Ukraine update: Ukraine replaced airpower with artillery, but that has its own challenges

Ukraine update: Ukraine replaced airpower with artillery, but that has its own challenges

This has been a logistics war, and when I say that, I mean it’s been an artillery war. 

Logistics is about moving troops, food, water, fuel, lubricants, ammunition, weapons, spare parts, and everything else needed to fight a war to the front lines. How do you fight a logistics war? By stopping those supplies from moving. How do you stop those supplies from moving? You disrupt supply lines—by destroying supply depots, trucks, rail lines, and bridges. And how do you do that? Well, it depends. 

If you’re NATO, you use air power. You first suppress enemy air defenses, air bases, and aircraft. Then you systematically degrade those logistical targets. 

If you’re Russia, you … you don’t. Other than some random railhead strikes here and there, Russia inexplicably prefers to blow up playgrounds and apartment buildings rather than suppress Ukraine’s ability to move supplies to the front. 

And if you’re Ukraine, devoid of significant air power? You use artillery. The arrival of HIMARS/MLRS longer-range rocket artillery dramatically changed the trajectory of the war, creating the conditions that allowed the stunning success of the battles of Kharkiv and Kherson. That meant destroying ammunition dumps, key bridges, and disabling rail transport within 80 kilometers of the front. Russia struggles with truck logistics at anything past 25 kilometers from a railhead. 

But HIMARS/MLRS isn’t Ukraine’s only long-range option. Its extended-range precision guided tube-artillery munitions can hit 40-50 kilometers from the front lines. French Caesars self-propelled artillery guns can hit that range with regular artillery shells. Most of Russia’s artillery tops out at around 25 kilometers. (They have longer range stuff, but in smaller quantities.) 

Just as the debate over the future of the tank rages, there will be new debates over the role of air power in a future battlefield. Why maintain horrifically expensive fighter-bomber jets when much-cheaper HIMARS/MLRS and drones can perform much of the same tasks? An F-35 jet, the most advanced warplane in the world and what most of NATO is transitioning to, costs around $78 million a copy and costs $33,000 per hour to fly. Factoring in logistical costs like spare parts and maintenance facilities, the actual per-unit cost is around $110 million per plane, with a lifetime cost estimated at three times that amount, or $1.27 trillion dollars by 2036 for the U.S. fleet. 

Suddenly, the HIMARS per-unit cost of $4 million seems like the biggest bargain in the entire Pentagon’s budget. Maintenance is infinitely cheaper. And yes, ammunition is expensive, but those F-35s are firing their own expensive precision-guided munitions. Still, I don’t mean to get into that debate. It’s a complex one, and it’s academic to Ukraine. It doesn’t have many aircraft, so it has managed to effectively replace air power, in NATO combined-arms doctrine, with its expert use of artillery. 

Here’s the problem: NATO artillery isn’t designed to be pushed as hard as Ukraine has pushed it. For the West, artillery supplements airpower. For Ukraine, artillery is the whole ballgame. And this has consequences. 

Most of the 14 transferred PzH 2000 howitzers are already in need of repair, after intensive use. Germany wants to create a weapons maintenance center in Slovakia by December, but the problem is again the lack of spare parts for this.

— NOËL 🇪🇺 🇺🇦 (@NOELreports) November 18, 2022

The PzH 2000 is one of the best artillery systems in the world, yet it has been pushed to its operational limit, knocking the whole fleet out of commission. Lithuania has offered to repair it, but there is little indication that they have the spare parts that Germany is scrambling to find. I’ve made this point numerous times: The real challenge with war equipment isn’t the initial cost or training for its operation, it’s keeping spare parts flowing and training the maintenance crew. That’s why the West has been reluctant to deliver Western tanks and aircraft. What good is it if it’s all sitting in repair yards? 

Meanwhile, Russia understands the importance of these artillery pieces and knows their limited supply in the West. 

A French self-propelled gun “CAESAR” in the area of Maksymivka is being damaged by a Lancet loitering munition UAV.

— NOËL 🇪🇺 🇺🇦 (@NOELreports) November 16, 2022

That’s the first confirmed hit of a French Caesar. The Oryx database of confirmed equipment losses also lists 20 American M777 howitzers destroyed (of 142 delivered). M777s are towed howitzers, thus less mobile and more vulnerable to Russian counterbattery fire and drones. Three of 18 Polish Krab self-propelled artillery guns delivered have also been destroyed. There is definite attrition, both logistically and militarily. 

Earlier in the war, Slovakia set up depots to service and maintain Ukrainian equipment in a safe location, away from possible harm. War takes a severe toll on all equipment, but modern western gear, dependent on complex electronics, is even more severely impacted. This makes it more important that Ukraine get additional artillery units (France is sending more Caesars, new Krabs are delivered regularly, and don’t be surprised if the U.S. preps a new batch for delivery), as well as longer-range HIMARS/MLRS ammo. And understand that while we all want Ukraine to get even more Western gear, the PzH 2000 challenges shows us why it’s so difficult to send the most modern gear. 

P.S. A “logistics war” is also an artillery war the other way around—feeding artillery batteries puts an extremely heavy load on a logistics chain. Russia reportedly fires over 20,000 artillery shells per day. (Ukraine, sporting more accurate Western guns and precision-guided rounds, doesn’t need to fire as many to get the same effect, but it’s still in the high-four-figures, low five-figures per day.) Indeed, Russia retreated from Kherson when its compromised logistics couldn’t feed its guns. 

Speaking of logistics …

/2 Map of Ukrainian railway system for better understanding of importance of Ilovaisk railway station (green circle) in Russian logistics.

— Special Kherson Cat 🐈🇺🇦 (@bayraktar_1love) November 18, 2022

I really don’t understand why Russia always has that calendar guy helping Ukraine gauge the effectiveness of its strikes (“battle damage assessment”). It’s hilarious. Anyway, note just how accurate those rocket strikes were. Some of the rockets landed dead-center on the tracks, centered over bridges, making them that much harder to repair. 

The map is also helpful as it shows how that rail junction cuts off an entire logistics line from Russia. If Ukraine can cut Russia’s lines from Belgorod in the north by liberating both Svatove and Starobilsk, and if Crimea remains cut off, Russia will be forced to shift all of its supply lines to that eastern approach. Ukraine just demonstrated how it can easily degrade those lines. 

With the Kherson front now dormant, both sides are rushing those freed-up forces to the Donbas, to both the Bakhmut and Pavlivka directions. This rail line likely supplies both approaches. Much like Ukraine did in Kharkiv and Kherson, they are now “shaping the battlefield” in southeastern Donbas to finally quell Russian ambitions on that front once and for all. 

Snow has arrived in Ukraine. 

It is becoming increasingly difficult to move UKR BMP – Artificial intelligence upscaled 150% + dehalo +compression reverse + injection 30 to 60 FPS

— Dariusz Zawadzki (@Military_oO) November 18, 2022

That’s some slushy-ass mess, making it hard to move outside of roads. And roads are easy to target with artillery and ambushes. Ukraine is eager for that ground to hard-freeze, though snow can act as an insulator and delay that freeze. 

I’m this close to starting regular coverage of the Iranian protest movement. Time is the challenge, as with everything, but I’m so inspired by it that I feel that it would be warranted. Wouldn’t be daily, but maybe several times a week. I’ll likely test it out next week. 

This is Kateryna and she has not missed a single pro-Ukrainian rally in Kherson since March. She joined the movement in April. Katya hung yellow ribbons and leaflets, transmitted information to “Evorog Bot” and waited for the AFU. On November 11, Katya celebrated the liberation!

— NOËL 🇪🇺 🇺🇦 (@NOELreports) November 18, 2022

I’m really rooting for Twitter to survive despite all of Elon Musk’s sabotage because it’s easily the most effective way to tell stories such as this one. Lilya “hung yellow ribbons in Kherson when Russians patrolled the city and gathered a team of like-minded people, painted graffiti, pasted leaflets and passed information to the Defense Forces of Ukraine.” A resistance fighter doesn’t always look like you might expect. “Evorog bot” is an app Ukrainians in occupied territories can use to report on Russian troop movements.  

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