Modern Artillery Means There Are No Quiet Days at the Front

Try preparing an offensive while under constant bombardment into depth

There are objective reasons why the Russians are having a hard time

He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.

A weapon that can lob grenades 20 miles into the distance is a neat thing. But traditionally that didn’t really mean that everything from the contact line into the depth of 20 miles was under threat.

Guns could fire 20 miles out, but there were few ways to see anything beyond the first line of defense. (There were artillery-spotting balloons and planes, but numbers and usefulness were limited.)

So if your side was in the process of rearranging forces and building up stockpiles, and the other side wasn’t conducting an offensive either, then the front entered into a period of calm. Aside from aerial battles, the shelling of the first line, sniper duels, reconnaissance patrols, and other low-level tactical stuff not much would be going on that was casualty-producing.

That has all changed. Small drones have given artillery eyes. Now bombardment into enemy depth is trivial and everything that is in range of enemy guns is also very credibly under threat. Neither side has to be attempting an active offensive and yet casualties can be very high as targets abound.

Troops on the first line are usually heavily entrenched and not very vulnerable to artillery bombardment, but if the eyes of the artillery extend well into the enemy rear other, better targets will be found.

It has created a situation where quiet, low-casualty days are few and unlikely. Just rearranging forces or trying to amass them in preparation for an offensive can lead to high casualties. Now the active part of an offensive really begins as soon as you start assembling your forces for one. All of that has to be done under enemy long-range fire. (Part of the reason offensives on day one from Russian territory were far more successful than what we are seeing now.)

For whatever reason, the pre-war expectation of Western military experts that the Russians would be able to silence Ukrainian long-range guns has not panned out. This has had a very significant negative impact on the Russian ability to stage dramatic offensives because they’re not able to prepare for them in peace. The challenge is almost like the challenge of preparing an offensive while under constant aerial attack (albeit only into the depth of 10 to 20 kilometers).

Now, the Russians do have their own guns, and many more of them. That means that they can back much more of the 800-km front with artillery, and can deliver much more devastating initial salvos.

However, the number of tubes is not everything. Situational awareness, target availability, ammunition availability and shells fired are all just as important. The Ukrainians may have fewer guns but what if they are able to find more targets of the juicy kind?

The Russians are expending vast quantities of artillery ammunition but they are mainly firing it at the fortified Ukrainian first line of defense. That is because as the defending side the Ukrainians can get away with presenting relatively few vulnerable targets in the rear. They can get away with moving in small dispersed groups and on foot, or in individual light vehicles. The Russians do not have that luxury. If they want to force a breakthrough they have to amass with heavy equipment and prepare stockpiles close to the front. Such preparations are much more easily disrupted by guided artillery than is infantry in trenches.

So the Ukrainians are firing fewer shells but a higher proportion of theirs is against the more vulnerable targets like ammo depots, supply trucks, and tanks out in the open.

This is all to say that there are *objective* reasons why the Russian effort since the withdrawal from Kiev to the present has advanced at a snail’s pace. The lack of speed is explained neither by deep-seated or all-around Russian incompetence, nor by the laughable notion that the Russians are going it slow “on purpose”.

They are going it slow because anyone in their position could only go slow. The Russians have potent air defenses but these are geared toward countering a relatively small number of high-performance aircraft. But to a flood of disposable drones they don’t have an answer (especially when the drones know exactly where to fly to because of US-provided satellite imagery). They entered the war unprepared to tackle this new weapon (ironic considering how much they have relied on small drones in Syria and at Debaltsevo themselves) and are doing as well as would anyone at a similar level of preparedness. (Anyone without America’s air-to-ground capability.)

And once again: truly a lot is being asked of the Russian soldier. They are asked to amass in preparation for offensive while constantly under threat of coming under fire from 10 to 20 kilometers away.

13 Comments
  1. Oscar Peterson says

    Interesting piece.

    Key take-aways for me:

    1. “Small drones have given artillery eyes.”

    2. “The Russians have potent air defenses but these are geared toward countering a relatively small number of high-performance aircraft. But to a flood of disposable omnipresent drones they don’t have an answer.”

    I would have thought the Syria experience would have given the Russians a heads-up on this sort of problem and led them to think about what systems were needed to counter it.

    Which drones are the key ones for this task? Do they fly low enough so that the old Shilka’s or some system that could be taken out of storage would be useful against them? How much of a radar cross section do they have? I suppose the Russians have no air-to-air killer drones to find and kill the Ukrainian artillery spotter drones.

    I wonder also about Russian communications security. Are their tactical networks encrypted? Supposedly cell phones are prohibited but I wonder about that in practice. And the use of Musk’s LEO satellites as well as whatever help the US is giving.

    And of course, tied to this issue is what seems like the limited ability to interdict replacement weapons flowing into the battle space.

    Finally, GRU is allegedly replacing FSB as the intel organization in charge, but GRU is the one who should have known about these developing sensor-shooter capabilities.

    1. Pink Unicorne says

      I believe those are commercial 4rotor drones. They are simply too small to be picked up by the kind of radars on Russian field anti-air systems. Russians use Chinese Yiwu walkie-talkies for officer communication, and text messages for troop-level command. That should give you some idea of what kind of army the Russians have atrophied into. If even the contractors are so Iraqi-like, imagine what kind of an “army” would be sent to the frontline should Vlad try a general mobilization, and you see it’s wise that he didn’t. Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t be throwing stones.

      1. Oscar Peterson says

        Yeah, I see assertions that most drones being used are DJI Chinese drones–quadricopter as you say.

        Not sure whether these drones can actually transmit targeting information (10 digits grids or whatever) or whether the drone operator calls the artillery FDC (or maybe the guns themselves) and, using the control screen visual, says “Drop 50, fire for effect” or suchlike.

        But these things fly low and slow. Shouldn’t be too hard to devise a response. Looks like small phased-array radars for drone-hunting already exist:

        https://techcrunch.com/2017/05/12/echodynes-pocket-sized-radar-may-be-the-next-must-have-tech-for-drones-and-drone-hunters/?

        DJI has cut off sales to both Russia and Ukraine which presumably benefits Ukraine since third parties can purchase and then transfer them to the Ukrainians.

        Where did you get the information about the walkie-talkies? Surely that can’t work much above company level. Do they not have VHF tactical radio nets? I can’t believe that could be the case.

        1. Pink Unicorne says

          oh, that’s from chinese social media from early March. Of course you could argue Russians actually have encrypted comms, they’re just deliberately not using it, but i think that’s “everything proceeding according to plan” territory.

          Spotting by drone is actually quite a bit more simpler i suspect. Some drones simply display gps coords on their UIs, and that’s good enough for 155s at least. Yeah yeah it’s civilian gps and such, but WWI was fought with balloons.

          People don’t normally realize the chips that power their electronic gadgets are supplied by a huge international supply chain that involves ONLY US and North/Southeast Asia, not Russia. So i don’t think Russia can just make gadgets on techcrunch even if they knew how. It’s no coincidence Russia is buying DJI drones. Even Russian Orlan 10 use Chinese civilian IMEI (satellite phone) chips!

  2. Agarwal says

    This was an interesting article. I guess this war shows that America’s “magical” performances in 1991 and 2003 were due completely to air power, which Russia lacks in this conflict. I think if this were America attacking Ukraine, we would see non-stop precision weapons strikes on Ukrainian artillery with minimal American losses. Russia cheaped out on this precision weapons with a bunch of modified dumb bombs that work reasonably well from low altitudes, but are not able to function in an environment of basically infinite manpads. American jets would just cruise at 30,000ft making hits, while Russia lacks the weapons to do this.

    This makes sense since Russia has a limited military budget that resulted in a military built around a potential stand-off war with nato. Good air defenses to attrition nato air superiority, and hypersonic missiles to strike high value targets like carriers and giant military bases in Germany with impunity. The Ukraine war is the opposite of this, with no Ukrainian Air Force to attrition, and hypersonic missiles being poor choices for tactical strikes on Ukrainian MLRS etc. But you would figure that the Russian general staff would have known all this before launching the invasion.

    1. Pink Unicorne says

      I suspect the reason Russia af doesn’t do precision munitions is due more to US chip sanctions than costs. GBU12 and equivalents are 1/10 or cheaper than say AIM9Xs. With these Russians can at least quickly degrade Ukrainian defense around big cities in early part of the war. That didn’t happen of course. If i were to venture a guess, all those calibers and modified iskanders that were actually fired were manufactured pre-crimea.

  3. YakovKedmi says

    https://warontherocks.com/2022/04/loitering-munitions-in-ukraine-and-beyond/

    [quote]
    “The character of war is changing, with loitering munitions at the forefront of modern weaponry. The ongoing Ukraine conflict has provided useful lessons for the West. While once relegated to countering insurgencies or special operations missions, this critical capability is becoming a must-have system like Javelins and man-portable air-defense systems. The use of loitering munitions challenges longstanding warfare assumptions regarding long-range strike capabilities, the survivability of armored vehicles, and operational-level logistics. Additionally, the democratization of loitering munitions both internationally and down to the individual combatant ensures that this emerging technology will only continue to appear on battlefields globally. In turn, military analysts should stand ready to assess the impact of loitering munitions in Ukraine and beyond.”[/quote]

  4. ken says

    It would not require a whole lot of air power to silence those guns but possibly Russia’s lack of experience in the art of war is rearing its head. By now (2022) the West has had many wars under their belts. Sometimes in a fight experience can overcome power. Russia in fact owns the skies over Ukraine so there is no problem there. The problem seems to be Russia does not want to commit a large amount of air power. Instead they are slugging it out on the ground WWI style and losing more men and equipment than they should. The fact the Ukrainian’s are shelling villages within Russia with little Russian response is very disturbing. Those units and guns should have been destroyed before they got close enough to do that or at least be destroyed while engaged. All we hear is warnings from Moscow.

    I agree with Marko that Russia is acting strangely. I understand Russia wants to minimize damage but when the enemy strikes on your territory it’s time to take care of business.

    1. Agarwal says

      Russians do not actually have meaningful air superiority. The Russians use low flying planes and choppers for tactical air support, but they cannot do this because of the insane number of manpads in Ukraine. Manpads are used to hit low flying targets, and by gifting Ukraine almost half of its manpad stock, the USA just with this chess move basically negated the Russian Air Force. Russian planes can fly high altitude in many parts of Ukraine (for example over the Donbas), but without real precision weaponry, flying high is pretty useless for everything except carpet bombing. Russia does not have real precision weaponry. Instead they tried to “modernize” their dumb bombs with some sort of fancy glonass automatic bomb sites/release. This system works ok at low altitudes, but again, Russians can’t fly low because of manpads.

      It seems to me what is most unique about this war is that it has less active air power than any war involving a “strong” country since WW1. Even WW2 80 years ago had more tactical air support on all sides than what Russia is providing to its ground forces. Forget about the almost sci-fi Gulf War, this is more like WW1 with drones.

  5. Roko says

    Hmm strange! I come from a telegram channel (Intel slava) and those pontoons, trenches and armoured vehicles are supposed to be Ukrainians, whom we should believe?

    1. Field Empty says

      It’s up to you what you believe. Do your own research and make up your mind.

    2. Oscar Peterson says
  6. Pink Unicorne says

    You have to remember that the sanction starting in 2014 is probably half the reason why the Russians don’t have a functioning air force. Russian pilots rarely train with precision-guided munitions. Even Su35s have to rely on target coordinates written down on pieces of paper because of a lack of integration into the glass cockpit(!). It is entirely debatable how many of those S300s near the Ukrainian border actually can function in a fight with NATO. No, Russia has only nukes to fall back on now.

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