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 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.
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. 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.
Comment: Illia Ponomarenko writes further to offer a critical appraisal of the Ukrainian force’s continued weakness in the artillery war, notably in counter-battery fire. While Ukrainian artillery has a good integrated system in its Kropyva artillery application, the counter-battery radars don’t appear to be well integrated into this system, if at all.
Beyond this, Ponomarenko points out “remains largely problematic, mainly due to the lack of effective top-level organization.” There are no artillery commands in the Army or at any of the operational fronts. He feels there should be an artillery brigade of four battalions at each front dedicated to the counter-battery mission. These brigades, and all Ukrainian artillery, needs improved communications and a separate field of artillery intelligence encompassing the counter-battery radars, more and better forward observer teams and “high-flying drone[s] flying back from the enemy lines 50-100 kilometers with sideways-looking sensors to identify artillery positions and movement.” I don’t know if the Ukrainian Army will move towards what Ponomarenko suggests, but the pieces are certainly there to make improvements.
As a young Infantry lieutenant, I went through one of these artillery support transitions. When I got to the 25th Infantry Division, we had organic forward observers (FOs) for our mortar section. We would then be augmented by FOs for every different artillery or air fire support available. Then we lost our organic mortar FOs to the artillery battalions and were assigned fire support teams (FST) trained in calling for any type of fire support available. These teams were directed at the battalion level by a dedicated staff fire support officer. It was a great improvement, especially since our former mortar section FOs were part of our dedicated FST. We lost nothing and gained much. Imagine if we had reconnaissance drones back then.