Despite reports focusing on the use of anti-tank weapons in the opening phases of the Russia-Ukraine war, artillery has been a dominant force throughout. Often, in the battles to defend Kyiv, anti-armour weapons were used to slow Russian forces down and enable artillery to defeat them.
At the same time, the fighting in the east and south was preceded by massed artillery and air bombardments of Ukrainian positions. As the nature of the combat shifted from a fluid and porous front, to a static one dominated by trenches and fortifications, artillery’s role increased dramatically as did the consumption of ammunition. Success for Ukraine will in large part depend on the ability of the West to meet its artillery ammunition needs.
Despite a long relationship with NATO and stated reform efforts, the Ukrainian army that went to war on 24 February 2022 had more in common with the Russian army that invaded, than it did with any Alliance force. Its reform efforts, which had admittedly accelerated after 2014, had failed to completely revise its command structures, resulting in a select few units with planning procedures and structures that would be recognised by NATO.
This shaped the attitude of Ukrainian forces to artillery. Accuracy was improved where possible through the GIS Arta app, but the lack of precision munitions meant that the Ukrainian army had to rely on massed fires to achieve its effects.
To add to this, Ukraine maintained stores of legacy ammunition from the Soviet era – over a million tonnes worth according to a UN weapons inspector interviewed by Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty in 2017. However, the same report noted that 32,000 tonnes of ammunition had been destroyed in a sabotage incident that year, and accidents since 1991 had resulted in further explosions. The Ukrainian armed forces had spent an estimated 24,000 tonnes of ammunition in the fighting since 2014, further depleting those stocks.
By February 2022, it is understood that the Ukrainian stocks of tactical artillery munitions were considered to be sufficient, whereas operational stocks – missiles for the Tochka-U and rockets for its multiple rocket launchers were considered to be a problem. This has been borne out by Ukraine’s requests for rocket artillery ammunition.
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It is also testament to the amount of ammunition that the Ukrainian forces have spent. Researchers from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) visited Ukraine in April and reported that Ukraine was expending 6,000 rounds of 152mm ammunition per day, compared with the 20,000 rounds per day being spent by Russia.
A further issue grew out of the inability of many countries to produce Soviet calibre munitions. Some stocks were procured it seems, but they were not capable of replenishing the dramatic rates of expenditure. The only way for western governments to address this was by providing NATO calibre systems that could be supported by live production lines. The response has picked up pace and is delivering thousands of rounds to Ukraine, as shown below.
The UK is to send 50,000 rounds of Soviet calibre artillery ammunition to Ukraine, along with 20 restored M109 155mm self-propelled howitzers and 36 L119 105mm towed light guns, according to a 21 July announcement. The ammunition for the light guns – 36,000 rounds – is to be provided by the US in a separate aid package, the US Department of Defense reported in June. The US has promised significant quantities of artillery ammunition to Ukraine – details of which are provided in the table below.
|155mm||20,000||24 May (donated by Canada)|
|155mm||Up to 150,000||1 July|
|155mm||“Artillery ammunition”||8 July|
The total quantity of 155mm ammunition provided by the US DoD alone was 411,000 rounds according to a 23 July fact sheet. The table above shows that significant quantities of ammunition were supplied ahead of the first reported combat use of the M777 in early May. Further ammunition has been supplied by other states, although not all of it is cross-compatible despite meeting NATO standards.
The researchers from RUSI have observed that, “different countries’ howitzers not only have completely different maintenance requirements but also use different charges, fuzes and sometimes shells”.
Nonetheless, it is clear that Ukraine’s armed forces are consuming enormous quantities of NATO standard ammunition. So, whilst the quantities of NATO standard ammunition, as well as Soviet standard ammunition supplied, likely greatly exceeds the 411,000 rounds from the US, it is not clear how much of that ammunition is technically ring fenced for individual systems such as the PzH2000. This complicates any assessment of how much ammunition will have to be supplied.
A golden ratio?
The above expenditure statistic of 6,000 rounds per day seemingly relates to Soviet calibre ammunition. However, Ukraine’s deputy head of military intelligence Vadym Skibitsky informed the Guardian in June that Ukraine had spent almost all of its Soviet ammunition and was now reliant upon NATO arms supplies. This indicates that the rate of 6,000 rounds per day may hold for Ukraine’s NATO stocks too. However, if this is achievable with the quantity of guns supplied, it is notable that this level is likely far below that which the Ukrainians would prefer.
Some accounts from Ukrainian soldiers refer to Russians firing ten rounds for every one fired by the Ukrainian guns. Others claim it is even higher and state that they are often left without any artillery support at all. It follows that the Russian numerical superiority in some areas may be higher than in others.
Ukrainian reports also suggest that it is generally numerically superior to the systems that they have available. During the battle for Severodonetsk, the artillery duels contributed to Ukrainian casualty rates of more than 100 fatalities per day, which is unsustainable. This means that for Ukraine to be successful, the West must not only maintain Ukraine’s current rate of artillery ammunition expenditure but aim to increase it.
Understand the impact of the Ukraine conflict from a cross-sector perspective with the Global Data Executive Briefing: Ukraine Conflict