What Artillery and Air Defense Does Ukraine Need Now?
While the Russian military is on the back foot in Ukraine, its shifting operations reveal severe shortcoming in Ukraine’s arsenal and capabilities — one that NATO member states could fix. Washington has recognized this and President Joe Biden has approved a new arms package for Ukraine that includes artillery and more sophisticated anti-air systems, including more sophisticated and heavier weapons and platforms than have been provided thus far. As a defense professional who has focused on artillery for most of his career, I am encouraged by this decision. These systems will allow Ukrainian forces to continue to press the fight against Russia’s military.
After failing in the first phase of the war, Russian forces seem intent on using artillery and air-delivered munitions to create a zone of destruction in the Donbas. While Ukraine has extensive Soviet-era field and air defense artillery, augmented by shoulder-launched capabilities from NATO member states, it lacks the logistical resilience and range necessary to stand toe-to-toe with Russia in this next phase of the war. The integration of air-defense artillery with surface-to-surface artillery would enable Ukrainian forces to take out the most effective remaining weaponry in Russia’s arsenal: artillery.
Destroying Russian artillery is the key to Ukrainian success in the next phase of the war. There are readily available artillery systems in NATO member and partner arsenals that would allow Ukraine to thwart Russian objectives. Some might be concerned that Ukraine will be unable to field and maintain such weapon systems, but these concerns should not be overstated. While supplying these weapons would require a short period of time for training and equipping, upgraded Ukrainian batteries and battalions could begin taking the field as early as May — if Western policymakers act with urgency, which they seem to be interested in doing.
A Shifting Campaign
Russian forces have all but withdrawn from areas in northern Ukraine. Russian ground offensives are concentrated in the south and east of Ukraine. The next phase of the war will likely be a war of attrition focused on the Donbas, with the possibility of Russia re-opening its front north of Kyiv. Withdrawing Russian forces have left a path of destruction in their wake. As Russia shifts its posture, it has conducted a relentless bombardment of built-up areas, most notably in Mariupol. Artillery is the weapon of choice in Russia’s campaign of destruction, which seems intended to denude areas of the basic infrastructure necessary to sustain a viable population. Artillery, precision aircraft strikes, and long-range missiles continue to target Ukrainian infrastructure.
Ukrainian forces have done an outstanding job denying air superiority to the Russian air force using man-portable air-defense systems provided by NATO. They have also succeeded in using Javelins to stop tanks in their tracks. However, Ukraine has no effective options to counter a prolonged Russian artillery offensive. This should trouble those who want to see Ukraine prevail as Russia can rely upon an extensive supply of artillery platforms and munitions that it will likely use to lay waste to large swaths of eastern Ukraine and thwart a Ukrainian counter-offensive to retake the country.
The State of Ukrainian Artillery and Air Defense
The Ukrainian army has made good use of its legacy equipment over the past eight years of combat in the Donbas and during the first seven weeks of the Russian invasion, but that equipment is largely destroyed, run-down, ineffective, or outdated. As the campaign goes on, this legacy equipment will continue to breakdown and be destroyed in combat. Logistics and maintenance for this equipment will become ever more difficult as Ukraine’s supply of lethal munitions for equipment on hand dries up. The Ukrainian army lacks sufficient counter rocket, artillery, and mortar capabilities, which is particularly critical in defending its own counter-fire radar systems. Perhaps the most effective capabilities the Ukrainians do have in their inventory are Russian air-defense systems. The S-300, gifted to Ukraine by Slovakia, is an effective long-range system, but even with outside help provided thus far, Ukraine does not have the right systems and missile magazine depth for this to be a viable long-term option.
Ukrainian artillery such as BM-21, 2S1, and D-30, as well as air-defense capabilities such as the SA-6 and the SA-13, stem primarily from lower-tech Soviet, domestic, or regional production. Ukraine does not have the latest technology in self-propelled howitzers. While older systems are useful for imprecise area fires, the latest NATO systems and their munitions are faster, more lethal, and more survivable. They would allow Ukraine to do things it cannot currently do well: quickly determine locations of enemy artillery and target them with counter-battery fire, and destroy tanks and other armored vehicles with artillery, rather than only with anti-tank guided missiles and other tanks.
Further, these newer artillery systems are fully digitized and integrated with precision equipment based on internal, gyroscopic, self-locating devices supplemented by GPS updating. They also have modular components that can be swapped out, thus simplifying repairs. This is important because Ukraine currently lacks the ability to produce munitions and repair parts, especially as Russian forces bombard Ukrainian industrial facilities. Most newer systems require a relatively brief period of training on individual weapon systems and munitions. They are easy to use and employ for artillerymen already trained in basic field craft.
More Western Kit for Ukraine
As Russia reconstitutes its combat-ineffective maneuver units, most of its artillery units remain operational and in the fight. Russian artillery is engaging hundreds of targets a day in the Donbas and more than a thousand long-range missiles have been fired over the course of the campaign.
What specific systems should be considered for provision to Ukraine?
Sweden produces the Archer, a wheeled self-propelled howitzer with a range of 30 kilometers. The system is in production and a battalion’s worth of guns (12 to 18) could probably be provided immediately. It has on-board fire control computation, auto-loading and resupply, and requires only a three-man crew. France produces a similar howitzer, the CAESAR II. This is an extremely capable, wheeled, self-propelled, 155-milimeter howitzer that can integrate with NATO command and control systems.
These two howitzer systems are arguably the best in the world today. They are fully digitized and boast fully automated unmanned cannon turrets, power-assisted resupply systems, and onboard fire-solution computation systems. That means they can quickly receive and integrate all the data needed for counter-battery fire. These individual howitzers can fire a platoon’s worth of projectiles in a single fire mission and then drive to another location less than five minutes later to avoid Russian counter-battery fire. Both of these systems can fire the latest sensor-fuzed munitions, meaning each projectile can kill a vehicle that might be a tank, a self-propelled howitzer, and enemy radar system, or a logistics vehicle. In artillery, the ability to shoot, move, and shoot again is key to survivability. Both systems are highly mobile wheeled systems built on common truck chassis from Volvo and Tatra that can move quickly across road systems and have sufficient range to reach equivalent Russian cannon artillery systems from relative safety behind the forward line of troops. They are equipped with auto-loader systems and emplacement/displacement times measured in a handful of minutes. That gives them high rates of fires that enable them to do something called “multiple rounds, simultaneous impact” — one howitzer can have three to six rounds it fires land on a target area at the same time.
The U.S.-produced High Mobility Artillery Rocket System is also one of the best in the world. In addition to being highly mobile and digitized like the Archer and CAESAR, it can fire the full suite of sophisticated Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System rockets and eventually the long-range Precision Strike Missile, when it comes online. This system and the associated rockets and missiles require minimal train-up for basic artillerymen to employ. To complete the Ukrainian artillery kill-chain, the United States currently produces a long-range, highly accurate, counter-fire radar, the Q-53, which the Ukrainian army is already somewhat familiar with.
Outfitting with NATO howitzers and rocket launchers provides Ukrainian forces with the ability to employ NATO projectiles, rockets, and missiles, which include the best in sensor-fused weapons (such as the German SMArt155mm and the Swedish BONUS), GPS-guided precision rockets, and high-yield precision missiles. Integrating multi-mission radars and the counter-battery Q-53 radar would allow Ukrainian forces to identify Russian artillery systems, defeat incoming rounds by blasting them out of the sky using NATO or Russian counter-rocket systems, and provide counter-battery fire using sensor-fused munitions and area effects rockets to decimate Russian artillery forces. Finally, the United States should consider providing Ukraine with the Patriot Air Defense system to complete an integrated air-defense complex.
How to Set Ukraine Up for Cannon-Fed Success
The United States and its allies should also support Ukraine’s artillery arsenal with the necessary doctrine, materiel, and training, as well as logistical support in terms of maintenance and supply. Those NATO countries that produce many of the artillery systems have the industrial base to continue to supply repair parts and munitions for the foreseeable future. The United States and its NATO allies often use contracted logistics support as a stop-gap measure. This essentially involves personnel from Western defense firms going into theater, including forward positions in a conflict zone, in order to perform important maintenance and logistics activities for newly fielded weapons systems. Due to recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are many professionals and technicians from Western defense companies who have experience working in war zones. While this happens, Ukrainian military personnel can train and become familiar with the new equipment both at forward locations and in the rear. For major repairs and overhauls, the systems would be transported back to neighboring NATO countries.
Adapting and integrating NATO techniques and systems will enable the Ukrainian army to benefit from speed and data already enjoyed by its NATO partners. Training on many of the tactical systems can be completed in as little as a month since many of the fire-control complexities are accomplished by onboard computers. Training on sustaining and repairing these complex systems will take longer but can be supplemented by contracted logistics support while sustainers are in training. Fielding NATO-developed and integrated equipment will enable NATO member states to aid with targeting and battle-damage assessments from outside the combat zone. The secure nature of much of the NATO equipment will also stymie Russian efforts to gather intelligence on Ukrainian tactical activity.
As time goes on, individual NATO countries have begun considerations to supply various advanced western weapon systems on their own. Rumors have been circulating that Slovakia is considering sending Zuzana II howitzers, while the German arms consortium Krauss-Maffei Wegmann has flown trial balloons regarding the Panzerhaubitze 2000. Both systems represent advances over current Ukrainian systems, but the initiatives are disjointed and don’t take into account the important aspect of counter-battery radar, digital input to firing data, and the lethal munitions associated with the platforms.
The Artillery Fight is Here
Much has been written and said in recent weeks about the need to field weapons to the Ukrainians that can be immediately employed to stop the Russian offensive. That was wise counsel and has achieved its ends. Those weapons should continue to flow. The argument that more sophisticated weapons aren’t viable because of the associated training and follow-on logistics support simply isn’t correct given where Ukraine now finds itself in the fight. As the war settles in for a longer-term artillery duel, more appropriate and sustainable weapons systems should be brought to bear. The training to use those systems is not overly complex and can be accomplished in neighboring NATO countries in relatively brief periods of time. The maintenance and other tasks above the operator level can be performed by contracted logistics support in the operational environment as well as in neighboring countries for depot-level maintenance. Most importantly, the precision, lethality, and efficiency to be successful against Russian artillery systems is best provided by the more sophisticated capabilities available from NATO. Just as NATO has provided sophisticated systems — such as the Javelin, the Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon, Stinger, Starstreak, and Panzerfaust 3 — NATO should provide similar levels of sophistication for Ukraine to succeed in this next phase and mitigate the human suffering there as much as possible.
Now is the time to transition to NATO artillery and air-defense systems before Ukraine loses the momentum it has gained.
Michael Jacobson is a field artillery subject-matter expert and a field artillery colonel serving in the U.S. Army Reserves. The opinions and views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Army Reserves, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Image: Swedish armed forces