Alongside US-supplied ‘heavy’ weapons, there is hope that British-sent counter-battery radar will ‘completely erode’ Russian advantage.
ByDominic Nicholls, DEFENCE AND SECURITY EDITOR. 1 May 2022 •
Ukrainian soldiers ride to a resting place after two months fighting on the front line near Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine CREDIT: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images
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Stalin called artillery the “god of war”.
The physical and psychological damage caused by the sudden arrival of high explosive rounds can shatter military formations.
Defended positions and attackers alike can be devastated in a few seconds of chaos and carnage.
The topography of the Donbas is likely to allow Russian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles the ability to use their firepower and mobility to much better effect than they have been able to so far in this war.
Travelling at up to 30mph across broken ground – faster still on paved surfaces – tanks can fire accurately at dug-in Ukrainian positions from a mile away and be on top of them in less than two minutes.
Anti-tank weapons will be useful in this fight, but reaction times and the ability to fire accurately will be severely tested, when tank shells are bursting around defenders’ heads.
Artillery – or indirect fire to use the correct military term – will be critical in breaking up these assaulting formations before the Ukrainian positions are overrun.
Nicholas Drummond, a defence analyst, says artillery is still “king of the battlefield”.
“It always was and in Ukraine it has shown why, more than ever,” he told The Telegraph.
“Everybody thinks it’s all about destroying tanks in Ukraine. To a certain degree that’s true, but what really inflicted damage on the Russians and killed their combat power was artillery.”
He’s not the only one to say so.
A recent paper by the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), quoted a senior adviser to General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
“Anti-tank missiles slowed the Russians down, but what killed them was our artillery,” he said. “That was what broke their units.”
Video showing a Ukrainian artillery strike on Russian troops and a T-72 tank (T-72B3 or obr 1989). https://t.co/brsCheHJyOhttps://t.co/yVAqwflRQkpic.twitter.com/pSKzfYqTGG— Rob Lee (@RALee85) May 1, 2022
Artillery fire is so devastating because “it comes out of nowhere,” Mr Drummond said, catching troops in the open or suddenly introducing vehicle casualties, leading to confusion and loss of momentum in the attack.
Defending forces use artillery to break up attacking formations. Assaulting forces use the same systems to “creep forward” as their forces advance.
“The last hundred metres is the most hotly contested area in warfare. Any advance needs to be covered.”
After mortars, carried by the infantry and able to reach up to 10km, “tube” artillery (traditional single-barrel weapons) can hit targets up to around 40km. Rocket artillery of the Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) can strike with great precision out to around 150km.
Specially designed Precision Guided Munitions, including loitering drones and cruise missiles, can destroy targets 1,400km away.
The term “heavy” generally refers to tube artillery mounted on tracked vehicles – usually tank hulls – making them better able to cover all ground and keep up with tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
They typically fire 155mm rounds, almost identical to the 152mm shells in Ukrainian service.
A 155mm shell landing on or directly next to a tank would completely destroy the vehicle. If it lands around 10 metres away, the tracks and gun would likely be damaged and the optics and other sensors on the outside of the turret would be ripped off, although the crew would probably survive.
Ukrainian sources are claiming this artillery strike on a 2nd Army Russian command post near Izyum, Kharkiv Oblast, killed Major General Andrey Simonov. It’s yet to be confirmed by Russian sources but it’s significant they named a specific general.
Beyond that, a tank would be largely unaffected. Less well-protected vehicles, however, are extremely vulnerable to artillery at much greater distances.
The US has pledged $165million (£127million) for “non-standard” ammunition, such as 152mm artillery shells.
However, nowadays it is possible to rapidly compute where the rounds have been fired from and send shells back the other way.
On the modern battlefield, so-called counter-battery fire can arrive within three minutes.
In order to survive, military units need to keep moving and be dispersed, Mr Drummond said.
Britain is sending MAMBA, a counter-battery radar, to Ukraine. It will allow Kyiv’s troops to find and destroy Russian artillery.
Mr Drummond said if they can do that, Russia’s capability will be “completely eroded”.
Russia has self-propelled artillery based on tank hulls, such as BM-21GRAD or TOS-1. They are capable of moving fast over virtually all terrain but “are not disciplined” to move within three minutes.
“They feel they don’t need to as they don’t think the Ukrainians have the capability to hit them.”
The West is also sending modern indirect fire weapons to Ukraine, such as the Switchblade 600, a “kamikaze” loitering drone that can hunt targets then fly directly into them to detonate a warhead.
However, loitering munitions are few in number and lack the shock effect of a huge weight of firepower landing on a target in a short space of time which is the advantage of traditional artillery systems.
Western officials say the need for Ukrainian forces to be able to hit Russian targets at greater range in the battle for the Donbas is “critical”.
Ukraine has asked the US for towed M777 howitzers, M109 Paladin, a self-propelled weapon, multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and the Switchblade 600.
The M777, which was first used in combat in Afghanistan, and the older M109 are both 155mm guns, capable of hitting targets up to 30km away. The MLRS is more complex and expensive, but has greater range (standard ammunition will reach about 45km).
France has promised to supply a dozen Caesar artillery systems, a 155mm gun mounted on a 6×6 wheeled truck. Caesar has a range of 40km and the truck can roam up to 600km before refuelling, making it very versatile on the battlefield.
The Switchblade 600 drone can stay aloft for about 40 minutes, giving it a maximum range of about 40km, although this is likely to be lower as it would be used to circle an area looking for targets.
Together, these weapons should enable Ukraine’s forces to stay in the fight for the Donbas, perhaps even prevail.