Invasion of Ukraine shows artillery still rules the battlefield

Invasion of Ukraine shows artillery still rules the battlefield
A Ukrainian 2S7 Pion heavy artillery piece
A Ukrainian 2S7 Pion heavy artillery piece
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A Ukrainian 2S7 Pion heavy artillery piece
A Ukrainian 2S7 Pion heavy artillery piece
Ukraine artillery photographed in 2014
Ukraine artillery photographed in 2014

The ongoing war in Ukraine is rewriting the playbook on infantry tactics and strategy The conflict is looking increasingly like a paradoxical march, one way into the 21st century and the other way back into the early 20th. Case in point is how, even though advanced weapon systems have been flooding into the theater, the war has become essentially an old-fashioned artillery duel.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it wasn't unreasonable to expect the war to play out like recent US and NATO military operations, serving as a showcase of modern military technology, strategy, and tactics in action. It was supposed to be high-tech systems of closely coordinated land, sea, and air forces working like a single unit in a war of fast maneuvering and precise strikes.

Months later, the war in Ukraine has collapsed into a scene that wouldn't be out of place during the First World War, but with a surprising 21st century spin. Instead of a battle for air superiority, fast-moving armored columns, precision weapon strikes, and coordinated cyber attacks knocking out vital infrastructure, conflict was soon reduced to a more or less static front with the two sides firing big guns in a fashion that wouldn't have looked out of place in France in 1916.

The dominance of artillery in Ukraine

Artillery was the most powerful weapon for centuries, but the development of the airplane made it obsolete by the end of the Second World War and it was gradually downgraded, especially by the NATO powers and Israel. The new paradigm of war was of highly mobile armor with fighter bombers providing cover and a heavy punch that was fast, long-range, precise, and needed much fewer people to bring to bear.

The key to this change was airpower, but, for reasons that are still aren't clear, Russia either was unwilling or unable to bring its air force into the battle with enough strength to dominate the skies over Ukraine. Without air superiority, Russian forces and their supply lines became extremely vulnerable and any attempt to emulate NATO field tactics quickly went out the window as the tide of battle turned against Moscow.

Russian relationship with artillery

The result was that the Russian Army went into what's been its default mode for about 300 years. They fell back on using massed artillery.

Russia has long had a peculiar relationship with artillery. Stalin called it "the god of war" and it's a system that's far from obsolete. Guns are still very useful weapons and have some advantages over airpower. Not the least of these is that artillery can fire around the clock in any weather and doesn't need vulnerable airbases.

Beyond that, Russia has had almost a reverence for artillery ever since Peter the Great ordered every church in the country to offer up some of their bells to be melted down to cast new guns for the war against Sweden. In addition, the Russians turned out to be very innovative when it came to artillery tactics, including inventing the idea of indirect fire, where guns fire upon a target without being able to see it.

The Russian Empire eventually developed its army around artillery with the standard doctrine of using massed guns to weaken and demoralize the enemy before sending in large numbers of infantry to take territory. This doctrine was continued and even intensified by the Soviet Union, which used it to great effect during the Second World War against Germany, though with an alarming disregard for civilian casualties.

The latter event had such a profound effect on Russian military thinking that artillery was the army's weapon of choice in Chechnya, Syria, Afghanistan, and other engagements. If nothing else, artillery doesn't require highly trained troops and infantry are relegated to the secondary role of acting as spotters, protecting the guns, and occupying territory.

Not your grandparents' artillery

So far, we've been talking about Russia and artillery, but not Ukraine. That's because, as a former Soviet republic, Ukraine is, in many ways, a mirror image of Russia and has suffered many of the same setbacks from the war. Until only a few months ago, most of Ukraine's military equipment was inherited after the fall of the USSR and its army operated on many of the same doctrines as Russia's.

The development of artillery is complex and has resulted in a bewildering variety of guns and overlaps in what were once easily separated categories. But to put things very simply, there are three types of artillery today: guns, howitzers, and mortars. To this can be added rocket artillery, which, surprisingly, dates back to the 18th century as a practical weapon.

As far as the army is concerned, a gun is an artillery piece that elevates to less than 45°, has long barrels that may or may not be rifled, and relatively high muzzle velocity for hitting targets hard at long range. Howitzers, on the other hand, elevate greater than 45°, have shorter rifled barrels, and lower velocities for dropping projectiles on target from a high angle.

Meanwhile, mortars have evolved into what is called the Stokes pattern. This is a simple weapon with a short barrel with a smooth bore, low muzzle velocity, and a firing angle greater than 45°. It rests on a heavy metal baseplate set on the ground and is fired by dropping self-contained rounds down the muzzle of the barrel. When it reaches the bottom, the impact sets off the propellant charge, sending the explosive round on its way.

Then there is the rocket artillery, which can consist of rows of barrels filled with unguided rockets, larger ballistic missiles (also without guidance) set on launchers, or much more sophisticated guided missiles set in specialized launcher tubes.

A more practical way of differentiating artillery is by how they are moved about. Though fixed gun emplacements still have their uses, especially against expected invasion forces along fixed routes, success and survival in modern warfare depends on mobility. This means that artillery needs to be able to shoot, pack up and move in a matter of minutes or even seconds to avoid returning fire.

Mortars are small enough to be carried on the back of a Jeep or on a soldier's back, though a few of the larger ones may need a motorized platform to carry them. Guns and howitzers, however, fall into two groups. The first are the ones that need to be towed or lifted by a helicopter from one spot to the next and the second are self-propelled guns that are often armored and may be mistaken for tanks.

Types artillery in Ukraine

Since we're dealing with the arsenal of two countries that were once part of a Cold War superpower, plus equipment that's been imported since the beginning of the invasion, a complete list of artillery used in the conflict would make for tedious reading. However, there are a number of both general and specific things that can be said for both sides' arsenals.

Both Russia and Ukraine's artillery were inherited from the Soviet Union and some pieces date back to the Second World War. Though Russia has seen significant losses and has major logistical issues, it still seriously outguns Ukraine.

Ukraine artillery photographed in 2014
Ukraine artillery photographed in 2014

Both Russia and Ukraine use ex-Soviet artillery like the D-30 Lyagushka towed gun with a range of 13.6 miles (22 km) and the 2A36 Giatsint-B giant howitzer with a range of 25 miles (40 km), as well as the BM-30 Smerch rocket artillery that can reach 43.5 miles (70 km).

This commonality means that Ukraine understands its adversary's weapons and Ukrainian troops can easily place captured Russian guns into action if they are intact. However, this commonality also caused a problem because artillery needs ammunition and Ukraine's stocks of ex-Soviet ammo are very limited, and only so much is available from ex-Warsaw Pact NATO members.

If Ukraine was entirely dependent on its Cold War artillery, this would be bad news for it, but in the months since the Russian invasion, it has seen billions of dollars in munitions flooding into Ukraine from the NATO countries and other nations. These have included France’s CAmion Équipé d'un Système d'ARtillerie (CAESAR), which is a 155-mm howitzer with a basic range of 26 miles (46 km) mounted on a six-wheeled truck; 100 M777 howitzers with a range of 25 miles (40 km) and 300,000 rounds of 155-mm ammunition from Australia, Canada, and the US; the British-designed M119A3 towed light gun that has a range of only 10 miles (17 km), but is light enough to be used by infantry and has a relatively high rate of fire; and the now-famous US HIMARS missile artillery that has played a major role in helping push back Russian forces.

The philosophy and dangers of artillery

It appears the Russian philosophy behind using its artillery has been to fall back on historical precedent and make it the central pillar of both its offense and defense. The basic assumption is that all the Russian Army needs at its core is massed guns and missiles to prevail on the battlefield, with poorly trained infantry to act as a screen to protect the artillery, act as spotters, and to hunt for surviving enemy units after a barrage. In addition, artillery is cheap, cannot be jammed and, with enough firepower, carries a high probability of hitting a target without needing to pinpoint it.

It's a tactic that has worked many times, but it's very far from foolproof, as recent events have demonstrated. At Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces could get through the screen to attack the guns and then withdraw. Meanwhile, the Russian setbacks at Kherson demonstrated that artillery is highly dependent on a steady ammunition supply and if this is interrupted, artillery tactics don't leave anything to fall back on.

Even if artillery is up to the job, massed guns and missiles cause tremendous damage, especially in civilian areas, resulting in needless casualties and suffering. Ever since the second war in Chechnya about two decades ago, Russia has been willing to accept civilian deaths from methodically flattening entire cities, but massed artillery isn't very agile, making it vulnerable to counterfire and the Ukrainian artillery forces are proving to be increasingly accurate and fast as they destroy Russian ammunition dumps, command posts, and other assets.

Lessons learned

One interesting aspect of artillery in Ukraine is how NATO has had to learn lessons that were forgotten during the Cold War when guns were just a gap filler for air strikes. NATO artillery tends to be shorter range than those used by the Russians and the Ukraine conflict has shown that in an artillery duel range is vital. This means that NATO not only needs longer-range guns, but extended-range munitions, like rocket-assisted shells that improve not only range, but accuracy.

Another lesson is that in an age when advanced radar, drones, and satellite surveillance mobility is the key to survival, guns that take several minutes to move may not survive long enough to do so. That means that the ideal artillery is not only motorized and armored, as well as capable of shoot-and-scoot. It also needs to be the sharp end of a highly integrated command and control system to keep the gun crews informed about incoming counterfire.

One unexpected lesson was that NATO and the US in particular had to face a problem that hadn't cropped up in the long decades when American artillery was used, mainly in counterinsurgency operations. NATO guns were fired so infrequently that wear and tear wasn't a major issue, but the Ukrainians were shooting so much that their guns were badly in need of maintenance after only a few months.

As a result, US Army weapon specialists had to do a quick brush-up on repairing and maintaining field artillery. The Americans then set up a center with about four dozen troops in Poland where they operated 14 encrypted digital chatrooms with their Ukrainian counterparts to identify common trends with the heavily used guns, including worn barrels and bullet damage. They then had to help develop designs and work out ways for the Ukrainians to fabricate parts themselves because they had no direct contact with US defense contractors and US troops were kept to the absolute minimum in Ukraine for duties like guarding the US Embassy.

The coming winter war

At the moment, Russia is estimated to be shooting 50,000 rounds a day and Ukraine perhaps a tenth of that. Against this, while increasingly sophisticated arms and ammunition are flooding into Ukraine worth billions of dollars, Russia's industry, infrastructure, and economy are all stretched to the limit.

The war that was first thought would last only four days is now set to stretch into the bitter cold Ukrainian winter. Russian troops have been pushed well back, but they are now digging into defensive positions as they destroy bridges to slow any Ukrainian offensive.

Meanwhile, the artillery duel continues as Russia directs its fire, especially missiles and suicide drones, at Ukrainian energy infrastructure to turn winter into an ally as much as an obstacle. What many feared would be a miniature version of World War II or even a prelude to World War III now looks more like the quagmires of the 20th century guerilla wars.

What the outcome of this conflict will be, only time can tell. What is certain is that it has shown that artillery is still an important player in combat and the fight for Ukraine will cause war planners to seriously reevaluate its role on future battlefields.

On the whole, the war has shown how dismal the Russian army is at combined arms. That they quickly reverted to massed, imprecise artillery is telling and indicates a failure at the doctrine level (in addition to a logistics system that is, at best, wanting). Using Western artillery and tactics, on the other hand, Ukraine is demonstrating that shoot-and-scoot, coupled with counter-battery radar and drone spotting (plus highly accurate fire) means that Ukraine needs to fire fewer shells to achieve much better effect. Winter will be tough for both sides, but precision fires will remain a big part of Ukraine's success on the battlefield. The key, and the thing that Ukraine can do with Western Arty systems that Russia cannot, is the ability to put "warheads on foreheads".
i sit here typing with the 'reassuring' steady thump thump of M777's not 10 miles away from my back porch. Been like that here since April. Training is pretty much daily, no one in town minds , its all for the good. Every so often we get treated to a low flyby from a couple of V-22s.
Warheads on foreheads'...maybe not that close but the M777/M982 combo get close to that with a CEP of 13 feet. Close enough.
The latest aircraft may be too expensive to put into combat, but since aircraft made artillery obsolete in WW2, maybe we'll see cheap propeller-driven warplanes again. Are there any Thunderbolts or Aeracobras mothballed in a desert somewhere?
One thing that's been key to Ukraine's military successes is that they've adopted Western command and control techniques. If the Russian soldier loses contact with his superiors, he has to wait for orders, while the Ukrainian soldier looks to exploit unexpected opportunities, and proceed while telling his superiors what he's about to do. The success in Kharkiv began when a Lieutenant realized there was a gap in the Russian defenses and drove his three tank platoon into the gap while telling his commanders what he was doing, rather than waiting for orders.
Jerome Morley Larson Sr eAIA
All war is an admission of failure; russia pounds a country until it is destroyed; then what good is it? It is no longer civilized and is unlivable; then what? — it has squandered a generation of its finest youth for what? — what of their creations will it have missed?; , i demand that russia be removed from UN security council it has forfieted its right to participate in civilized activity, much less being one of the five arbiters of peace, what the hell is the matter with us that we cant all get along? War is our admission failure!
Russian air power is not a factor because they are low on or have run out of precision guided munitions,and as a result have to fly low to accurately drop dumb bombs. Flying low sets them up for Ukrainian Stinger missiles. Russian troops are stealing Ukrainian washing machines for their electronic components,which are needed for targeting systems for new guided missiles-sanctions have cut off outside access to such critical components. Russian artillery lacks in accuracy compared with Ukrainian artillery. HIMARs missile artillery allows Ukraine to strike accurately,and has done considerable damage to Russian ammo stores and command and control centers. On top of that,Russia has seemingly run out of trained soldiers,and are fielding criminals and untrained men to fill the ranks. If the west can continue supporting Ukraine,time is running out for Russia.
Patrick Gordy
Great article. I think it doesn't address the fact that NATO and the West hasn't give Ukraine the full complement of weapons available. Modern fighter aircraft and even some vintage A-10 Thunderbolts plus the latest drones would limit the use of artillery. I doubt that we would see this kind of conflict in the future.