There is now broad agreement among pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian sources that Ukrainian forces have broken through the preliminary defenses north of Robotyne and are very close to the first main line of Russian defenses in this area. The Ukrainian general staff suggests that Ukrainian forces are within 1,500 meters of enemy positions or less than a mile from the main defense line.
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Robotyne is located in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
Robotyne holds a key location on a highway leading to the strategic railroad hub of Tokmak, as a defensive hub in the first of four primary lines of defense.
Ukraine has penetrated all preliminary Russian defense lines north of the first main defense line and appears to be within close proximity to the main defense line along an 8- to 10-kilometer front. Since first reaching close proximity to the defense line around June 27 or 28, Ukrainian forces did not rush into an assault on the main defense line. Instead, Ukrainian forces have steadily broadened the frontage in contact with the Russian main defense line.
These advances effectively represent routes Ukraine has carved through Russian minefields, giving Ukrainian forces “roads” through which they can rapidly advance to the Russian front lines.
The advances appear to be a painstaking process.
- Small groups of Ukrainian infantry support armored mine-clearing engineering vehicles as they make their way forward through the dense minefield. Small support contingents of Bradley and Leopard fighting vehicles keep back and support the advance from long ranges. Line charges and other rapid ways to remove landmines are used as much as possible to reduce mine density beforehand.
- After an advance of a few hundred meters, Ukrainian infantry establishes forward defensive positions by digging trenches and establishing firing positions.
- Ukrainian engineers begin broadening the de-mined areas behind the newly established line of defense.
The width of each mine-cleared route matters as it determines how quickly supplies and reinforcements can be brought up from the rear, as well as the size of rearward deployment areas where troops and armored vehicles can assemble. Jam too many troops or vehicles into a condensed space and they become inviting targets for Russian artillery or missile attacks.
Ukrainian officer Tatarigami_UA describes how these issues have no easy answers. A MCLC (explosive line charge) can detonate a 100 m deep, 8 m wide area, causing most mines to explode in an instant. Russian minefields are several kilometers deep, meaning a 100 m penetration into the minefield will only advance a fraction of the way into the minefield.
Repeated use of the line charges can deepen the penetration, but when large horizontal areas require clearance, they are inadequate. Thus it appears Ukraine may be using line charges in sequence to quickly achieve deeper penetrations into Russian minefields to establish forward defensive positions—but they must rely on mine plows to widen the penetration and establish a broader avenue of advance and supply.
Part of the challenge has been that in extremely dense minefields, the plows themselves have not been as effective. During Ukraine’s initial attack south toward Robotyne, despite being lead by multiple Leopard 2Rs and a German-made Wisent mine-clearer plowing the minefield, several mines were missed by the plows, causing subsequent detonations that disabled armored vehicles following the engineers causing chaos and delays.
The three lost Leopard 2R mine-clearers represented half of those in Ukraine’s possession, but Ukraine has an estimated 50-60 Wisent mine-clearing vehicles (42 from Germany and undisclosed numbers from Norway and the Netherlands). The Leopard 2R is a mine-clearing vehicle built on a Leopard 2 chassis, whereas the Wisent uses the same plow and equipment, but on a less armored Leopard 1 chassis. Nonetheless, they are considered high-quality armored engineering vehicles.
Part of what makes Western mine plows superior is their single-plow design as opposed to the Soviet designs such as the IMR-2’s predominantly used dual-plow design.
Whereas the Western plows apply uniform pressure across the width of the wide blade, Soviet mine plows have a small “gap” in pressure where the two blades meet. In highly dense minefields, it becomes easier for Soviet mine plows to miss mines. The mines can also slip between the two tracks of the engineering vehicle only to detonate when an armored vehicle tries to advance from behind.
This is not to say that Soviet engineering vehicles are worthless, and certain Soviet designs have been refitted with a U.K.-manufactured Pearson Plough that is more or less NATO-standard. But particularly when dealing with exceptionally densely mined areas, even small additional risks or weaknesses in mine removal can be literal life and death.
some de-mining misconceptions
There have been a few misconceptions about de-mining that have popped up consistently in the comments in past articles I feel are worth addressing:
- Numerous settings can be used as a trigger for modern mines, such as magnetic resonance triggers. However, the workhorse mine that the Russian army makes the most use of is the TM-62M mine. TM-62M is generally triggered by simple pressure.
- The amount of pressure required to set off an anti-tank mine is much heavier than anti-personnel mines. An anti-tank mine requires 200-300 kilograms (400-700 pounds) of pressure to trigger.
- Bullets and small explosives do not exert enough force to set off an anti-tank mine. While bullets have a lot of penetrative power, the bullets themselves are tiny, thus exerting relatively little pressure fired at the ground. This is true even for larger auto-cannons. Machine guns or auto-cannons are unlikely to provide enough downward force to trigger an anti-tank mine.
- Cluster munitions—which primarily kill soft targets with shrapnel—also generally would not trigger anti-tank mines. The issue is similar to that of bullets.
- Thermobaric weapons or large high-explosive artillery shells can provide enough force to detonate mines in small areas, but the number of necessary explosives to clear mines through areas multiple kilometers deep is cost-prohibitive. Under certain highly specific circumstances, it may be worth doing to limited areas, but it is not a generalized solution to minefields that stretch several kilometers deep.
- A unique idea of somehow using the GAU-8 30mm Gatling gun on the A-10 Warthog as a de-mining tool was proposed in the comments, but the A-10 can only carry less than 30 seconds of ammunition, and the gun fires in short bursts. Not only is the gun unlikely to set off a high proportion of the mines in the targeted area (if any), the Warthog could only “clear” a tiny strip of ground while expending its entire supply of ammunition—and flying directly to the front, likely within the range of short-range Russian SAM batteries.
To be brief, combat engineers have given a lot of thought to how to efficiently and quickly clear mines. Mine-clearing line charges like the MCLC are works of ingenuity into which a lot of trial and error and design work went.
It is highly unlikely that there are easy solutions to this problem professionals with decades of experience grappling with these issues have not considered. That’s not to say that novel or new ideas are impossible to come up with—but without considerable expertise and a strong working knowledge of how the mines work and are deployed, it is unlikely that anyone can provide a useful “new” idea. So that leaves specialized combat de-mining equipment, like mine plows and line charges.
It is heartening that Ukraine has not only recovered many of the precious Leopard 2s and Bradleys abandoned during the initial offensive, but they have recovered the arguably even more precious Leopard 2R and Wisent mine-clearing vehicles. It’s unknown how much repair work can get them back up and running (if at all), but even a destroyed vehicle can be salvaged for spare parts for use in getting other vehicles running in the future.
Ukraine securing the area before Russian troops could fully demolish the disabled vehicles may pay dividends in the future.
Ukrainian counterbattery fire degrading Russian artillery
In 16 months of conflict, 15.7% of claimed Russian artillery losses occurred in the month between June 4 and July 3. To put that into perspective, Russian artillery losses were 2.5 times faster in June 2023 than in the prior 15 months of combat.
This is in strong contrast to Ukraine’s tactics during last year’s Kharkiv counteroffensive and the Battle of Kherson. Ukraine appears to be making heavy use of HIMARS as a counter-battery tool.
During the earlier counteroffensive of late 2022, Ukraine used HIMARS as a counterbattery weapon but often focused primarily on Russian command posts, ammunition depots, logistical hubs, and famously, bridges.
This time, while HIMARS is still used to target ammunition depots and command posts at times, many of those roles appear to have been handed off to Storm Shadow cruise missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munition glide bombs.
Instead, confirmed HIMARS strikes on Russian artillery have sharply increased.
There appear to be two major reasons for this change in tactics. First, Ukraine needed to preserve large quantities of GMLRS rockets (HIMARS ammunition) for the destruction of the three bridges across the Dnipro. GMLRS is not typically used by American forces to attack large infrastructure like bridges because the warheads are too small to cause significant damage during a bombardment by just a few rockets.
For example, Ukraine bombarded the Antonivka Road Bridge from July 19 to Aug. 31, 2022, with multiple attacks often being conducted daily. With nearly a full month and a half of persistent strikes, Ukraine rendered the bridge unusable but never fully destroyed the bridge. These attacks likely consumed a major proportion of Ukraine's available HIMARS ammunition. This was because Ukraine made up in the quantity of HIMARS strikes what they lacked in guided munitions well suited for the infrastructure attacks.
Ukraine also prioritized destroying ammunition depots as part of an interdiction campaign, thus demands for HIMARS ammunition for missions other than counterbattery fire were heavy.
Today, Ukraine has a much larger variety of long-range guided munitions. Storm Shadow and Scalp EG cruise missiles are for large-scale infrastructure. JDAM glide bombs are for targets closer to the front lines. HARM-ER missiles strike enemy radar and electronic jammers. And of course, the GMLRS-guided rockets are for the HIMARS.
Ukraine no longer needs to devote huge amounts of munitions for GMLRS rockets for repeated attacks. JDAM bombs and Storm Shadows are much better suited for such purposes.
Alleviating these ammunition constraints has permitted Ukraine to unleash the full fury of the HIMARS system’s capabilities. The HIMARS system was predominantly conceived as a counterbattery asset—that is, a system designed to destroy enemy artillery batteries. Now being used primarily for the role it was designed for, HIMARS is showing it fills that role perfectly.
A second factor aiding Ukraine in improved counterbattery fire has been improved counterbattery radar, in particular the receipt of five Hensoldt Cobra C-band and 15 Northrop Grumman/Raytheon AN/TPQ-36(V)8 Firefinder counterbattery radars in the past year.
Counterbattery radar is a specialized type of radar that determines the location of mortars, howitzers, and MLRS (rocket artillery) when they fire. The radar detects incoming shells and rockets, then uses the trajectory data to determine from where they came. This information can be relayed to friendly counterbattery assets, allowing them to destroy enemy artillery units.
Both Ukraine and Russia relied upon the Zoopark-1M artillery radar since the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Originally designed in the late 1980s during the Soviet era, the weapon’s development stalled after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the design was brought to production by Russia in 2008.
Owing to its Soviet origins, it is considered to be a somewhat dated design, more easily electronically jammed as well as struggling with radar clutter in environments heavy in obstacles. This reduces the probability of consistent detection of projectiles, but under ideal circumstances (few obstacles and good weather) the Zoopark-1M has the radar power output to detect enemy artillery up to 40 km away.
The Hensoldt Cobra radar is an upgrade to the Zoopark radar in about every possible way. With a powerful detection range of 100 km+, it is capable of setting up a safe distance from the front lines and still detecting artillery locations deep behind enemy lines, making it very difficult to destroy. Ukraine has never lost a Cobra radar in combat despite receiving its first in May 2022.
The AN/TPQ-36(V)8 Firefinder has a shorter range than the Zoopark-1M at only 35 km, but it carries the advantage of being highly mobile on a 6x6 light truck chassis and sporting an exceptionally high probability of detection from an advanced electronics suite. The Firefinder’s range has been more than adequate to detect Russian howitzers (range of 22 km) and self-propelled mortars (range of 10 km). These improvements in counterbattery radar allow Ukraine to more quickly and accurately identify the source of Russian shellfire.
Speed is of the essence since modern artillery systems operate on a concept of “shoot and scoot.” Artillery should not simply set up in a single spot and fire at the enemy for days. Artillery is intended to arrive at a location, deploy, fire several rounds, pack up, and move to a different location.
Counterbattery fire is a race between the counterbattery’s kill chain (the speed by which target identification, deployment, attack, and elimination occurs) versus the relocation speed of the artillery asset. Click here for a deeper explanation of the concept of the kill chain.
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Advanced fire control radars, communications between the radars and counterbattery assets, and precision munitions that can achieve a “one-shot kill” against an enemy target all help to improve counterbattery efficiency and speed. A Cobra radar and a HIMARS system could deliver a precision GMLRS missile on target within minutes.
In contrast, Russian artillery systems frequently struggle with counterbattery fire unless the Ukrainians get lazy and begin firing from a fixed position. Shortages in Russian precision munitions mean that Russian batteries are conducting long-ranged counterbattery fire with dumb munitions, requiring many shots (or luck) to score a hit on a battery. Many Russian counter-battery strikes are now conducted by Lancet drones, making electronic jamming and anti-drone defense crucial in artillery battles.
It should also be noted that counterbattery radar is just one method for obtaining targeting intelligence for Ukrainian batteries. Drones, manned reconnaissance forces, auditory triangulation, partisans, and other human intelligence are all other ways that targeting information can be obtained. But this may be a crucial improvement in Ukraine’s capabilities in the past six months that have helped drive improved counterbattery tactics for the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Leopard 1A5s are about to arrive—but should they go?
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced that “dozens” of Leopard 1A5 tanks will begin arriving in Ukraine within a few weeks.
The Leopard 1A5 is offensively reasonably powerful, with a dual-axis stabilized 105 millimeter gun, modern night optics, and a fully modern fire control system that allows it to hit targets up to the visual horizon. It does have some significant weaknesses:
- Its 105 mm gun is likely too weak to penetrate the frontal armor of Russia’s most modern tanks, although it should make quick work of older Russian tanks (like the T-55 or T-62) and do reasonably well against T-64s or T-72s. It should be devastating to any Russian Infantry Fighting Vehicles or Armored Personnel Carriers.
- The Leopard 1A5 has frontal armor that is just 70 mm thick, 1/10th the thickness of the Leopard 2’s frontal armor. The Leopard 1A5’s side and rear armor is just 15 mm, making it thinner than the side armor for the AMX-10 RC.
One major advantage the Leopard 1A5 offers is the ability to fire high explosive plastic rounds, also known as high explosive squash head or “squash” rounds in the British army. These specialized rounds fire soft plastic explosive rounds that “squash” against a building before detonating, turning the inner wall of the building into a cave of shrapnel highly effective at killing enemy infantry in buildings. If there is a lesson to be drawn from the first month of combat, it is probably that the southern front is absolutely the wrong place to deploy the Leopard 1A5.
The French AMX-10 RC, sometimes referred to as a “light tank,” is a 6x6 wheeled gun platform with an unstabilized 105vmm main gun. It has a steel frontal armor of 23 mm, 14.6 mm from the side, making it quite lightly armored.
The AMX-10 RC has struggled mightily in the combat south of Velyka Novosilka. Shrapnel from Russian artillery rounds penetrated the ammunition storage of an AMX-10 RC, detonating it and killing the entire crew without even a direct hit.
With the frontal armor of the Leopard 1A5 being 70 mm, around 15 mm on the sides, it has better frontal armor, but not particularly superior side or rear armor protection than the AMX-10 RC.
It has been suggested that Leopard 1s will need to take on more sniper-like roles. The Leopard 1 is much lighter at 42 tons than the 70-ton behemoths like the Leopard 2 or the Challenger 2 tanks. The Leopard 1’s high power-to-weight ratio makes it ideal for off-road maneuvers. In this it is a significant improvement over the wheeled AMX-10 RC, which has struggled to deal with rough terrain both due to its wheeled nature and its delicate gearbox.
Additionally the Leopard 1 may be useful in urban combat, where its relative disadvantage in side armor is less pronounced. Even Western tanks like the Leopard 2A4 struggle to protect their crews from close-ranged anti-tank guided missile ambushes by infantry.
The thin armored Leopard 1A5 will struggle to protect its crews from infantry ambushes in close-range urban combat scenarios. It will require dismounted infantry support to protect its flanks, and the Leopard 1 would take on a fire-support role, providing heavy firepower to help dislodge powerful enemy strong points in the urban combat zones—showing up, laying down a barrage of HESH and high explosive rounds, then withdrawing for the next support mission.
When the Leopard 2A4 and other advanced tanks would essentially need similar infantry support, the relative defensive weaknesses of the Leopard 1A5 fade by comparison. Arguably, in a close-range ambush situation amid a city, an encircled Leopard 1A5 isn’t much worse off than a Leopard 2A4—that is, it’s equally doomed.
Thus the Leopard 1A5 might be an ideal urban combat tank for Ukraine. As Ukraine would likely be reluctant to commit high-value tanks to this kind of dangerous environment for tanks, a tank that dominates enemy infantry fighting vehicles and can provide close-ranged heavy-fire support against entrenched enemy infantry can be valuable.
This type of role is typically called a “mobile gun platform,” a role for which the Leopard 1A5 might be uniquely well-suited. In urban combat, the aforementioned HESH rounds will prove to be a highly effective infantry support weapon, and relative to many other urban combat options, the Leopard 1’s defensive shortcomings appear to be similar or less.
The best place to deploy the Leopard 1A5s upon arrival may not be the hotly contested conventional battlefield of the south, but combat with more areas to hide and urban battle zones. The Leopard 1A5 is likely best suited for the eastern front around Bakhmut or Donetsk.
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