The US and UK have agreed to send Ukraine several medium-range missile systems despite continuing threats and warnings from Russia about the consequences of continued Western support in general – and supply of these weapons in particular.
Since the first world war, when shelling accounted for more than 60% of casualties on the western front, artillery has dominated the battlefield. For decades, the Soviet Union and then Russia based their ground forces doctrine around guns and rocket systems blanketing the combat zone with explosives and shrapnel. Other combat arms acted to support artillery, rather than the other way round.
Artillery remains Russia’s “god of war.” The Russians have used their greater numbers in rocket launchers and guns to blast their way through Ukrainian towns, cities and defenses.
The ability to hit a target, or saturate it with explosives when required, not only has an obvious destructive power; it is also deeply damaging to enemy morale. Steve Weiss, who served as an infantryman in the second world war and endured far too much artillery, said that this scene from the television series Band of Brothers comes closest to capturing its terrifying effect.
Until now, the Russians have not only had a preponderance of guns and rocket systems; they have also been able to out-range their Ukrainian opponents. Range is of huge significance to artillerymen. The greatest threat to artillery is other artillery used in a “counter-battery” role.
So crews are trained to move very quickly (“bug out”) from a firing position as soon as a “fire mission” is completed on a target. They know that enemy radar-ranging equipment (which tracks shells back to their source) will be calculating a fix on them. If the enemy’s guns have a greater range than yours, the situation is simple – they can hit you, but you can’t hit them.
It is worth looking at this clip showing what the Ukrainians do here to a Russian thermobaric rocket launcher. Notice that the Russian launcher is destroyed with a single, probably drone-guided shell or missile.
A traditional artillery counter-battery fire mission would have involved dozens of rounds which would certainly have killed the Russian journalist in that clip.
As with air power, the use of artillery is changing from a weapon that relied on saturation to be sure of destroying a target, to a precision instrument. To work efficiently, gunners need not only to be able to locate their target using reconnaissance – usually provided nowadays by drones or aircraft – but also to hit it with as few rounds as possible. Why use 50 shells when one will do?
The use of artillery is notoriously logistics-heavy. More shells mean more trucks, a great deal more effort and many more potential logistics problems. For any army – particularly the Russians, whose army is not built for operations with any kind of extended supply lines – this is difficult.
Ukraine’s growing armory
These vital factors of precision and range are why the Ukrainian army is desperate to get hold of as many precise longer-range guns and rocket systems as possible. It was very pleased to get hold of 90 excellent M777 guns from the US plus a few more from Canada, which are already proving effective.
But no system is more formidable than the HIMARS (High Mobility Rocket Artillery System). This is descended from a previous, similar M 270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (or MLRS) – some of which the UK has announced it will donate to Ukraine.
The reason the Ukrainians were so vocal in their efforts to get these systems was to reach positions farther behind Russian lines than the guns they presently have. Some of the many versions of HIMARS rockets have ranges of up to 300km.
The Americans are very conscious of the messages that any long-range system sends, especially the HIMARS, and are reluctant to provide very long-range ammunition. Accordingly Ukraine will not be getting the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) with ranges up to 190 miles, which might tempt Ukrainian army commanders to go after supply bases or headquarters in Russia itself.
The degree of Russian displeasure at this possibility was recently indicated by the first cruise missile strikes on Kiev for five weeks, accompanied by threats from Vladimir Putin to the effect that there would be more of the same if such supplies continued.
The M30 and M31 rockets the Ukrainians are likely to be given to fire from the HIMARS and MLRS have shorter but still considerable ranges – in excess of 40 miles. This makes the HIMARS a very formidable addition to their armory.
The most recent donations by the US and others of artillery include equally crucial enablers, such as counter-artillery radars, capable of identifying the locations of enemy guns and rocket launchers with speed and accuracy.
As for the numbers being donated, only four HIMARS and around the same number of UK MLRS are being given for now. In the long run, it is not clear how many missiles the UK will supply, although a defense spokesman stated that it would be “at scale,” presumably meaning a lot.
These MLRS and HIMARS will not win the war on their own. Ukraine’s army will need a great deal more of the same – plus tanks, drones, aircraft and many other less glamorous systems and equipment, such as trucks and tank transporters – to ensure success for their counteroffensives later in the summer.
That said, their new gun and rocket artillery is very good news for the Ukrainian army – and very bad news indeed for Russians.
Frank Ledwidge is a senior lecturer in military strategy and law at the University of Portsmouth. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.