Everybody knows the Western movie trope: two gunmen on either side of a dusty road with cowboy hats, tumbleweed rolling between them. Both reach for their guns at the same time, but one is faster, and the other’s dead.
On a fundamental level, warfare with guns is brutally simple: The one who shoots the fastest and most accurately wins. The other dies.
But artillery upends that trope.
Read more great Ukraine coverage by both Daily Kos staff and community members here.
War can be simply encapsulated in the theoretical concept of the “kill chain.”
In its most simplistic conception, the kill chain can be reduced to just three key elements:
- Tracking/Deployment; and
Identification means finding where your enemy is located. Tracking means following your enemy’s movement until force can be brought against it, while you deploy your forces into a position where they can launch an attack. Engagement is the act of attempting to destroy the enemy target.
A gunman in a Western movie has a very simple kill chain. See the villain across the street. Watch his movements. Draw and shoot. The kill chain is completed when the target is neutralized.
There are two ways to disrupt the enemy’s kill chain.
First, you can “break” the kill chain by preventing the completion of any of the steps. Avoid detection in the first place, and the enemy cannot get started. If you are found, evasion, armor protection, electronic and physical countermeasures can also break the kill chain.
Second, you can complete your own kill chain before the enemy can complete theirs—like a gunman drawing his revolver faster, and gunning down his opponent.
The kill chain concept explains why the Russian forces are at such a severe disadvantage in the artillery war with Ukraine.
Russian Artillery Doctrine before 2022
Modern Russian artillery doctrine grew from Soviet artillery doctrine. And Soviet artillery doctrine philosophically dates back to the very roots of its formation, in the last days of World War One.
The Red Army’s lessons from WWI were fundamentally different from the Germans’ blitzkrieg concepts later adopted by Western military forces. Instead of concentrating mass at a single point to achieve a breakthrough utilizing mobility, Soviet doctrine was built out of concepts known as “Deep Battle” and “Deep Operation.”
“Deep Battle” meant engaging the enemy deep behind their front lines using artillery, and challenging their entire operational front. Meanwhile, front line positions would engage the enemy fluidly, while maintaining a static battle line as the artillery attrited the enemy’s rear positions.
Then, a massive concentrated mechanized armor force would punch through weakened enemy lines. That was the “Deep Operation.”
Deep Battle-Deep Operation doctrine necessitated massive armored formations, and conceived of movement in terms of corps- and division-sized operational units—numbering in the tens of thousands of soldiers.
In the 1950s, atomic weapons and increased overall firepower of artillery, rocket artillery, and air forces rendered the massive armored concentrations obsolete. Recognizing that, the Zhukov Reforms adjusted Russian doctrine toward smaller operational units, while attempting to maintain the goals of the “Deep Battle”—that is, to degrade the enemy force at depth.
The question for Soviet planners then became: How could they effectively engage Western armies with superior air power, without using large concentrations of forces that could be easily targeted and destroyed? Their answer, adopted in the 1970s and 1980s, was what became known as the “nonlinear warfare” concept.
Maintenance of large division- and corps-sized formations and coordination was deemphasized. Divisions, corps, and combined arms armies would still maintain a semblance of control and coordination over the front line tactical units through the control of operational and strategic reserve forces. When and where to devote elite mechanized reserve forces remained an important consideration, both offensively and defensively.
But while principle firepower—namely tube and rocket artillery—were controlled at the division and corps levels, artillery command was increasingly decentralized. A corps (25,000+ troops) or division (10,000+) no longer shared an artillery command; by the 1980s the battalion (800-1,000) became the tactical unit of choice.
In the new nonlinear doctrine of deployment, Russian battalions were no longer expected to maintain a linear defensive position in cooperation with other elements of their division or corps. Each battalion was expected to protect its own flanks, maintain its own logistics, and thus had its own full contingents of anti-air forces, armor, mechanized infantry and artillery.
This was a concept known as “tactical independence,” and evolved in the Battalion Tactical Group concept (known as BTG) adopted by the Russian army in the decade prior to the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War, which you might remember from early last year. Russia had largely abandoned the BTG concept as an organizational model by late 2022.
However, while Russia has distributed new manuals and tactics aimed at changing their doctrinal modes of warfare, the extent to which any tactical reform has taken place remains on an ad hoc basis, due to lack of training. In particular, the artillery of Russia has continued to operate much the same way—that is, decentralized.
As a matter of standard operational practice, Russian units attach artillery battalions to heavily engaged individual battalions at the front lines. This means that the “attached” artillery unit takes commands directly from the frontline battalion commander.
Attaching BTG battalions to frontline units permits commanders to more easily access coordinated artillery firepower on cue. This reduces the need for commanders to coordinate and share artillery assists with each other, reducing the need for secure and reliable communications—a weakness of Russian military equipment. RUSI has noted that insufficient and poor-quality radios are an endemic problem for the Russian military.
Furthermore, before Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russian military doctrine placed these Russian artillery units extremely physically close to the front lines—just 2 km from the line of contact.
This both maximized the range and depth of firepower that Russian artillery units could bring against rearward enemy targets (“Deep Battle”), and allowed close coordination with frontline forces, by sheer proximity.
Russia was able to deploy artillery this close to the frontlines because of their reliance on overwhelming firepower to overcome enemy counter battery firepower, and through a faster kill chain than enemy artillery.
Russian efforts for a faster kill chain
Russia devoted a great deal of effort to accelerating its artillery kill chain, to establish and maintain an overwhelming artillery advantage.
It developed a variety of reconnaissance UAVs such as the Orlan-10, and numerous counter battery radars like the Zoopark-1M, to more quickly identify targets.
Russian doctrine sought to minimize the tracking/deployment phase of the kill chain, by positioning its artillery units almost right behind the front lines, just 2 km behind the front line units.
In early 2022, well-trained Russian artillery crews could regularly bring Russian artillery firepower to bear on targets in as little as three minutes, obtaining target data from multiple sources (anti-battery radar, UAV reconnaissance, or auditory triangulation).
Finally, Russian artillery aimed to achieve effective engagement through either precision munitions or “weight of fires.”
Their primary precision-guided munition was the Krasnopol guided artillery shell, a laser-guided munition that could theoretically target Ukrainian artillery armored targets effectively.
However, the Krasnopol’s guidance systems performed erratically and inconsistently. Low hanging cloud cover, certain terrain disruptions, and electronic warfare can severely disrupt the Krasnopol’s accuracy. Furthermore, the Russian munitions industry failed to provide the Krasnopol in sufficient quantities to provide a decisive effect in 2022.
Thus, Russian artillery units predominantly relied on the classic solution to this problem: weight of fire. That is, Russia relied on the quantity of shells to make up for a lack of precision strike capability. Russian artillery might not be able to narrowly hit a target with an individual shot, but if they drop enough shells in an area, the chances of hitting the targets increased.
For example, if a 12-gun Russian battery of self-propelled howitzers targets its 12-gun enemy counterpart with 600 rounds within 15-20 minutes, the odds are good at least one of those rounds will hit something. That’s how you end up with moonscapes like this one, around Dovhen’ke.
Russian howitzers cannot fire more than three rounds per minute without doing harm to their barrel longevity and accuracy; thus that 600-round target requires a 12-gun Russian battery to remain in place firing continuously—for a full 15 minutes.
Russians anticipated fighting classic “artillery duels” where opposing gun batteries would spend 10-20 minutes exchanging fire, until one side was destroyed or forced to relocate. Russian planners were confident that the sheer weight (quantity) of fire from Russian artillery units would make up for any precision munitions by the enemy, maintaining Russian superiority.
With sufficient ammunition, sufficient number of guns, sufficiently trained crews, sufficient reconnaissance and counterbattery radar assets, the Russian army could bring a fearsome amount of firepower down on Uranian positions. That’s why Ukraine’s first request of its Western partners was artillery, and that’s why American M777 howitzers were the first heavy Western system delivered. Few observers would dispute the idea that Russian artillery maintained a significant advantage over their Ukrainian counterparts on most engagements, and at some points, Ukraine pegged the disparity at 10:1, with Russia firing up to 50,000 shells per day.
Russian artillery doctrine has been neutralized
However, beginning in the summer of 2022, then more rapidly in 2023, this Russian advantage began to disappear. By this summer, at the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Russian observers were warning of a “genocide” of Russian artillery units.
Oryx tracking of publicly available losses of both sides of the conflict began to show a massive disparity in artillery losses. Whereas earlier in the war, artillery losses remained largely even, by this summer, Ukraine was losing only a single artillery gun for every three to four Russian losses.
First, and arguably one of the most important Ukrainian tactical innovations was to disperse its artillery assets. Placing a 12-gun battery in close proximity to each other would obviously make such coordinated and choreographed fire sequences simpler for a battery commander to execute. The first three to four minutes in a barrage are considered crucial, as they represent a golden opportunity to strike an unready enemy target, before crews have a chance to take cover, or even drive away.
However, Ukrainian batteries tend to operate in much smaller groups, choosing to disperse their artillery assets over a broad area. So to coordinate, they employ radio communications and more sophisticated electronic tools to coordinate their fires, while maintaining dispersion.
As such, rather than target fields with 12 Ukrainian guns with a decent chance of scoring kills, Russian artillery units have struggled to bring sufficient weight of fire on dispersed Ukrainian artillery. Instead of a single locale, Russian batteries may be forced to divide their attention among six, eight, or 10 separate targets. Saturating their vicinity with sufficient shells to obtain a hit would quickly drain Russian ammunition, thus Russian batteries are forced to shorten their barrages. This significantly reduces the effectiveness of Russian counterbattery fire.
Second, particularly across the southern front, where the fighting has been heaviest, Ukraine has increasingly moved from relying on towed artillery, like the American M777 howitzer, to relying on self-propelled howitzers like the M109 Paladin.
Towed artillery requires several minutes to pack up and hitch to its towing vehicle, leaving the crew vulnerable to counterbattery fire. Western self-propelled guns like the M109 Paladin can stop, fire several rounds, and then be ready to move again in under two minutes.
By continuously staying on the move and not relying on long barrages of stationary and sustained artillery fire, Ukrainian artillery batteries remain elusive and difficult to target with conventional counter battery fire. The sustained “artillery duel” Russia planned for has simply ceased to exist. Artillery crews of both sides now consider lengthy stationary artillery positions to be impossible to survive. Dispersion and positional fluidity are the new norms.
In essence, Ukrainian artillery breaks Russia’s kill chain by relocating before Russian artillery are prepared to engage. Ukrainian artillery have not similarly suffered for two reasons: precision munitions and DPICM shells (also known as cluster munitions).
Precision munitions radically reduce Ukraine’s need for “deployment” and “engagement” as part of its kill chain, providing a decisive advantage.
Precision munitions, like the 155mm Excalibur GPS guided shell, have a range of 50 km, allowing Ukrainian guns to theoretically operate deep behind friendly lines, well outside the 20-25 km range of Russian artillery. However, Ukraine is so confident in its ability to avoid Russian counterbattery fire, it operates as close as 10 km from the frontlines. allowing it to strike even deeper behind enemy lines if it so chooses.
And of course, Ukraine frequently uses GMLRS rocket artillery’s 70 km range to destroy Russian guns. Those rockets, launched from either HIMARS or M270 launchers, so badly outrange Russian weaponry that Ukraine has yet to lose a single confirmed launcher—despite being in theater since last June, over a year ago, and being one of Russia’s highest priority targets.
It is impossible for a Russian artillery gun to open fire without being in range of Ukrainian guns.
Furthermore, while Russian artillery must generally sustain a barrage for several minutes to bring sufficient weight of firepower on a target to destroy it (recall the moonscape picture shared above), Ukrainian artillery can quickly and effectively respond with small numbers of guided munitions to take out their opposing counterparts with ruthless accuracy. Not only are these strikes more precise (and require fewer shells), the engagement phase is merely the time to load and fire a single precision round—as little as 15-20 seconds.
As if things weren’t bad enough for Russia, the arrival of cluster munitions has made things even worse. Ukrainian artillery are making nearly constant use of cluster munitions shells against Russian soft targets (trucks, troops, trenches, anything without armor or concrete). A RUSI analysis showed that U.S. conventional shells required 13.6 rounds to obtain a hit, but a DPICM cluster munition—which scatters grenade-like bomblets over a wide area—could strike a target every 1.7 shells.
Thanks to the wide area of effect, a Ukrainian howitzer does not need to remain stationary for an extended period, firing 10-15 shells at a target to destroy it. It can stop, fire two DPICM cluster rounds, then relocate. And there are millions of those rounds in U.S. stocks.
The same way that precision munitions reduce the engagement time for Ukrainian artillery, DPICM shells improve both the deadliness of Ukrainian artillery, as well as reduce Russian opportunities for counterbattery fire.
Furthermore, improvements in Ukrainian counterbattery radar equipment have made their identification portion of the kill chain faster, and sustained targeting of Russian counter battery radar assets have degraded Russians’ ability to identify Ukrainian artillery assets in turn. Drones have further changed the game, both in identifying targets, and in striking them.
russian counterbattery fire has dwindled
The net effect of these developments has been a major Ukrainian advantage in the artillery war.
Massive losses have forced a change in how Russia uses its artillery guns. Whereas pre-war doctrine placed brigade artillery assets 4 km from the front, Russian artillery units now hide 15-20 km behind the frontlines, advancing only for brief periods to conduct fire missions.
While this may improved the survivability of those Russian guns, their continued communication problems mean that Russian units on the contact line suffer from poorly timed and coordinated fire support.
It is now Ukrainian artillery that operate close to the frontlines with impunity, and Russian batteries that have largely been forced back to a safer distance.
Russian batteries are struggling to provide sufficient weight of fire on Ukrainian guns due to ammunition issues, leading Russian strongman Vladimir Putin to beg North Korea for artillery supplies, an international humiliation. Recent reports claim that Russia will double its annual production of artillery shells to 2 million, which sounds impressive—until you do some math and realize that amounts to less than 5,500 shells per day. It’s a pittance, given Russia’s doctrinal needs.
RUSI noted an increasing and overwhelming reliance on Russian loitering munitions like the Lancet drones for a counterbattery role. In fact, drones have become one of the only ways left for Russia to fight back in the artillery war.
Still, Lancet drones and other loitering munitions are susceptible to electronic warfare countermeasures, or short-range air defenses like the Flakpanzer Gepard or the Viktor SHORAD system, providing inexpensive anti-drone firepower to protect key artillery assets. “Cope cages” made of chain-link can actually protect from much drone damage. And even when they hit, the smaller warheads mean that the chances of outright destroying the gun are far lower. Damaged systems can be towed to the rear and repaired.
Nonetheless, due to doctrinal shortcomings that have left Russia unprepared for this highly disperse, highly mobile artillery battlefield in Ukraine, Russian artillery commanders have been left with fewer and fewer effective alternatives in 2023.
A further problem for Russia is its loss of experienced artillery crews and battery commanders to counterbattery fire. Oryx has recorded over 1,000 lost Russian towed, self-propelled, and rocket artillery systems. And these are almost assuredly severely undercounted, as destroyed artillery guns aren’t as visible as frontline armor.
As such, it is fair to say that Russia has already lost thousands of trained artillery crews and officers. And given the poor to nonexistent training policies of the Russian army, it’s entirely doubtful that the artillery crews are being replaced with anything but inexperienced and poorly trained personnel, which may help explain friendly fire incidents such as this one:
Or this incident. Or this incident, or this incident.
These types of friendly fire incidents provide some of the most dramatic examples of poor Russian coordination and training, but ineffective fires or instances of poorly coordinated support likely represent a far more common form of Russian training issues in artillery.
Furthermore, there are persistent reports of Russian artillerymen being repurposed as cannon fodder infantry for commanders desperate to hold ground in the face of Ukrainian advances.
As Ukraine continues to severely degrade the Russian artillery corps—to the tune of 30-40 guns per day—its advantage is likely to only continue to grow. This is the end result, as relayed by a Russian on the front lines:
So the artillery doesn't help you?
Not that it doesn't help. The command does not allocate shells to them.
Are you promised help and support?
People die for nothing. People go one way and don't come back.
We work here in the same helmet. There is no interaction with anyone else. Everything happens very slowly; either the artillery does not shoot, or you have to wait for the shot for a very long time.
In fact, this Russian claimed that the artillery shortage is so severe, that Russian commanders are sending their artillerymen as storm infantry on the front lines.
Are there more losses?
We have twenty-five people leaving for the task, six are coming back. Our artillerymen have now stormed. They were told: you don't have any ammunition anyway, go as an infantry.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen claims that Russian commanders are using artillerymen as cannon fodder to desperately hold onto ground in the face of advancing Ukrainian forces.
This degradation of Russian artillery will have a more dramatic impact on the eventual success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive than counting square kilometers thus far liberated.
Read more great Ukraine coverage by both Daily Kos staff and community members here.