The Role of Artillery in a War Between Russia and Ukraine

Ukrainian 2S3 Akatsiya 152 mm howitzers with their crews, pictured in 2015. Courtesy of OSCE / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Artillery is likely to play a prominent role in any conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Russia’s predominance in self-propelled howitzers and ISTAR will prove decisive and may have strategic outcomes.

A conflict between Russia and Ukraine would inevitably involve extensive use of tactical artillery on both sides. This was the case in 2015 when fighting was at its most intense and, despite the improvement in ground attack capabilities of the Russian air force, it is evident that much of Russia’s lethality is retained by its artillery within the Ground Forces.

The Russian army has been characterised as an artillery army with a lot of tanks. This is because much of the Russian way of war relies on the ability of ground troops to bring their tactical and operational indirect fire systems to bear against an opponent’s forces. This means that Russia’s ability to find and target Ukraine’s forces, and Ukraine’s ability to conduct counter-battery fire missions, will likely have a decisive impact on the outcome of any conflict between the two states.

Intelligence is Everything

A counter-battery campaign, like most military endeavours, cannot be conducted without intelligence. At a top level, the Ukrainian forces might seek to first understand the opponent: what line of advance is the most serious threat, whether any forces are a diversion or a feint, and if is there a centre of gravity that can be targeted. Thereafter, in a counter-battery context, the most pressing information to gather is the location of enemy guns, as well as the enemy’s intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) assets. The former presents multiple challenges, as it may be in the defender’s benefit to absorb some attrition, driving the enemy to unmask more guns, before conducting their own counter-battery fires. This is one of the critical components of counter-battery missions: the need to destroy enemy systems is balanced by the need to find and understand them, and every action will likely lead to an additional counter-battery reaction. Because of this, Ukraine will have to carefully martial its own artillery, with a near-equal focus on survivability and lethality, if it is to draw Russian forces into the kind of protracted conflict that would run counter to the Kremlin’s interests.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) will also provide vital aerial intelligence in support of targeting functions, likely with assistance from counter-battery radars. Ukraine has developed and deployed its own radars in this role, including the Zoopark 3, which provides a range of ‘several dozens of kilometres’ and a 180-degree coverage. In addition, the US has supplied a total of 13 counter-battery radars, including the AN/TPQ-36 Firefinder and AN/TPQ-49 lightweight counter-mortar radars. All three radars are used to identify artillery munitions in the air and trace the path of the projectile back to the likely position of the guns or launcher. These systems may be supplemented by the Polozhennya-2, an acoustic detection system designed to provide data on the noise generated when an artillery system fires. The Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) will have an advantage in their terrain appreciation; they should know the likely approaches and what ground Russian forces will be able to traverse. This may enable them to assign counter-battery assets to specific sectors based on the potential risk, however, the Russian forces are also likely to conduct their own terrain appreciation and adjust their approaches based on the likely areas selected by the UAF.

The UAF must carefully manage and preserve their limited resources, choosing opportune moments to fight counter-battery battles that will impact the outcome of the war

Despite efforts to improve capabilities in this area, however, the UAF will likely struggle to cover the entire area of operations in the event of a conflict, as they lack the radars to do so. Furthermore, Russian forces have shown the ability to jam or spoof radars with limited electronic warfare (EW) capabilities in past engagements. If the current situation escalates into more general Russian involvement, they are unlikely to limit the use of EW, and may be able to exert greater effects against Ukrainian radars. This leads to a further challenge facing the UAF: data sharing. Time is critical to counter-battery fires as both sides will be aware of the dangers incurred by remaining in place for too long after unmasking their guns. To ensure targeting data is transmitted in a timeframe that matters, the UAF will need to take steps to protect their communications and simplify the transfer of data.

It is understood that the UAF are relatively resilient in their communications practices, having developed them based on the experience of 2014–2015. This has included the delivery of digital radios from L3 Harris and Aseslan that are more resistant to jamming than the Soviet radios they used at the time. Nonetheless, Russian EW and kinetic targeting would likely be capable of degrading the communications networks that are essential in sharing counter-battery targeting data and suppressing or reducing the UAF’s fleet of UAVs, even if only for short periods of time. All of this together heightens the task facing the UAF: they must carefully manage and preserve their limited resources, choosing opportune moments to fight counter-battery battles that will impact the outcome of the war.

Artillery Wins Wars

The UAF have a considerable artillery park, including 36 2S19 Msta-S 152 mm self-propelled howitzers (SPH), the Cold War-era 2S7 Pion – a 203 mm howitzer originally designed to deliver tactical nuclear payloads – and the 2S5 Hyacinth SPH, as well as a range of rocket artillery, including a battalion each of the BM-30 Smerch and BM-27 Uragan. These assets are concentrated in Ukraine’s separate artillery brigades and regiments, and its older mechanised infantry formations are equipped with the 2S3 Akatsiya SPH. The newer motorised infantry formations, however, are reliant to a large extent on towed guns such as the 152 mm D-20 or Msta-B, a towed version of the self-propelled 2S19. The towed guns take several minutes to emplace, and several minutes to make ready for movement. They require a truck or vehicle to be brought into position to tow them away, and ammunition to be either unloaded or reloaded into the supporting vehicle. This time delay creates a critical vulnerability for Ukraine’s artillery forces: those that are equipped only with towed howitzers will be at a distinct disadvantage in a counter-battery context, as they will lack the speed to reposition at short notice.

The UAF’s self-propelled assets themselves are mixed in their capabilities. Some – the 2S3 Akatsiya in particular – have a relatively short effective range of 17 km when firing standard ammunition, compared with 24 km for the Msta-S, which is found more widely in Russian forces. Further complexity is added by the need for ammunition, likely at an operational level, which enables a counter-battery campaign to be sustained for the duration of a conflict. There are also questions over the condition of Ukraine’s gun tubes, as it is not clear that an effective source of replacement barrels exists for the UAF. The availability of guns, ammunition, and mobility of certain systems will have to be balanced with the need to conduct a very aggressive and violent counter-battery campaign. To be successful, the UAF 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. They will also have to position their guns carefully, ensuring that they are within easy reach of operational ammunition reserves, while maintaining a sensible distance from likely Russian gun emplacements.

To be successful, the UAF 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

Hide and Seek

Survivability in the initial stages of a conflict may be impacted significantly by the ability of the UAF to hide their positions from UAV observation and reduce emissions to prevent detection by EW assets. Foundational soldiering skills, such as making efforts to remove vehicle tracks approaching a hide and creating dummy positions, are critical to successful camouflage and concealment efforts. It is likely that the UAF understand the need for digging and preparing gun positions, as the lessons of 2014–15 have been well-ingrained into the force. However, it is worth noting that Azeri familiarity with Armenian positions in 2020, and a lack of care around concealment, likely aided the Azeri forces in finding and striking targets.

The availability of camouflage netting – particularly types capable of obscuring multi-spectral observation, such as the solutions provided by Saab – could improve levels of survivability, and challenge the Russian ability to detect targets from the air. While it would not represent a perfect solution, nor would it prevent all attrition, it would complicate the ability of Russian reconnaissance units to understand the target, and to conduct engagements.

Tactical Fires, Strategic Results

If Russia does push its forces into Ukraine, the success of the UAF may, in the end, hinge on their ability to destroy Russian guns. Preserving the strength of their artillery forces will require the UAF to carefully balance and maintain the available stocks of ammunition, work hard to conceal and disperse their gun positions, and prosecute any counter-counter-battery missions with extreme aggression. They will have to strive to maintain their communications networks and the logistics assets needed to keep their forces in the field, all of which will likely be targeted by Russian units before and during any large movements of armoured forces.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Sam Cranny-Evans

Associate Fellow

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