Leveling the Playing Field in Ukraine (part 1)

Another William (Chip) Sayers post. This is his seventh post here. He will be presenting at our Historical Analysis conference: Who’s Who at HAAC – part 1 | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org). This is the first of three posts on the subject.

———————–William (Chip) Sayers——————

Leveling the Playing Field in Ukraine (part 1)

In the past few weeks, the war in Ukraine has ceased to be a war of maneuver — if, indeed, it ever was — and has become what some have called a “war of artillery.”  If this is an accurate characterization, Ukrainian forces must be at a severe disadvantage, given the inequality of artillery between the two sides — sometimes cited to be as much as a 10:1 advantage for the Russians (this is HIGHLY dubious).  Western nations are shipping artillery and ammunition to Ukraine, but are unlikely to be able to make up the difference merely by replacing equipment.  Something more must be done to level the playing field for the Ukrainian Army.

There are many ways to answer what that something is, but having spent two years of my career in the schoolhouse at Quantico learning how many angels can dance on the head of a Center of Gravity, I believe the best way to get to the bottom of this issue is to do a Clausewitzian analysis, using tools developed by Dr. Joe Strange of the Marine Corps War College in his “Centers of Gravity & Critical Vulnerabilities: Building on the Clausewitzian Foundation So That We Can All Speak the Same Language,” an article he wrote for Perspectives On Warfighting Number Four (Quantico, VA: Command and Staff College Foundation, 1996).

In “Centers of Gravity & Critical Vulnerabilities,” Dr. Strange outlines a methodology for Center of Gravity (CoG) analysis that looks at the underpinning structures that support a CoG and evaluates them for vulnerability to attack.  Strange’s methodology is based on four definitions: 

Centers of Gravity:  Primary sources of moral or physical strength, power and resistance.

Critical Capabilities:  Primary abilities which merits a Center of Gravity to be identified as such.

Critical Requirements:  Essential conditions, resources and means for a Critical Capability to be fully operative.

Critical Vulnerabilities:  Critical Requirements or components thereof which are deficient, or vulnerable to neutralization, interdiction or attack (moral/physical harm) in a manner achieving decisive or significant results, disproportionate to the military resources applied.

At this point, we can make add two definitions of our own which may provide further clarification to the process:

Vulnerability (V): Vulnerabilities are Critical Requirements that can be attacked in some way. 

conditional Vulnerability (cV):  A conditional Vulnerability is a vulnerability that, under the right conditions, may operate as a Critical Vulnerability. 

To function as a Center of Gravity, Russia’s artillery force must be able to exercise the standard military capabilities:  It must be able to move, shoot, communicate, and sustain itself in the field.  These are its Critical Capabilities.

The artillery force must be able to move from place to place to shift fires to priority targets and to displace defensively to thwart any possible attempts to attack the guns.  In order to move, the artillery must have a sufficient number of operational prime movers and access to adequate Lines of Communications.  Russia has no problem with meeting either of these Critical Requirements.  There is no profitable way to attack the LOCs, themselves, as any potential bottlenecks to the movement of artillery pieces themselves — e.g., destroyed bridges — could be circumvented by maneuver enhancement engineering such as ferries and pontoon bridging.  This is a different problem than restricting the road capacity, as will be discussed, later. 

Attacking the prime movers from the air would have to be done one at a time, taking months to have any impact.  Further, Russia’s army would undoubtedly quickly learn to employ countermeasures — such as camouflage and supplementing or replacing military prime movers with civilian trucks — that would make any attack even less effective.  In the meantime, Russian air defenses would inflict significant attrition on Ukrainian aircraft. Taken together, there is no Critical Vulnerability associated with the movement CC.

Russia’s artillery force must be able to bring its firepower to bear on priority targets (shoot), so it needs a sufficient number of guns, trained forward observers and fire controllers, and associated equipment.  Russia has no problem in meeting this Critical Requirement.  The efficacy of attacks targeting trained personnel, and any attempt to disrupt the training of replacement personnel is highly doubtful.  Ground raids on battery positions by the Ukrainian Army would require penetration of Russia’s maneuver units acting as security for the guns would be useful, but would be difficult to pull off more than a few times and would be unlikely to create significant results.  Attacking the guns individually from the air would suffer the same problems as attacking their prime movers, and thus there are no Critical Vulnerabilities associated with the shoot CC.

Communications require infrastructure such as radio and landlines, and the soldiers to operate and maintain them.  Russian troops have rather infamously had to resort to the use of commercial cell phones to communicate between units, but this was in the early days of the conflict when the situation was much more fluid.  In the current phase where artillery is bombarding cities from more or less fixed positions, the communication problem is simplified.  Electronic interference with radio communications is feasible, but probably not to the extent necessary to deny sufficient bandwidth to Russia’s artillery force.  Furthermore, tactical landlines and coopted indigenous phone lines could make up the difference and there is no way to effectively target field telephones.  Finally, as the targets are whole neighborhoods covering large areas, map fire, which can be done by the gun batteries and therefore does not require observation and communications, would probably suffice to accomplish the artillery force’s mission.  Therefore, there are no Critical Vulnerabilities associated with the communicate CC. 

To sustain itself in the field, Russia’s artillery force must have an adequate supply of spare parts and the technicians to repair damaged and worn guns.  Some have suggested that Russia is vulnerable here, but attrition by enemy action and wear takes time to have an impact and is unlikely to register as a decisive event.  This CC also requires an adequate supply of ammunition and the logistics infrastructure to store and move that ammunition to the guns in the field.  While Russia undoubtedly has a large amount of ammunition in storage depots, moving that ammunition supply could be a Critical Vulnerability and requires a more thorough examination.

Russia’s ammunition expenditure rate is necessarily high to generate its firepower advantage.  Some have suggested that they are expending about 50,000 rounds a day.  While this is unlikely, it is probably not off by more than a factor of 4 or 5, a still substantial amount.  Anything that throttles this rate of fire will reduce the advantage they have and make the defense proportionately more effective.

Additionally, Putin and the Russian General Staff perceive that they have a significant threat from NATO forces on the nation’s border, and thus must maintain a war reserve of ammunition to meet that threat.  Any eventuality that causes Russia to break into its war reserves will make its General Staff very uncomfortable and likely to take significant action to redress the problem.

So how can Ukraine restrict the flow of Russian artillery ammunition sufficiently to level the playing field?  There are four means to get ammunition to the Russian guns: by air, sea, road and rail.  We will consider each of these targets and the overall problem in my next post.


To be continued (maybe Thursday)…

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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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