Joseph Stalin supposedly once called artillery “the God of War.” Regardless of the historicity of the comment, it gets at a certain truth about the Russian and Soviet armies since well before the time of Napoleon: Artillery has been, and continues to be, the backbone of the Russian army.
In Wednesday’s Ukraine Update, I suggested there were concrete signs that counterbattery fire and 16 months of conflict were degrading the capabilities of Russia’s artillery. Yet it was difficult to explain my confidence in this belief without a full accounting of the background and known facts about Russian artillery that show this to be true.
There are growing signs that Russia has already fallen back to its last practical artillery option, and likely has no backup plan. Russia’s relative disadvantage may get considerably worse if Ukraine receives cluster munitions, as was reported Thursday.
RELATED STORY: Ukraine Update: Ukraine's counterbattery radar advantage
Russia has many different types of artillery, but it’s really just two primary systems that are capable of producing artillery bombardment in volume: 152 millimeter howitzers and 122 mm mortars. The exceptions are either too few to have any strategic effect, and/or have sharply limited ammunition supplies.
2S19 Msta-S (152 mm self-propelled Howitzer)
The “S” denotes “self-propelled.” The armored self-propelled Msta-S was the workhorse of the Russian army throughout 2022, supplying mobile firepower. Over 800 units were in service at the start of the war.
2A65 Msta-B (152 mm towed Howitzer)
The “B” denotes a towed artillery unit. The gun is identical to the type used in the Msta-S, but this is a truck-towed version of the gun. Russia had 250 units in service and several hundred in storage.
2S5 Giatsini-S (152 mm self-propelled Howitzer)
A mid-Soviet era design self-propelled howitzer that was supposed to be replaced by the 2S19 Msta-S, but remains in service. Different engine and armor protection and targeting optics but functionally similar. There were 141 in active service at the start of the war.
2S3 Akatsiya (152 mm self-propelled Howitzer)
An older, mid-Cold War self-propelled howitzer was supposed to be replaced by the 2S5 Giatsini-S and the 2S19 Msta-S; though they have different engine and armor protection as well as targeting optics, they’re functionally similar. About 800 units were active at the start of the conflict, with hundreds also in storage.
2S23 Nona-SVK/2S9 Nona-S (120 mm self-propelled mortar)
Army and VDV (airborne) version of an armored self-propelled mortar. Considered highly modern, but only a combined 80-90 units are active.
2S34 Chosta (120 mm self-propelled mortar)
Older, mid-Soviet era self-propelled mortar; there were around 70 in active service at the start of the war.
2B16 Nona-K/2B11 2S12 Sani (120 mm towed mortars)
Towed versions of 120 mm mortars. Over 700 units were active at the start of the war.
2S1 Gvozdika (122 mm self-propelled Howitzer)
Russia started the war with over 200 units of these self-propelled howitzers active in the Russian army. However, Russia planned to phase out the 122 mm howitzers for many years, thus production of artillery shells for the Gvozdika had long since been discontinued. Any production of 122 mm howitzer shells is considered to be so small as to be insignificant. Russia continues to rely on pre-war stockpiles that are of uncertain quality due to age.
2S4 Tyulipan (240mm self-propelled mortar)
This early Cold War era self-propelled mortar features one of the largest shells in the Russian army, but setting up the mortar reportedly takes well over half an hour: The massive shells must be reloaded manually, which takes a full minute. Disassembling the mortar for travel takes another 10-15 minutes. Thus, setting up, firing three or four rounds, then changing locations can take almost a full hour, making it extremely slow and vulnerable to counterbattery fire. Only 60 were in active service at the start of the war.
2S7 Pion/2S7 Maika (203 mm self-propelled Howitzer)
Although these are powerful units with a long range and powerful shells, Russia only has an estimated 33 units active in Ukraine; due to an “insignificant” monthly production of shells, the Maika are not considered a strategic threat.
This is only a sampling of the tube artillery that Russia has in active service. A number of other older towed 152 mm and 122 mm howitzers and 120 mm mortars are also in use, but the above weapon systems have seen the most active combat in the Russo-Ukrainian War.
These can be further broken down into five categories:
- 152 mm howitzers: These self-propelled guns number close to 1,000 units in service, along with numerous towed varieties.
- 120 mm mortars: There were less than 200 self-propelled units in service at the start of the war, along with nearly 1,000 towed units.
- 122 mm howitzers: Relatively few units still in service. Without a ready supply of ammunition, Russia is reliant entirely on existing stocks. This weapon remains in significant use, but the state of stocks is unknown.
- 240 mm mortar: Only a few dozen units in service.
- 203 mm howitzer: Not only are there very few active units, very little ammunition production still ongoing.
From this rundown, it becomes clear that there are only two sources of “volume” artillery possible for Russia: 152 mm howitzers and 120 mm mortars. Russia lacks the number of units to provide volume fire support from any other tube artillery system.
Of these two, Russia leaned hard on the 152 mm artillery at the start of the conflict. Many military experts noted that with more advanced counterbattery radars consistently and more quickly detecting firing locations of artillery units, the amount of time any given artillery piece can safely be set up and fire has gotten shorter and shorter.
In this, self-propelled guns have a dramatic advantage in speed over their towed counterparts as far as setting up and reassembling the unit from a firing position.
Many Western military experts predict that the Russo-Ukrainian War may be proving that towed artillery units are overly vulnerable and are reaching obsolescence. Thus, Russia would appear to have been well prepared for a major conflict, with around 1,200 self-propelled 152 mm artillery units.
These big guns, with a range of over 20 kilometers, would prove devastating with their bombardments. Russia assembled massive batteries of guns during the battle of Severodonetsk, preventing Ukrainian units from forming concentrations to counterattack by simply bombarding any unit concentrations into submission and dispersal.
The imprecise targeting required massive expenditures of artillery shells and wanton destruction of the surrounding towns, villages, and cities, but proved difficult to stop—at least over shorter distances.
However, this was achieved by burning through around 20,000 152 mm artillery shells daily. This would require many howitzers to fire dozens, even over 100, shells a day to sustain this level of firepower. This posed two longer-term problems for Russia.
First, Russian artillery shell production has been estimated at around 733,000 shells per year (2,000 shells per day) at the very highest, or most conservative level. The Jamestown Foundation, an American-based European security think tank, created that estimate by projecting from publicly available revenue information from Russia’s artillery shell manufacturers. Many other projections estimate far lower production totals of around 700 per day, which would represent a fraction of the totals Russia was using.
This likely explains how Russia managed to burn through ammunition stocks—believed to be in the millions of shells—in a bit more than a year.
Russia may be alleviating these ammunition concerns through arms imports. Russian bloggers like Rybar claimed that Russia was importing large quantities of 152 mm ammunition from Iran, but these claims are not considered credible.
The reason this claim is met with incredulity is because Iran has a radically different military philosophy than Russia. Iran has only 30 pieces of 152 mm artillery in its arsenal, relying instead on rocket artillery and drones. Thus the idea that Iran would have a significant stockpile of 152 mm ammunition that could supply Russia’s needs for any length of time simply defies logic.
A much bigger potential source of 152 mm artillery ammunition could be found in North Korea, but U.S. intelligence does not believe Russia is purchasing bulk quantities of the ammunition from North Korea for a simple reason: quality, or a lack thereof.
In 2010, North Korean artillery units launched a brief but intense bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island that killed four people. However, intelligence analysts suggest that only 80 out of 300-400 howitzers managed to hit their targets—a miserable success rate. It was suggested that poor and inconsistent manufacturing quality of the propellant in the 152 mm shells caused drastic accuracy problems, which would likely affect Russian artillery units equally. This likely explains why it is believed that Russia has purchased predominantly small arms ammunition from North Korea.
The remaining wildcard is China. There have been unconfirmed rumors that Chinese 152 mm shells have been found to be in use by Russian troops. North Korean forces also likely have stockpiles of Chinese 152 mm shells, and China could send those shells to Russia itself.
China has 500 Type 66 152 mm howitzers in service that use the same shells as the Russian 152 mm howitzers. But political pressure from the United States and a fear of economic sanctions that could adversely affect the already flagging Chinese economy have kept China thus far from overtly providing much direct material aid to Russia’s war efforts (which China seems to have little care for).
However, regardless of the ammunition situation, Russia has another problem: replacement barrels. High-quality artillery barrels can withstand firing 2,000-3,000 shots, sometimes more. Poor quality barrels can burst after just 1,000 rounds or fewer.
When Russian 152 mm howitzers are being called to lay down a few dozen rounds per day, they may require a new barrel after a month or two, or as little as every couple of weeks. At a firing rate of 20,000 rounds per day, Russia may be replacing as many as eight to 10 barrels daily. Russia may have needed around 3,000-4,000 replacement barrels per year, or somewhere around 6,000 barrels since the start of the conflict.
The problem for Russia is that domestic barrel production is likely extremely low. In the early 2000s, shortly after Putin came to power, the Russian economy remained in a prolonged slump dating back to the collapse of the Soviet Union; the Russian GDP had fallen from $554 billion in 1988 to just $195 billion by 1999. The Russian military was hard-hit by the budget cuts, with Russian officers going unpaid for months during the 1990s, leading to a culture of endemic corruption.
Motovilikha Plants in Perm and Barrikady in Volgograd Oblast are the only artillery barrel-making manufacturing plants remaining in Russia, which already limits production. Additionally, those factories need military-grade steel alloys to manufacture replacement barrels.
Putin chose to make a series of military reforms aimed at addressing the budget shortfalls of the Russian army, with a clear aim of maintaining the size of the Russian army at the expense of other aspects of Russian military readiness.
Among the sacrifices? Russia’s military-grade steel manufacturers. Russia had been subsidizing strategically important industries that could not otherwise compete with Western manufacturing, like electronic components, or small-batch high-quality military-grade steel.
Steel alloys come in many grades, but military-grade steel requires certain hardness ratings, as measured by the Brinell Hardness Test rating, which is two to three times higher than commonly used commercial steel.
This hardness is achieved through specialized manufacturing processes that introduce various alloys, and it’s generally manufactured in small, specialized batches. These specialized steel alloys are generally three to four times more expensive than their ordinary commercial counterparts.
However, they have broad military applications: They are being used in artillery barrels, armored vehicles, body armor, and more. They cannot be substituted with ordinary bulk steel without catastrophically weakening the result.
After Putin’s reforms cut off subsidized and “unprofitable” Russian military industries to cut costs, Russia’s military-grade steel industry essentially died entirely.
As Novoya Gazeta reported in November:
“Russia’s metal industry is dead,” our source says. “When a competition for barrel blanks was announced, all the samples put up for it turned out to be defective. The special thing about the new barrels is that they must withstand greater pressure, that is, be more durable. This requires special alloys and melting modes, as well as small-sized furnaces. The thing is: Russia’s metallurgy is focused on large volumes and mass grades of steel.
Russia initially made up for its lack of domestic production by importing high-grade military steel from Europe and Japan. However, with sanctions restricting their access to military-grade steel since 2014, Russia has had a serious problem obtaining the raw materials necessary for the production of any barrels of any kind. India and China primarily deal in large-scale industrial commercial steel production, and military-grade steel production is aimed at domestic military use with very little available for export, if any. North Korea is not known for its specialized steel alloy exports.
For example, Russia intended to replace the Msta-S 152 mm howitzer with the new 2S35 Koalitsiya-SV by the mid-2010s, tet it only was able to manufacture 12 units. The primary issue was a lack of military steel—an issue that also plagued Russia’s ability to produce the T-14 Armata tank.
Russia very likely has run through any stock of replacement barrels it may have stockpiled, and also has likely been keeping its 152 mm artillery fielded by cannibalizing parts from older towed howitzers.
The Royal United Services Institute noted that a lack of 152 mm ammunition and replacement barrels was driving a shift from a primary reliance on 152 mm howitzers to increasing use of mortars to replace shortfalls in firepower. This mirrors reports from the front lines, such as Ukrainian officer Tatarigami_UA, who noted an overall shift in Russian tactics in February, when Russian units began operating with a greater emphasis on mortars. This also follows reports that 152 mm artillery usage had dropped by 75% or more.
Furthermore, it was noted that Oryx verified losses of Russian artillery had always been predominantly 152 mm artillery as the most commonly used artillery unit until May and June, when it was surpassed by 122 mm howitzers and 120 mm mortars. This likely represents a significant drop-off in the number of 152 mm artillery being deployed, also suggesting the increasing reliance on mortars is real.
This shift to an emphasis on mortars has three major issues for Russia.
- 120 mm mortars range from 5-10 km in range, in contrast to 152 mm howitzers’ ranges beyond 20 km. This closer proximity makes mortar units more vulnerable to counterbattery fire.
- Russian supplies of self-propelled mortars are very small, only about 100 vehicles in total. The vast majority of Russian heavy mortars are of the towed variety, with crews that are far more vulnerable to counterbattery fire.
- Iran only has about 100 120 mm mortars (HM16/RAZM mortars), and thus may not have a large stockpile of shells it can export.
For example, the Russians' deployment of the massive 240 mm 2S4 Tyulpan mortar was seen as a fearsome development in Bakhmut, where Ukrainian forces had been restricted from using guided munitions earlier in the spring. However, many military analysts see it as a move of desperation.
The Tyulpan takes around 25 minutes to deploy. It takes a full minute to reload, and another 15 minutes to disassemble and move. It also takes a crew of nine well-trained artillery men to operate. Tt could take close to an hour for a Tyulpan to fire seven to eight rounds and be ready to move again.
By contrast, the Paladin self-propelled artillery used by the Ukrainian army can be deployed for firing in a single minute. It can quickly fire eight rounds in another minute, then be ready to move within 30 seconds. The whole process takes under three minutes. The Paladins are crewed by only four soldiers.
Every minute an artillery piece stays in position is another minute its position can be identified by drone or counterbattery radar. Ukraine’s frequent use of HIMARS in a counterbattery role often means that a guided missile could be on its way to an artillery piece minutes after firing.
In this environment a Tyulpan stands little chance, which may explain why Russia did not deploy these units consistently into combat in significant numbers until May. In about six weeks, Oryx has recorded 13 destroyed Tyulpan 240 mm mortars. Each destroyed Tyulpan likely represents a loss of nine precious, well-trained artillerymen who Russia will have to replace.
The deployment of the Tyulpan, first introduced into the Red Army in 1959, arguably represents desperation by the Russian army for any artillery unit it can use to keep Russian firepower at sufficient levels. It represents a separation no less than throwing its contemporary tanks, like T-62s and T-55s, into the front lines.
Given Russia’s relatively few numbers of self-propelled mortars, if Russia is forced to rely on slow-deploying towed heavy mortars, then Russian artillery specialists will likely experience higher casualties and be degraded further.
Russia does not appear to have a long-term source of 120 mm mortar shells or replacement barrels it can readily obtain any more than 152 mm howitzers. However, as 120 mm mortars were not depleted already, they have become Russia’s weapon of choice by default.
In effect, Russia’s artillery arm most likely has its back against the wall. It is throwing 1959-era siege mortars into a modern battlefield that requires shoot-and-scoot tactics. Those guns are predictably being destroyed at a rapid clip. Russian towed mortar crews are also slow to deploy and highly vulnerable to counterbattery fire, being virtually unprotected even from shrapnel.
Lacking any significant source of military-grade steel, it is difficult to see where Russia obtains the materials it needs to replace 120 mm mortar barrels as those replacements become necessary.
If Russia becomes limited in its use of both 152 mm howitzers and 120 mm mortars, it will have nowhere else to turn to provide the volume of firepower upon which the Russian army so badly depends.
Furthermore, as noted above, Ukraine’s artillery arm just reportedly received a major boost, as NPR and The New York Times report that the Biden administration has approved the sending of cluster munitions.
RELATED STORY: Ukraine Update: Cluster munitions for Ukraine—the controversy and why they're needed
Cluster munitions are a type of artillery shell, missile, or bomb that contain between dozens to hundreds of small, grenade-sized explosives. Much like a shotgun blast, these submunitions or bomblets are scattered across a wide area, blanketing it with shrapnel and small explosions. These weapons are particularly effective against lightly armored or unarmored targets, such as infantry or softskins.
They should prove to be particularly effective against Russian artillerymen operating towed artillery, such as the towed 120 mm mortars upon which Russian troops have become increasingly dependent.
The munitions have been deemed ineffective when used in massive quantities to attack guerillas or insurgents, but are considered highly effective at attacking entrenched conventional infantry. Artillery may take five to 15 rounds to hit such infantry positions, but a single cluster artillery round or missile can be used to take out the position, resulting in major ammunition savings.
Cluster weapons, however, are highly controversial due to their propensity to leave unexploded munitions after the conflict. The U.S. dropped millions of cluster munitions on Laos and Vietnam during the Vietnam War, leaving behind millions of unexploded bomblets that continue to maim or kill Laotians today despite major cleanup efforts. Children are particularly affected.
Due to this fact, over 100 nations have signed onto the convention on cluster munitions that makes the weapons illegal.
Ukraine, the U.S., Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Brazil are among countries that have not signed onto the convention. Possession or manufacture of the weapons are not illegal for nonsignatory nations.
There is some confusion with remote-deployed mines fired from 155 mm artillery shells. These also contain submunition anti-tank mines that are scattered near the target, but are designed to automatically self-detonate after 24 hours. Due to this self-cleanup feature, RAAM are not legally considered to be cluster munitions.
The cluster munitions currently under consideration for Ukraine, such as the DPICM 155 mm artillery shell or the DPICM GMLRS rocket for the HIMARS, do not have any such cleanup feature. They do, however, have a low 3%-4% dud rate compared to Cold War-era U.S. cluster munitions, which had dud rates of 30%+.
Russian forces have frequently deployed cluster munitions in Ukraine, and Russian cluster munitions are considered to have dud rates comparable to Cold War-era U.S. weapons, or around 20%-40% dud rates.
As the U.S. has a stockpile of over 5 million cluster munitions, these weapons are expected to go a long ways towards alleviating Ukraine’s ammunition concerns. They may, however, carry a significant humanitarian cost in the future, including massive cleanup efforts, depending upon how widely they are used.
They also may further devastate Russian artillery crews in counterbattery fire, and help tip the balance in the artillery war in Ukraine’s favor.