With New Guns And Long-Range Rockets, Ukraine Is Transforming Its Artillery. But Maybe Not Fast Enough.
As many as a hundred Ukrainian soldiers die every day in the battle for eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov announced Thursday.
That casualty rate, which is consistent with figures Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky provided earlier this month, underscores the intensity of the fighting in Donbas—and helps to explain the increasing urgency of Kyiv’s requests for military aid.
“We have already received, bought on the market, manufactured and handed over to the armed forces of Ukraine a significant number of weapons,” Reznikov said. “These numbers would have been enough for a victorious defense operation against any army in Europe. But not against Russia.”
“That is why we emphasize: Ukraine desperately needs heavy weapons, and very fast,” Reznikov added. “We have proved that, unlike many others, we do not fear the Kremlin. But as a country we cannot afford to be losing our best sons and daughters.”
In particular, Ukraine needs howitzers and rocket-launchers, Reznikov said. Inasmuch as the slow, grinding battle for Donbas mostly is an artillery battle, this makes sense.
The Russian army has concentrated its best guns and rockets in Donbas and relentlessly bombards Ukrainian positions before sending in the tanks and infantry.
Ukraine’s guns and rockets—including hundreds of the latest Western-made examples—not only bolster the defenders, they also strike back at the Russian artillery. A practice called “counterbattery.”
Ukraine’s allies so far have provided almost all of the artillery Kyiv has requested, Reznikov said. But the request is about to get a lot bigger. “When the circumstances on the battlefield are changing, the needs are increasing, too.”
To match the firepower of the Russians and their allies in Donbas, the Ukrainians need two things, Reznikov said. To continue replacing its old, and increasingly hard-to-support, Soviet-vintage 122-millimeter and 152-millimeter cannons—many hundreds of them—with more modern, 155-millimeter Western cannons.
And to complement this tube artillery with rocket launchers such as the American-made High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS. “A significant amount” of them, Reznikov said.
The 155-millimeter guns can shoot farther—20 miles or so—and with more powerful ammunition than the older 122s and 152s generally can. The extra range helps to keep Ukrainian gunners beyond the reach of Russia’s gunners. The extra explosive power eases the strain on ammo supplies. “These new shells are more effective than their Soviet equivalents, and hence their consumption is lower,” Reznikov explained.
HIMARS and other rocket-launchers meanwhile are ideal counterbattery weapons, as they can shoot twice as far as the 155s with cluster warheads that scatter small explosives across a wide area.
Each cluster munition packs enough punch to disable a delicate artillery piece. The Russians lately have been firing their cluster rockets at Ukrainian artillery in Donbas, apparently damaging at least one of Ukraine’s new ex-Norwegian M-109 howitzers.
“We already have a clear artillery supply plan until the end of July,” Reznikov said. The plan includes weeks of training on each new system for a cadre of Ukrainian troops.
But even if foreign donors pledge enough guns and rockets and training goes smoothly, there’s another complication. As the Ukrainian army transitions from Soviet-style artillery with its particular ammo to Western-style artillery with entirely different ammo, there are bound to be logistical problems.
Reznikov outlined the process. “The supplied weapons and equipment are centrally transferred by the Ministry of Defense to the warehouses of our armed forces,” he said. “The distribution is carried out by the command of the armed forces of Ukraine because they are exactly those who see the whole picture, form operation plans and set priorities.”
But the logisticians hold veto power over everything. After all, a new howitzer is useless if the front-line battery operating it can’t repair the gun and keep it supplied with adequate numbers of the right shells. “Let me remind you that in order to obtain the appropriate weapons, commanders must address the Logistics Forces Command,” Reznikov said.
As casualties mount, Ukraine needs artillery, bad. But new guns and rockets can move only so fast from allies’ warehouses to the combat brigades. The open question is whether Kyiv can reequip its artillery batteries before the escalating death toll in Donbas results in irreversible damage to the army.