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Monday, January 2, 2023

Artillery issues in the Russian-Ukrainian War

Last week I posted on how supporting the Ukrainians has depleted both our supplies of Stinger air defense missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles. Now another interesting point has been brought up.

Friend, mentor, and fellow officer Colonel Sam Pearson, US Army (Retired) started life in a fun branch, Field Artillery. He got to shoot big guns which make a lot of noise and blew up stuff. But like most officers in the service, he had to grow up and become something that's not fun, just critical. Logistics. It's been a while since he's handled a howitzer, but he's still an expert in both. 

Last week COL Pearson had an excellent post on his Facebook page on the shortcomings of artillery ammunition in the Russian army, also reflecting issues with Iranian and North Korean shells. Reprinted with permission, emphases mine:
An artilleryman’s strategic view of what is happening in the Ukraine/ Russia conflict. 
In the last few months Ukrainian troops have noticed reduced use of artillery by the Russians. Better yet, more of the Russian shells and rockets are duds and don’t explode when they hit the ground. Ukrainian troops learned how to use their artillery ammo carefully because NATO nations did not have as much to provide as Russia already had. That’s because the Russians maintained larger stockpiles of munitions and had a lot older stuff that could be used somewhat safely by Russian artillerymen, but were more likely to fail to explode to land where aimed.
For the first six months of the war Russia was able to fire a lot more shells and rockets at the Ukrainians than the Ukrainian were capable of. That changed because Russia, like the NATO nations supplying Ukraine, is running out of artillery ammunition. Existing inventories are largely gone and munitions firms worldwide have all the business they can handle. Russia does not have as much capacity for manufacturing enough munitions to replace what has been expended or destroyed by the Ukrainians, who carefully attacked all Russian ammo stocks they could find and hit. Plus they captured a lot and promptly used those on the Russians, notably after their breakout from Kharkhiv this fall. Russia has few foreign sources of munitions and those sources have encountered problems. For example, North Korea sold Russia large quantities of shells, much of it near its “use by” date. These munitions were moved to Ukraine via the Trans-Siberian railroad. Russia has had problems lately with that rail line and that has delayed some of the North Korea munitions shipments. Another source was Iran, which didn’t have as much to spare as North Korea but was able to get it to the Russians quickly.
That left neighboring Belarus, which Russia has pressured to enter the war to assist Russian forces in Ukraine. The Belarussian leader is pro-Russia but most Belarussians are not and support Ukraine. Because of that, Belarus cannot send troops into Ukraine but Belarussian ammo stocks and manufacturing capabilities are available. As with Iran and North Korea, Belarus has to be paid
One of the problems Russia has is that the shelf life of most munitions varies from 5-20 years, depending on the component (shell, fuze, electronics, batteries or propellant.) Artillery shells and rockets use various types of explosives, notably as propellants, that degrade over time. Western nations spend a lot of money to remove elderly munitions by recycling them. This is expensive but it is a major reason why Western munitions are more reliable and less dangerous for users.
When the Cold War ended in 1991 Western nations were able to safely dispose of munitions that were too old to be safe and reliable. Russia had more of these munitions and little cash or sense of urgency in safely disposing of their elderly artillery shells and rockets. Storage facilities containing these expired munitions eventually began to randomly explode in a spectacular fashion. Russia then sought to dispose of the oldest and most unstable munitions in controlled explosions that did not destroy structures and kill or injure nearby military or civilian personnel. This disposal process is still underway and Russia keeps track of how old munitions are and knows which munitions recently passed their use-by date and can be safely delivered to artillery units for use. This is one reason why Ukrainians experience many Russian shells and rockets fired at them that are very inaccurate and often do not detonate when they land. For Russian artillerymen, a few of these shells and rockets explode when fired, often killing or injuring members of the gun crew.
Blow up when you pull the lanyard? Hate it when that happens. Then again the Russian Army is hurting for manpower right now, likely one of the reasons here.

As artillery is a major weapon on both sides of this war, the Ukrainians are making efficient use of their assets. The Russians reportedly are burning through stockpiles faster than can be refurbished. From The Telegraph:
While forces had previously used 60,000 artillery shells per day, they now only use 19,000 to 20,000 shells. Ukraine’s military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said that troops will have to scale back.
I've often wondered if Putin really considered what would happen if he crossed the border with Ukraine. Perhaps his generals believed this would be a pushover attack, or maybe  Putin believed it. I can only speculate. But something Vlad would have been wise to remember, the three word question General of the Army and later President Dwight Eisenhower would always ask his staff when looking at an operation: "And then what?" Ike wanted ideas though though. Putin either didn't think, or didn't think it thorough. 

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