Ukraine’s Artillery Ups Its Game

Western weapons have enabled Ukrainian forces to hit Russian ammunition depots, tilting the balance on the battlefield.

Ukraine’s Artillery Ups Its Game

Western weapons have enabled Ukrainian forces to hit Russian ammunition depots, tilting the balance on the battlefield.

A Ukrainian tank crews take part in a training exercise with infantrymen on May 09, 2022 near Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian tank crews take part in a training exercise with infantrymen on May 09, 2022 near Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Ukraine. © John Moore/Getty Images
Monday, 15 August, 2022

A ticking engine sound is audible among the trees, somewhere on the frontline of Ukraine’s war against Russian invasion. A Ukrainian artillery unit is manoeuvring a German-built Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled gun, searching for a hiding place. When the gun commander gets the target coordinates, the unit will quickly take the gun to the position, set up, fire and leave the spot straight away. 

The unit’s task was urgent as Russia’s drones roam the skies along the frontline throughout the day, scanning forests, roads, villages and bushes to identify any heavy weaponry among the greenery. 

“To avoid drones, one must learn to prepare the fire at night, choose positions in inconspicuous locations and have good camouflage,” Petro Shevchenko,, a journalist-turned-artillery operator told IWPR. “You will hear the drones. The sound is unnatural. If you hear one, you’d better not move until it disappears completely.”

While artillery had a complementary role in the first months of Russia’s full-scale - planned by the Kremlin as a swift, focused attack leading to a quick victory and limiting their military losses – it has come into its own in recent months.

“It was manoeuvre warfare, without a frontline,” said Oleh Katkov, editor-in-chief of the Defence Express pubblication. “Battles in close contact, destroying military columns of Russian forces, ambushes, and battles for Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Mykolaiv. Artillery was a supplementary player when the enemy was localised and intended to attack for the second time in a battle.”

Up until April, Ukraine had sufficient ammunition and its pilots and anti-aircraft missiles successfully downed Russian jets, damaging the enemy air force. 

But through late spring and early summer, Russia concentrated its attacks in the northern areas of the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, opting for a land grab in the east rather than fighting an uncertain battle from the air. Russia succeeded in capturing Ukraine’s eastern cities of Slovyansk, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, as it outgunned Ukraine: Russian troops fired between 3,000 and 5,000 bullets and missiles at just a single section of the frontline every day.

“Russia then switched to their only strategy of firewall because they had no deficit in ammunition and artillery systems,” Katkov told IWPR. 

According to Military Balance, a database of global weapons compiled by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2021 Russia could count on 2,400 artillery machines, of which 2,100 were self-propelled. The figure for Ukraine was 1,200 artillery devices, not including mortars, with half of them self-propelled. Figures also showed that the Russian army had 3,500 rocket launch systems versus Ukraine’s 1,700. 

In May the balance started to shift as the Ukrainian armed forces received a few critical artillery supplies. On May 9, Ukraine started using the US-made M777 howitzer, a weapon between a cannon and a mortar with a firing range between 24 and 30 kilometres. In June, Germany transferred 12 Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled guns. The German ammunition, noted defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov, was the sixth type of 155-mm artillery supplied to Ukraine, adding to Polish self-propelled gun-howitzer AHS Krab and French self-propelled howitzer CAESAR. 

The 16 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) Kyiv received between June and early August allowed its forces to reach targets far beyond the frontline. The light multiple rocket launcher, developed by the US army in the late 1990s, has a firing range of up to 300 kilometres. Even though the system were stripped of its most sophisticated software before being handed over, it boosted Ukraine’s fortunes. 

The long-range ammunition allowed its forces to hit strategic targets: on July 12, HIMARS destroyed a Russian ammunition depot in the southern city of Nova Kakhovka and the Antonivskyi bridge, used for supplying Russian forces in the strategic southern Kherson region. On July 26, a Russian base was targeted in the occupied eastern town of Kadiivka in the Luhansk region and on August 8, Ukrainians hit Russian bases in the occupied south-eastern city of Melitopol.   

According to a tally by Ukraine’s defence ministry, at least 50 ammunition depots were hit by July 25. That month, the system was used to strike command-and-control nodes, logistical networks, field artillery and air defences deep behind enemy lines. 

For Reznikov, they became a “game-changer”. US defence secretary Lloyd Austin stated that Ukrainian forces had been using the HIMARS “so effectively” that the weapons made “such a difference on the battlefield”.  The US will provide additional rockets for HIMARS launchers as part of a forthcoming one billion US dollars military assistance package to Ukraine, the Pentagon said on August 8. 

TIME TO HIDE

The new weapons struck more than physical targets: they also hit Russian forces’ knowledge. Their troops did not know that Ukraine could reach targets deep in occupied territory. Kyiv used to have only Soviet self-propelled rocket launcher BM-30 Smerch and missile systems Tochka-U with limited range and precision. As Russian ammunition depots are located in urban settlements, hitting them with imprecise Soviet weapons could cause large civilian losses. 

Katkov estimates that each depot had approximately 20,000 pieces of ammunition.

“You can be a brilliant and professional military strategist with a master gun. But it is not enough if you only have one gun and your enemy has ten. There are many guns with many weapons because Russians’ tactic is a horde, they overtake with a vast number,” he explained. 

Katkov noted that the added value to the HIMARS has been Ukrainian intelligence officers. 

“HIMARS is an excellent system that hits with a deviation from the aiming point half a metre or two. But to get to the right coordinates, these coordinates must be found - and this is the work of intelligence. Their experience, drones and counter battery radars met HIMARS, and the mission was successfully completed,” the analyst said, adding that Russia still had thousands of artillery systems waiting in its depots. 

“Meanwhile the quantity of western artillery systems Ukraine receives is limited. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, western allies have transferred less than 200,” Katkov continued. 

Reznikov has stressed that Kyiv needs more HIMARS and ammunition. Ukraine has succeeded in effectively slash the number of Russia’s ammunition. If its air force achieves further advantage, the country’s forces will have more power for a breakthrough. For now, Ukraine’s advance remains slow. 

“We work as best as we can. The weapons given to us are made according to NATO standards,” Katkov said. “They are better, long-range and more precise. Ukrainians adopted NATO’s tactic cornerstones. We have already localised the battlefield in Kherson by destroying transport arteries. We have built all the conditions to make a really effective counteroffensive, but it won't happen in a day, two or three. It will take more time.” 

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