Anyone paying any attention at all to the war between Ukraine and Russia has undoubtedly noticed the emphasis on artillery in all reports from the region. At Foreign Policy, Lucian Staiano-Daniels examines the state of artillery power in the war, and what it means. He concludes:
As the current war in Ukraine demonstrates, an army that is unable or unwilling to invest in its manpower must compensate with something else. This was one of the reasons the 18th- and 19th-century tsarist armies focused on firepower. The Russian army of today has made a similar decision.
Even before any choice is made, this use of massed heavy artillery carries the danger that civilians will be harmed. Russian doctrine uses massed fire in addition to precision munitions because a conventional round is cheap and cannot be jammed but also because their artillery theorists believe that massed fire carries a mathematical probability of kill with which tactical success can be predicted statistically—without ever seeing the target. An indiscriminate effect has been priced into Russian artillery norms from the beginning and the way this army conceptualizes the use of these norms.
During Russia’s second war in Chechnya, a consensus emerged among the Russian leadership that massive devastation and civilian fatalities were acceptable if they preserved Russian troops. Firepower was encouraged not only in order to limit Russia’s own casualties, which had been a sucking wound during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, but also as a show of force. The recent war in Syria reinforced this trend.
These city-cracking guns are brutal. Recalling walking through Grozny in February 2000, the BBC’s Andrew Harding described the city as having been “flattened totally, block by block, ruthlessly, efficiently, deliberately.”
Yet structural weakness and apparent poor training can vitiate any advantage these big guns are supposed to provide. Before this war began, observers already expected a war between Ukraine and Russia to involve a lot of artillery. But serious weaknesses are now apparent in the way the Russian army is fielding its firepower. Its artillery strikes have been poorly directed, not agile enough to do effective counterbattery fighting and sluggishly responsive.
To be sure, after its astonishingly bad performance at the beginning of this war, the Russian army has been learning and improving. Its old emphasis on artillery is beginning to show again, and the war has now settled into a series of artillery duels, in which success will depend on the accuracy and power of each side’s big guns. The Russian army not only has more big guns than Ukraine’s, but it has also been making local progress by focusing overpowering artillery strength in small areas.
But Ukraine and Russia draw on the same military traditions. Ukrainian artillery is also good, and their fire control system is excellent. As one observer wrote in February before the invasion, “To be successful, the [Ukrainian armed forces] will have to inflict significant artillery losses on the Russian forces throughout their depth and degrade their ability to fight the kind of war that Russian forces prefer”—and they have done so.
Russia has been using up about 50,000 rounds a day; although Ukraine cannot match this, eventually Russia’s big guns will wear out. Russian infrastructure and manufacturing are in terrible shape, and I do not believe local tactical improvements can overcome this. Sanctions mean that factories cannot get needed materials. A lack of available manufacturing can be inferred from the vast numbers of Soviet-era tanks and guns that the modern Russian army fields, as counted by open-source research blogs such as Oryx.
Given the probable weakness in Russian manufacturing, every artillery piece or big gun that wears out or is destroyed is one the Russians cannot replace.
Ukraine has also been consuming ammunition at an awesome rate; it is receiving replacements from its allies, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested aid in the form of long-range ordnance. (One interesting result of Ukraine’s present alliances may be a future shift not only to a synthesis of Soviet-influenced and Western artillery norms but also to the use of Western ordnance.) The current phase of the war may be decided by the wear on Russian and Ukrainian artillery and how many shells the Russians have stockpiled.
Russian artillery doctrines are not a remnant from World War II frozen in time but part of a tradition that emphasizes great firepower and technological innovation that is both centuries-old and informed by experience in Russia’s recent wars. If the Russian army is facing a long, grim fight in Ukraine now, it’s not because massed, indiscriminate fire is archaic but because Putin so thoroughly botched the beginning of this war.
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