The Power of the ‘God of War’: Assessing the Russian advantage in Artillery in the Russo-Ukrainian War
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM, Distinguished Fellow, VIF
The God of War

Way back in 1944, when the ferocity of World War II was at its peak, Joseph Stalin made a statement; ‘Artillery is the God of War’. His remarks probably related to the fact that most of the combat deaths in the two World Wars and in fact, in all the wars ever since the early days of the Industrial Revolution when the Artillery got employed in wars were due to Artillery[1].

The ‘God of War’ is now turning huge advantages to Russia in the on-going Russo-Ukrainian war which has entered its sixth month on 24 July 2022. This article puts together salient facts to support this premise.

Some Hot Snippets from War-front

- On 04 July, the Ukrainian troops vacated the city of Lysychansk in Eastern Ukraine without a fight; why? The Ukrainian front echelons and their leaders are getting the sense that the Russians are gaining huge advantage because of their long range artillery and ammunition. Consequently, they are seeing no point in staying put and facing annihilation in target areas that are receiving huge pounding prior to the ground action[2].

- In the fierce and protracted battle going on in eastern Ukraine, huge combat losses are being claimed by long range Russian artillery.

- With this, nearly the entire Luhannsk region has fallen under Russian control.

- As this is being written, solid artillery pounding is causing many casualties turning the city of Severodonetsk and Donestk and the entire heartland of the Donbas region into huge rubble[3].

- Russians on an average are firing upto 20000 artillery howitzers shells daily as compared to some 6000 by Ukraine[4].

The current Russian tactics appears to be on the following pattern:-

- Huge and continuous pounding of the war targets by long range artillery and missiles destroying all that there is.

- Slow and brutal advance over the ruins crushing whatever resistance still remains taking casualties as it may cost.

- This pattern is becoming increasingly visible from sometime in May 22, in the raging battles of Mariupol, Odessa, Izmayil, Donetsk and more.

Why This Change in Tactics?
A Revisit to Early days of War

The reason for the above tactics is to be found in the first three months of the war. Some salient points are stated:-[5]
- The war opened on the wee hours of the night 23/24 Feberuary 2022 by Russia with the typical pre-emptive strike.

- This strike featured multiple punches:-

  • Russian air strike power (MiG 29, 35, Su 27, SU 25SM and Su 30s)
  • Russian cruise and ballistic Missile power (Kalibr and Iskander missiles).
  • Multi-barrel rocket launchers or MBRLs (GRAD, Smerch, Uragan etc.).

- Russians aimed to destroy maximum of the Ukrainian air assets (like aircrafts, attack helicopters, air traffic control assets, infrastructure etc.) on ground.

- More importantly, they aimed to destroy the Air Defence Control and Reporting System (ADCRS) by taking out air defence control nodes and sensors which will make air defence weapons ‘blind’ and incapable of putting up a concerted defence.

- Unfortunately for Russia, the pre-emptive did not achieve the success as expected and it was unable to destroy the Ukrainian ADCRS and its capability to wage a counter air and air defence operations.

- Due to this reason, the Ukrainian skies remained contested all through and the mighty Russian air power (2nd in the world ranking), far from achieving air supremacy, could not even achieve a favourable air situation over the Ukrainian skies.

- Russian air losses especially of the attack helicopters (AHs) further escalated due to a large proliferation of man-portable shoulder fired SAMs (MANPADS) supplied by the Western forces. These included Stinger SAMs from USA, Star Streak SAMs from UK and similar weapons from Germany, Denmark, Lithuania and Netherlands. [6]Ukrainians also had the Igla and Strela MANPADS of Russian origin in their inventory.

- Another factor that helped Ukraine register steady air and ground losses on Russia has been the Turkish TB-2 Bayractar drone. This machine with its IR and laser guided weaponry (L-UMTAS anti-tank guided missile (ATGM), MAM-C and MAM-L laser-guided HE and thermo-baric ammunition and Cirit laser-guided munitions was seen to be taking hits on scores of Russian Ground Based Air Defence Weapons (GBADWS), as well as, advancing tank columns. In addition to the TB-2, US also supplied hundreds of switchblade kamikaze drone which also claimed their kills[7].

In addition to the drone power thousands of Anti tank Guided Missiles (ATGM) also reached Ukraine from multiple western countries. (US -2000 Javelin ATGMs and 6000 AT4 man-portable anti-tank weapons, UK/Sweden – 3615 short range next generation antitank weapons.)

The Impact

All the above factors combined to have a negative impact on Russia. Some salient points:-
- As stated, maintaining even a favourable air situation (leave aside air supremacy) over Ukrainian skies remained an elusive dream for Russia.
- With air and air defence wars continuing unabated, both sides continued to take losses. The Russian losses being relevant to the premisehave been counted on day-wise details as given in the open source. This data reveals that between the period 24 February to 27 June some 39 combat aircrafts (SU 30, SU 30 SM, SU 34, SU 25 SM, SU 35, Orland 10, etc.) and 26 AHs (Mi24, Mi 35, Ka52, Mi24P, Mi8, Mi28N,etc) have been lost by Russia in air and air defence war[8]. This is a significant number.

- One additional cause of the loss has also quoted by experts as lack of training and combat experience of the Russian pilots (this is not discussed further).

- Resultantly, the Russian Air Force (RAF) has been grinding a slow and a casualty-ridden air campaign and generally maintaining a low flight profile to avoid Ukrainian MANPADS.

- Talking about the losses to Russian armoured vehicles and Ground Based Air Defence Weapon Systems (GBADWS), any number of streaming videos (even after correcting for a huge misinformation campaign) show the following :-

  • Large unwinding convoys of tanks, troop and store vehicles stranded on roads presenting lucrative targets to the Ukrainian ATGMs, anti-tank guns, drone strikes and more.
  • According to an open source report published as recently as 17 July 2022 states that a whopping 1700 Russian tanks and other armoured vehicles have been destroyed by Ukraine.[9]
  • Of course the Ukrainian account will talk of a different casualty figure (1504 battle tanks, 3632 armoured vehicles, 756 artillery systems, 240 MBRLs, 99 air defence systems and 2548 private vehicles and tankers).[10]
  • The tank losses include an entire range- T 62, T 72, T 72 B3, T80, T80 BVM and the top of the line T90M.[11]
  • Most of the kills have been claimed by the US Javelin ATGM and the UK-Swedish Light Anti Tank Weapon (NLAWS).[12]
  • Another open source claims that out of all the Russian personnel casualties (Russian Govt. source -23,367 killed as of 19 July 2022) [13] some 6% belong to the men from the ‘tank regiments’.[14]

- Overall the ground advance has been slow and brutally fatal both for men and machines.

The Artillery Grind

Faced with the realities of a high casualty-driven slow and grueling advance taking all the fires from Javelins, Stingers, NLAWS and more, the Russians are increasingly adapting the ‘artillery grind’ approach. Basically the following:-

- Use the power of the entire artillery continuum to punish the intended target before the actual ground attack proceeds.

- In this process, soften the target to be captured as defenders leave either to save annihilation or in recognition of the futility to stay on, seeing the target pulverized by massive fire.

- In the quantum of artillery available on both sides, Russia currently enjoys a 3:1 advantage.[15]

- There is an array of the towed and self-propelled (SP) guns and howitzers ( like 2S19 Msta 150mm SP Howitzer ; range 30-40 km with rocket assisted shell, 2S35 Koalitsiya –SV SP Howitzer, range 40 km, 2A36 Giatsint towed and SP howitzer, range 30-40km, the heavy 2S7M Malka 203mm SP Howitzer, range 37.5 km range, besides Mortars 82 mm, 122mm etc.[16]

- The above artillery fire is augmented by a series of MBRLs also referred to as MLRS or Multi-Launcher Rocket System. Some of these weapons include BM30 Smerch (range 70-90 km), BM 21 GRAD P ( range 20 KM), 9A 52-4 Tornado MRLS ( range 90 km) etc.[17]

- To complete the punch as cumulated above, a number of very effective missiles are also being pressed in. These include the 9k720 Iskander missile (operational range 400-500km), Kalibr missile (range 1500-2500 km) Kinzhalaero-ballistic hypersonic missile (range more than 2000 km), OTR 21 Tochka Tactical ballistic missile ( range 120 km) etc.

- Besides the conventional (High explosive, armour-piercing etc.), a variety of specialist ammunition is being used in devastating artillery fires. This includes the TOS-1 220mm MRLS using thermo baric ammunition and the white phosphorus incendiary ammunition (thermobaric ammunition - when the ammunition strikes, it releases a cloud of explosive that permeates the target area as an aerosol. The second explosion ignites the cloud causing a massive blast).

The Effectiveness of the Artillery Grind

On the face of it, it is succeeding. Much like the famed Katyusha rockets in WWII that came to be referred as ‘Stalin’s organs’, the reference to a mass of Russian SP Howitzers in Ukraine war is made sometime as to be ‘Putin’s Hammer’.

This is nothing new for Russia. The massed artillery fire actually relates to Russia’s 200 year old doctrine of using ‘Artillery First’.

While the massed fires are showing results in inflicting a series of strategic pull-outs by the Ukrainian forces without the skewed loss of aircrafts, AHs and armoured vehicles, there is much to be desired as regards the conduct of fire assaults by Russian artillery. Salient points in this context are briefly stated.

- For the Artillery fire to be instantaneous and effective, the weapon end must be seamlessly connected to Fire controllersin a fool-proof, jam-resistant and redundant communication system. This is something which is reported to be lacking in the Russian artillery war machine. The impact of this shortfall is as under:-

  • The fire is ineffective at times resulting in a colossal waste of ammunition. There has been a reported case of firing three laser guided Tocha-R missiles just to take out a single Ukrainian howitzer.
  • The counter battery fire (locating the origin of the Ukrainian Artillery fire and firing back at it toneutralise the same) is slow and lethargic allowing ample time to the Ukrainian gunners to relocate the weapon after fire (shoot-n-scoot).
  • Due to the lack of secure communications, sometimes un-encrypted mobile communication is being resorted to between the gun and the Observation Post (OP) end. Such communication, besides being jammed results in quick counter battery fire from the Ukrainian side.

- Another big issue is the ammunition logistic chain of Russia. This is explained below:-

  • The Russian ammunition supply is dependent on rail based logistics.
  • The ammunition convoys are open to aerial attacks (though that has not been exploited fully by the Ukrainian forces as yet).
  • Besides this, huge ammunition dumps in the hinterland are without adequate anti-aircraft protection. These are vulnerable to air strikes. Open sources reported Ukrainian forces destroying a huge ammunition warehouse in Kadiivka in the Luhansk region of Ukraine. This was claimed to be the second such strike (earlier strike Kherson ammunition dump).[18]

- On the Ukrainian side, there is a scramble to correct the current 1:3 handicap in the artillery fire power. Besides its own artillery, the artillery weapons it has received are the M777 ultra-light Howitzer, and HIMARS or high Mobility artillery Rocket Systemfrom US[19], 155mm Krab SP Howitzer from Poland, FH 70 Gun from Estonia, Ceaser SP howitzer from France, M109A3 SP Howitzer from Norwegia, Panzerhaubitse 2000 SP howitzer from Germany and more. [20]
So that is the present state of the duel as Russia progresses ruthlessly with its ‘Artillery grind’ and Ukraine attempts to ‘weigh in’ more favourably. That said, the God of War is currently on the Russian side.

Endnotes :

[1] “Artillery” at www.en.n.wikipedia.com.Accessed on 18 Jul 2022.
[2] “War in Ukraine-BBC News,” at www.bbc.com.Accessed on 18 Jul 2022.
[3] “The secrets of Russia’s artillery war in Ukraine,” at www.bussinessstandard.com . Accessed on 18 Jul 2022.
[4]ibid
[5] “Why the Ukrainian skies are still contested..<” at www.vifindia.org.accessed on 18 Jul 2022.
[6] “What are the MANPADS that the west is sending to Ukraine?” at www.thehindu.com
[7] “What weaponshave other countries supplied to Ukraine?” at www.the guardian.com. Accessed on 18 Jul 2022.
[8]ibid
[9] “Russia has lost 50,000 troops in Ukraine..,’ at www.rferl.org.Accessed on 19 Jul 2022.
[10] “Russian army suffering casualties in Ukraine’sBakhmut…,” at www.aa.com.tr.Accessed on 19 Jul 2022.
[11] “Tank losses in Ukraine raise strategic question for Russia,” at www.themoscowtimes.com.Accessed on 19 Jul 2022.
[12]ibid
[13] “Casualties of the Russo-Ukraine war..,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org.Accessed on 19 Jul 2022.
[14]10 ibid.
[15] “Russia’s 200 year old “Artillery First’ doctrine that devastated Ukraine and outranges and outguns US systems,” at www.eurasiantimes.com.Accessed on 21 Jul 2022.
[16]5ibid. Accessed on 21 Jul 2022.
[17]Ibid.Accessed on 21 Jul 2022.
[18] “Ukrainian Forces destroy another Russian Ammo depot,”atwww.newsweek.com.Accessed on 21 Jul 2022.
[19] ‘Ukraine devastates Russian Artillery depot ahead of the offensive,” at www.alzazeera.com].Accessed on 21 J 2022.
[20]14 ibid

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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