Europe | The heart of the inferno

Artillery is playing a vital role in Ukraine

And Western countries are rolling out the big guns

RUSSIANS INVADE UKRAINE -- MARCH 10, 2022: 02 Maxar multispectral closeup satellite imagery of artillery firing in Ozera, Ukraine - near Antonov Airport. 11march2022_wv2. Please use: Satellite image (c) 2022 Maxar Technologies.

OTHER FLASHIER devices get more attention. The tank-busting Javelin is the star of various memes. The Turkish TB2 drone has its own catchy song. But no weapon has been more important in the war in Ukraine than artillery–and it is likely to become even more significant still in the coming weeks.

An adviser to General Valery Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s top commander, recently explained how his forces halted the Russian advance on Kyiv. “Anti-tank missiles slowed the Russians down,” he said, “but what killed them was our artillery. That was what broke their units.” In the current fighting in southern and eastern Ukraine, where the two sides are more entrenched, artillery is even more pivotal. And the more sophisticated versions Western countries have started to give Ukraine could make all the difference.

The basic idea behind artillery is simple enough. The rifles carried by soldiers and the guns mounted on tanks employ what is known as direct fire: they hit things they can see. Artillery involves indirect fire, which means the target can lie over the other side of a hill—even tens of miles away. It spans everything from compact mortars to 30-tonne guns on tracks, capable of raining devastating fire onto large areas. It was artillery that inflicted the majority of casualties in the first world war and in every theatre, bar the Pacific, in the second.

The point of this firepower can be to pin down enemy forces and stop them moving, or to destroy them, often to allow infantry and armoured vehicles to advance. Russia has put artillery at the heart of its army since the days of the Russian empire, and has considerably more of it than most Western forces, not to mention Ukraine. It should, therefore, be an aspect of the fighting in which it is dominant. But a recent report by Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think-tank in London, explains how Ukraine has been able to turn the tables.

In the first hours of the war, Ukraine was able to use its artillery to target lightly armed Russian paratroopers who landed at Hostomel airport outside Kyiv. Although artillery initially helped Russian ground forces advance south towards Kyiv, their reliance on paved roads meant that they could be spotted by Ukrainian special forces and drones, who fed the targets back to Ukrainian guns. As Russian forces got closer to the capital, they came under overwhelming fire—and had no answer to it.

In theory, artillery can be used to counter artillery. Counter-battery fire, as it is known, uses radar to work out the trajectory and thus the likely origin of incoming shells. The co-ordinates are immediately sent to friendly guns, which fire back at the source. But Russia struggled with counter-battery fire for a prosaic reason: its guns were stuck in traffic on clogged roads—recall the 40-mile convoy north-west of Kyiv—and so out of range.

Another problem was that firepower is only as good as the intelligence that directs it. In previous wars, Russia had used drones to locate the electronic emissions of enemy artillery units and target them with its own, supposedly within a minute or two. But it has struggled to do so in Ukraine. “Although the Russians had heavier artillery,” write Mr Watling and Mr Reynolds, “they lacked a good picture of where the dispersed Ukrainian positions were.” Ukraine, meanwhile, was receiving American intelligence on Russian positions.

Artillery has long played a prominent role in the fighting in Donbas, a region in eastern Ukraine that Russia first invaded in 2014. Ukraine has used the subsequent eight years to build trenches, fortifications and other defensive positions. Breaking through them will require heavy firepower.

That is already being applied. “There’s not a building in some of those villages which is being left intact after some of those bombardments,” says one Western official. “The indiscriminate use of firepower is really quite remarkable.” Russia is beginning to use artillery more effectively, says the official, concentrating it on a smaller number of targets along a narrower front, but is still struggling with “timely and accurate targeting”, as it did north of Kyiv.

Artillery is also vital to the Ukrainian counter-attacks that are occurring every time Russia takes a village. That is one reason why Western countries, which initially gave Ukraine mainly smaller and lighter weapons, such as Javelins and Stingers, are now providing heavier armaments, despite their initial concern that providing such aid might provoke Russia.

In recent weeks, Ukraine has received an artillery bonanza. On April 21st President Joe Biden said that America would send scores of howitzers—large artillery guns which fire six-inch-thick shells. On May 2nd an American defence official said that 70 had already been delivered; and that more than 200 Ukrainian soldiers have been trained to use them. Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia have also sent artillery or said they will. Others are thought to be doing so in secret.

Michael Jacobson, a reserve artillery colonel in the US Army, writing on War on the Rocks, a website, says that NATO’s artillery systems are more advanced, quicker to fire and more lethal than Ukraine’s existing guns. They are better at counter-battery fire, easier to repair because they have modular parts that can be swapped in and out, and straightforward to use. Colonel Jacobson notes that the French CAESAR, which is on its way to Ukraine, is “arguably the best in the world today”, alongside Sweden’s Archer.

They are also well-suited to the mobile counter-attacks that Ukraine is making. In previous battles in Donbas, in 2014-15, Russian counter-battery fire could hit Ukrainian guns in four minutes, says Sam Cranny-Evans, another expert at RUSI—“quite a bit quicker than most crews can make a towed gun ready to move”. Systems like CAESAR are self-propelled, either wheeled or tracked, which means they can scoot away more swiftly.

Potent firepower comes at a cost, though. Artillery chews up ammunition at a prodigious rate. Specialised shells, like the M982 Excalibur which Canada is donating to Ukraine, can be guided accurately to a target by lasers or GPS, so a few can achieve a lot. But those are likely to be scarce. If artillery is used for “mass fires”—in other words, blanketing an area with shells—the American supply of 144,000 rounds could be “gone in days”, says Mr Cranny-Evans. Moreover, Ukraine’s own artillery uses the Soviet and Russian standard of 152mm-calibre shells, so ammunition would not be interchangeable between the old and new guns.

The challenge is not just obtaining it, but also getting it to the frontlines. A 155mm artillery shell weighs around 50kg; replenishment for a dozen guns firing a couple of hundred rounds amounts to over 100 tonnes of cargo. The supply convoys that result are themselves ripe for disruption—as Russia discovered to its cost last month.

For all that, Ukrainian gunners have reason to feel confident that their cupboard will not go bare. On April 19th John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman, suggested that America would keep Ukraine’s new howitzers supplied for as long as necessary. “I think you can assume that should there be additional need in the future for more 155[mm] artillery rounds,” he promised, “the United States will be right at the front of the line doing what we can to help get them there.”

Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis

More from Europe

How a 31-year-old hopes to fix Ukraine’s state-owned defence giant

It won’t be easy, but nothing in Ukraine is

Alexei Navalny’s lawyers are arrested

Vladimir Putin’s latest act of persecution

Marine Le Pen poses a greater threat than Giorgia Meloni

At least to the European Union and the transatlantic alliance