Extracted from an article in the Economist
May 3, 2022
In theory, artillery can be used to counter artillery. Counter-battery fire, as it is known, uses radar to work out the trajectory and thus the likely origin of incoming shells. The coordinates are immediately sent to friendly guns, which fire back at the source. But Russia struggled with counter-battery fire for a prosaic reason: its guns were stuck in traffic on clogged roads—recall the 40-mile convoy north-west of Kyiv—and so out of range.
Another problem was that firepower is only as good as the intelligence that directs it. In previous wars, Russia had used drones to locate the electronic emissions of enemy artillery units and target them with its own, supposedly within a minute or two. But it has struggled to do so in Ukraine. “Although the Russians had heavier artillery,” write Mr Watling and Mr Reynolds, “they lacked a good picture of where the dispersed Ukrainian positions were.” Ukraine, meanwhile, was receiving American intelligence on Russian positions.
Artillery is also vital to the Ukrainian counter-attacks that are occurring every time Russia takes a village. That is one reason why Western countries, which initially gave Ukraine mainly smaller and lighter weapons, such as Javelins and Stingers, are now providing heavier armaments, despite their initial concern that providing such aid might provoke Russia.
In recent weeks, Ukraine has received an artillery bonanza. On April 21st President Joe Biden said that America would send scores of howitzers—large artillery guns which fire six-inch-thick shells. On May 2nd an American defence official said that 70 had already been delivered; and that more than 200 Ukrainian soldiers have been trained to use them. Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia have also sent artillery or said they will. Others are thought to be doing so in secret.
Michael Jacobson, a reserve artillery colonel in the US Army, writing on War on the Rocks, a website, says that NATO’s artillery systems are more advanced, quicker to fire and more lethal than Ukraine’s existing guns. They are better at counter-battery fire, easier to repair because they have modular parts that can be swapped in and out, and straightforward to use. Colonel Jacobson notes that the French CAESAR, which is on its way to Ukraine, is “arguably the best in the world today”, alongside Sweden’s Archer.
The challenge is not just obtaining it, but also getting it to the frontlines. A 155mm artillery shell weighs around 50kg; replenishment for a dozen guns firing a couple of hundred rounds amounts to over 100 tonnes of cargo. The supply convoys that result are themselves ripe for disruption—as Russia discovered to its cost last month.