases, Russian successes were ensured not by its overwhelming advantage but by a problematic Ukrainian counter-artillery reaction.

“The infantry has paid for those flaws with its blood,” a Ukrainian artillery officer told the Kyiv Independent.

A Ukrainian artillery crew checks their gun in the war zone near Khersons on July 15, 2022. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency)

Competent command

Today’s Ukrainian top command structure does not have a specific command and control body responsible exclusively for artillery.

Similarly to the General Staff, neither of the four Ukrainian main operational command headquarters (“North,” “South,” “East,” “West”) have command in charge of artillery.

This is the result of decentralization in the military – the restructuring that was made in an attempt to step away from the over-centralized Soviet military system and towards Western practices.

Before decentralization, top-level structures like army corps command were directly responsible for organizing and running counter-battery warfare. Brigade-level artillery command, in the meantime, was responsible for supporting the infantry on battlefields rather than hunting hostile artillery.

Now, due to lack of centralized command overseeing artillery, there’s inconsistency among the Ukrainian units and they have to fix it, says Oleh Zhdanov, a Kyiv-based retired senior artillery officer.

“Each of the larger front line sectors — like Donbas, Zaporizhzhia, or Kherson — should have at least one or two artillery brigades, that’s four artillery battalions,” Zhdanov said.

“An artillery brigade would be responsible exclusively for counter-battery warfare within the front line’s 100-150-kilometer-long section. It would work as part of the general reconnaissance system. As its forces get fresh data — it immediately goes out to suppress a Russian battery.”

Zhdanov says that each of Ukraine’s operational command headquarters should have a competent artillery department responsible for counter-battery warfare within their sectors.

But this process also needs to be properly organized, with effective communication between the brain and the muscle, to be able to destroy Russia’s most significant advantage over Ukraine.

“The move towards Western methods of working is happening,” said Glen Grant, a retired British Army officer and former adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense.

“But it is hampered by lack of communications, poor organizational structures, and still the heavy hand of the old concepts. What is missing still for Ukraine is to complete the decentralization of control artillery by improving the radio links, creating, equipping, and training more front line observer teams for battalions,” he said.

Grant continued, saying that there is a vital need to create a separate trade of artillery intelligence and ensure that they operate in all brigades and have direct radio or Wi-Fi links to every possible source of data about enemy artillery.

“Finally, we need a high-flying drone flying back from the enemy lines 50-100 kilometers with sideways-looking sensors to identify artillery positions and movement. Some of this is in place, but a better system will save lives and help win the war.”


Note from the author:

Hello! My name is Illia Ponomarenko, the guy who wrote this piece for you.

I hope you found it useful and interesting. I work day and night to bring you quality stories from Ukraine, where Russia is waging the biggest war in Europe since WWII. My little homeland, Donbas, is now the site of the worst fighting. We are helping to keep the world informed about Russian aggression. But I also need help from every one of you — to support Ukrainian wartime journalism by donating to the Kyiv Independent and becoming our patron. Together, we can help bring peace to Ukraine.

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