Russia’s Artillery War in Ukraine: Challenges and Innovations (2024)

While Russia has experienced difficulties elsewhere on the battlefield, artillery has been central to its ability to hold Ukrainian forces at bay. This article explores how the Russian armed forces have adapted traditional artillery practices to overcome challenges and achieve greater efficacy.

Artillery is central to the Russian way of war, so it is beholden upon Western forces to properly understand how it has been applied in Ukraine. Russia’s artillery war is best analysed through two mechanisms: artillery doctrine – which provides the foundation for how artillery use has changed – and what artillery practitioners refer to as the gunnery problem.

The gunnery problem is the same regardless of country, and describes the technical challenges involved in hitting a target with indirect fires. These challenges include accurate acquisition and use of meteorological data, which will impact flight path and speed; and survey data, which is critical to identifying where the firing gun is located and where it is pointing, as well as accurate location of the target. An additional element of the gunnery problem is calibration of the gun and ammunition. This involves measuring the temperature of the ammunition, the barrel wear, and the velocity of each shot if possible. If this information can be paired with sufficiently accurate target coordinates, an artillery battery will be able to fire for effect from its first rounds and will require fewer adjustments. The traditional approach without this is to fire rounds from a single battery and observe their deviation from the target. Corrections are made using forward observers, laser targeting systems and uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Artillery rounds will disperse along the range of fire as well as the line. The range refers to accuracy in front of or behind the target. Line refers to dispersion on either side of the target, as a result of which tube artillery produces a beaten zone that is approximately cigar shaped. It is important to understand the gunnery problem because it dictates what artillery forces must do to affect a target. The willingness of users to understand the gunnery problem, as well as doctrine, dictates efficacy. Because of this, the ability of the Russians to account for these technical limitations and achieve the commander’s desired effect provides a useful benchmark for Russian artillery efficacy in Ukraine.

Doctrine

‘Russian forces manoeuvre to fire, Western forces fire to manoeuvre’ is a neat encapsulation of Russian doctrine compared with the West. Put simply, Russia uses artillery as its primary form of lethality in the deep and close battles. Its combined arms elements are charged with positioning themselves so that the artillery can deliver destructive effects against their opponents. This is a high-level simplification, but it is an important distinction to make. For static operations, the Russian forces should be expected to control artillery centrally and coordinate its actions through the artillery chain of command. A defensive brigade should be assigned a brigade artillery group (BrAG) from its parent army, which consists of two battalions of self-propelled howitzers and a battalion of multiple rocket launchers. The available literature indicates that a BrAG would deploy 2–4 km behind the edge of the defence and occupy an area 3–5 km wide by 1–2 km deep. It would provide additional firepower over organic assets at the frontline to defeat enemy forces on the approach and if they broke through. It is also common for artillery formations up to a battalion to be attached to a tank or motorised rifle battalion and provide immediate fire support. Attachment indicates a strong command relationship and involves the combined arms commander directing artillery fire missions.

Recent analysis published by RUSI indicates that on parts of the frontline, Russia has not deviated from this concept. Two batteries of tube and one of rocket artillery were assigned to each battalion tactical group in the opening mobile phases of the conflict. The static nature of fighting that followed has led to the centralisation of artillery under artillery brigades. However, Ukrainian soldiers interviewed for this article indicated that Russian artillery units were laagered up to 12–15 km behind the frontline, and that they spend the night even further away. They only approach the frontline to conduct fire missions and withdraw as quickly as possible, indicating that doctrine on proximity has given way to concerns over survivability.

While Russian artillery fire is highly effective, ammunition constraints combined with force dispersion have imposed limits upon its application and driven a reliance upon precision

The attachment of artillery formations to combined arms units is also discussed in Russian military journals covering the war. One article relates a case of an officer skipping the artillery commander altogether and sending his requests directly to battery commanders. This has resulted in articles explaining how a commander should designate and report targets directly to a battery commander. Another example reportedly involved ‘improvised mortar platoons’, which were temporary mortar teams established by a mechanised commander from regular infantry. This methodology provided immediately available fire support from three mortars that did not require additional clearance or process to fire.

The Gunnery Problem

While it therefore appears that Russian doctrine has been followed in Ukraine, this offers only a partial impression of the Russian artillery war. The methods used to address the gunnery problem help to complete the picture and indicate that Russian artillery fire is highly effective, although ammunition constraints combined with force dispersion have imposed limits upon its application and driven a reliance upon precision.

Russia entered Ukraine with several pre-established developments designed to improve artillery accuracy. One example is shock-fire tactics, a principle discussed in 2018, which employs UAVs, artillery-locating radars, tanks and artillery to coax an enemy into firing before conducting counter-battery fires. Shock-fire shortens the targeting cycle and improves the accuracy of fires by combining at least two forms of target location. It was developed through deployments in Syria and Ukraine. It has been used in some form in Ukraine, and Ukrainian artillery officers told RUSI that Russian counter-battery fire is very fast and accurate when conducted using artillery-locating radar and UAVs together.

When the system works, Russian targeting cycles can be completed in three minutes, while others take 30. The former is essentially the limit of what is physically possible – a 155mm shell fired to 25 km will take 75 seconds to reach the target.

Reconnaissance-Fire System

The reconnaissance-fire system (recce-fire) is a development of a Soviet-era concept designed to pair tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets with precision strike artillery in real time. Strelets is the implementation of this concept, connecting sensors to shooters in as close to real time as possible. Recce-fire requires the target to be engaged with precision munitions such as the 2K25 Krasnopol 152mm laser-guided round. Target designation can be provided by ground-based laser systems or the Orlan-30 UAV. Video footage showing precise strikes on Ukrainian vehicles or buildings is likely a result of Krasnopol use. Prior to the war, recce-fire was expected to be critical for counter-battery engagements. Ground-based laser targeting is evident, but some Russian documents indicate that the Russian armed forces have struggled to get forward observers to perform their role in Ukraine. Many prefer to use UAVs, a safer but potentially less effective solution. The efficacy of Krasnopol has also been challenged. One Russian textbook on artillery indicates that Krasnopol’s accuracy is severely degraded by low-hanging cloud cover, variable terrain and a host of other conditions that make it a difficult munition to deploy.

However, Russia has made extensive use of loitering munitions like Lancet-3, which can be coordinated with a separate UAV to conduct reconnaissance and targeting or flown manually to search for and strike individual targets. This is likely a response to several factors: Ukraine’s use of dispersed guns, the availability of Krasnopol and the associated targeting assets, as well as the presence of electronic warfare, which degrades Lancet considerably. Ukrainian commanders told the author that while Lancet is more prevalent in some areas than artillery, in others it is rarely seen. The use of Lancet also suggests that Russia has struggled to counter dispersion with its pre-existing targeting structures and doctrine. The gunnery problem means that while a single howitzer in a tree line might be quickly identified, the chances of hitting it with unguided munitions are low unless excessive mass is applied. When considered against the backdrop of Russia’s own ammunition challenges, the use of loitering munitions is therefore a logical alternative. However, the lethality of Lancet is often insufficient. it is apparent from videos that crews can hear the munition approaching, as they often have time to disperse before it strikes. One officer also said that although he had seen his gun ‘destroyed’ several times online, it remained alive and well.

Weight of Fires

Traditional artillery practices focused on the weight of fires, which refers to the quantity, density and intensity of artillery fire required to achieve an effect. Accuracy is important – there is no point firing shells into an empty field – but only insofar as it ensures that most shells are having an impact upon the target. The proliferation of reconnaissance and precision strike assets has led Western artillery forces to focus on precision, leading to what Amos Fox terms the precision fallacy. Fox posits that precision strike munitions have led commanders astray with the promise of hitting a target. However, he notes that single precision munitions may fail to destroy their target because they lack the necessary lethality. Russian military academics have echoed this sentiment and note that artillery units have re-learned the value of the weight of fires.

Artillery is a formidable component of the Russian military, with occasionally best-in-breed targeting cycles and a doctrine that allows it to overcome deficiencies elsewhere

Soviet gunners were provided with targeting tables detailing the number of shells needed to defeat different types of targets. For instance, 12 122mm howitzers would require 600 rounds to engage enemy infantry across a 33-hectare area. All 600 rounds would be delivered in 15 minutes, showing the intensity of fire that is needed. Weight of fires is shaped significantly by physics and psychology. The first 45–60 seconds of a fire mission will generally drive infantry into cover, so Soviet and Russian gunners have focused on delivering most of the required ammunition in the first 5–6 minutes. Thereafter, the heat generated by the firing and repositioning of guns generally limits the rate of fire to 1–3 rounds per minute. Firing at a higher rate for longer would degrade the barrel and accuracy. So, to achieve the necessary weight of fires it is essential to ensure that there are enough guns available to engage the target, otherwise the necessary quantity and intensity of fires will not be deployed in the relevant timeframe.

Russian writers have emphasised this principle in journal articles, which suggest that Russian artillery may be struggling to achieve the weight of fires necessary to meet its doctrinal obligations. This may be a result of the extreme dispersion that is evident in Ukraine, as well as the lack of ammunition that has impacted more recent operations. Dispersion makes coordination of massed fires more difficult; in theory, systems like Strelets allow guns to disperse and fire on a single target, but they rely on good communications and training. Accuracy is improved through UAVs, but if Russian forces are struggling to concentrate their artillery, then one would expect their ammunition consumption to increase as they try to destroy targets with fewer guns available. Attrition also plays a role: Russia is likely to have lost many of its guns and most experienced crews. However, Russian attacks are often preceded by extensive indirect fire; Russia’s ammunition consumption and accounts from Ukraine both support this argument. Recent reports indicate that 70% of Ukraine’s casualties are a result of artillery fires. It is clear therefore that despite challenges, Russian artillery is having a significant impact on the Ukrainian armed forces and delivering effects through a combination of innovative tactics and technology, as well as a reliance upon its traditional doctrine.

In Sum

This brief analysis of Russian artillery practice in Ukraine indicates that while it has demonstrated variable levels of efficacy, on the whole it is a formidable component of the Russian military, with occasionally best-in-breed targeting cycles and a doctrine that allows for artillery to overcome the deficiencies of Russian combined arms forces. It has built a significant ability to find and strike targets over a wide area, and likely retains the ability to mass fires against targets of opportunity.

Indirect fire support operates on mathematical principles of certainty. Approaches to this differ: Western forces, for instance, seek an economy of effort and resources in the application of fires. They tend to pay close attention to all aspects of the gunnery problem to ensure that their fires achieve effect with optimal ammunition consumption. The evidence from Ukraine suggests that Russian forces have combined both approaches: the use of UAVs, radar and precision munitions indicates that accuracy is essential for certain tasks, but attaining the weight of fires remains critical.

This article is part of the Russia Military Report series.

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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Russia’s Artillery War in Ukraine: Challenges and Innovations (2024)
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