Leveling the Playing Field in Ukraine (part 2)

Follow-up William (Chip) Sayers post to Leveling the Playing Field in Ukraine (part 1) | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org).

This is his eighth 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 second of three posts on the subject.

———————–William (Chip) Sayers——————

Leveling the Playing Field in Ukraine (part 2)

Before launching into a discussion of how the artillery ammunition Critical Capability may be attacked through a Critical Vulnerability, I thought a couple of vignettes were in order.  Artillery ammunition is heavy. Really heavy. This is the key to the CV we want to attack, and the following will hopefully impress this on the reader.

In the Spring semester of 1999, my Command and Staff College class at Quantico was given a logistics exercise which consisted of moving a Marine division from point A to point B during a pause in combat operations. We didn’t have to worry about enemy interference, we just had to pick up the division and move it. I don’t recall if we had any transportation battalions attached, or whether we had to do the whole thing with organic assets. When it was over, my Marine buddies were proud of how they kicked that scenario’s derrière and began to pat themselves on the back. It so happened that we had an Army artilleryman in the conference group, and he and I looked at each other with an expression of, “that doesn’t look quite right,” so we pulled out some paper and our calculators and quickly came to the realization that we hadn’t moved the division’s allotment of artillery ammunition.

A good number of calculations later, we presented our findings to the group. We concluded that moving the division’s men, equipment, supplies, rations, fuel and other types of ammunition constituted less than half the tonnage we would have had to move in the real deal. Artillery ammunition easily outweighed the entire rest of the division.

Some years later, I was trying to drive this point home to some folks with no military background and I came up with the following illustration:

Every 4th of July, the US Army’s Old Guard artillery salute battery wheels four of its 3” M-5 antitank guns out on the National Mall to accompany the National Symphony Orchestra in playing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. In the final 3 minutes of the piece, the guns fire 29 rounds in time with the music, bringing the Overture to a thrilling climax. If one replaced the Old Guard’s guns with a battery of old Soviet-era 130mm M-46 Field Guns — one of the most prolific pieces in service around the world — those four guns would fire off almost 2.5 metric tons of ammunition. 

One should note this is indicative of the logistics burden, not the amount of explosives fired down-range. It includes all the mass that has to be moved to keep the guns fed: the crates, shells, cartridges, propellant, fuzes, dunnage, etc.

Obviously, artillery ammunition is extremely heavy to move around. It is most inefficient to move by air and can literally fly the wings off cargo aircraft in a short period of time. For instance, the most important cargo aircraft available to Russia is the Il-76, which can carry approximately 30MT of artillery ammo on a single flight. That may sound like a lot, but it would last an M-46 battalion of 18 guns less than 4 minutes at an easily sustainable rate of fire. That should put things in perspective.

Seaborne movement is the most efficient means of moving large quantities of ammunition, but the Russians have few options for that. They virtually destroyed the small port of Mariupol during their long siege, and Odessa is currently unavailable to them. Sevastopol is the only seaport of any size available to the Russians and that is in the southern Crimea, 300km from the front.

Of course, artillery ammunition can be trucked — indeed it must be over the final kilometers to the guns — but its density creates a lot of wear and tear on the vehicles and is not recommended for long Main Supply Routes (MSRs). Russian road MSRs leading into Ukraine are long, relatively low-capacity highways that offer surprisingly few river crossing options along the borders. Ukraine has a few first-class highways equivalent to the US interstate system, but its road network is mostly one blacktop lane in each direction, at best. On average, the road net will support about 4,500 to 6,800 metric tons per day between the rear areas and the front-line Battalion Tactical Groups’ guns.

Specifics are difficult to come by, but my best estimate has the Russian’s deploying about 80-90 brigade and regiment equivalents, each fielding at least one and up to three BTGs. Brigades fielding single BTGs generally support their battalion tactical groups with two 18-gun artillery battalions and often a 12-18 launcher MRL battalion.  Brigades fielding two or three BTGs will undoubtedly have to be more stingy in supporting artillery. The artillery force is therefore estimated to consist of about 3,000 tube artillery pieces (almost entirely self-propelled 152mm) and 500 multiple rocket launchers (MRLs), overwhelmingly of the 122mm BM-21 type. 

The Russians measure ammunition in terms of “units of fire” (UoF), which are not necessarily related to expenditure…except when they are. For instance, artillery might fire two units of fire in support of an attack against a position, or one UoF in a meeting engagement. During the Cold War era, the Soviet Army kept about 3 UoF spread between the guns and the regiment/brigade. Ideally, whatever they expend, they would like to keep those 3 units of fire filled. This probably holds for the BTG, as long as the parent brigade is fielding only one. However, if it fields a second, or even third BTG, logistics may get stretched beyond the brigade’s ability to maintain this scheme.

The UoF for a 152mm gun is 60 rounds, weighing in at 4.7MT and requiring the full volume of a 5MT truck to move. 122mm rockets are larger, as is its UoF at 120 rounds.  They weigh in at 12MT and require four trucks per launcher because of the bulk of the rockets. Even on an active front, not all guns will fire on any given day, nor will they fire a full unit of fire. Some will fire more, and some will not fire at all. So, it seems that .25—.5 UoF per gun would make a good compromise expenditure for our estimate. 3,000 155mm guns firing 30 rounds (.5 UoF) is 90,000 rounds weighing some 7,110 MT. 500 BM-21s firing 60 rockets per day (.5 UoF) is 30,000 rounds weighing a further 3,000 MT. Together, this is just over 10,000 MT per day requiring some 2,500 trucks to move.  Note: In my last post, I scoffed at the claim that the Russians were expending 60,000 shells a day. I hadn’t run the numbers, and while they may not be firing that much, they clearly have the wherewithal to easily double that number. That will teach me to run my keyboard before my calculator… 

In the 1980s, Soviet doctrine called for the Front (the echelon above the field army) to hold 60-90 days of supply of all categories. Taking the lower figure, a 60-day supply of ammunition at .25 to .5 units of fire would clearly be a massive amount of ammunition, something in the neighborhood of half a million metric tons. Today, the Military District serves as the functional equivalent of the Front in most regards excepting that of a field headquarters, while the Army continues much as before, but as the highest level of headquarters deployed to the field. Logistically, this means that the Military District probably holds 60+ days of supply in its stores back home and is responsible for sending supply forward via rail lines to its deployed Armies. As Armies have been deployed from as far away as the Eastern Military District on the Pacific coast, this is clearly a major logistical challenge. Almost certainly, this is being met by placing the Eastern Military District Armies in the logistical train of MDs closer to Ukraine and backfilling them from EMD stocks.

US Army logistics doctrine calls for truck routes of no more than 140km, which allows vehicles to make two round trips per day from major logistics centers to the front-line units. Soviet doctrine was similar, with 100km between army-level supply bases and the front-line troops. Of course, transportation units can be “daisy-chained” together to extend their reach, but it is interesting to observe that Russian penetrations into Ukrainian territory average no more than about 100-150km from the border.

Ideally, the Russians would like to bring artillery ammunition as close as possible to the front-line units by rail as this would be the quickest and most efficient method. Not surprisingly, Russia and Ukraine use the same gauge of rails and therefore the Russians could theoretically drive their railheads into Ukrainian territory. Practically speaking, however, they probably keep their railheads on Russian soil and rely on trucks to move supply the final 100-150km to the front. Should Russia decide to move deeper into Ukraine, however, they may feel the need to bring their railheads much further forward.

While Ukraine does not have an abundance of first-class highways (two lanes in either direction), it is well supplied with roadways with a lane in each direction and the terrain is generally flat or rolling. The condition of the roads are questionable, with over half being classified as “substandard” and nearly 40% requiring rebuilding. Average speeds are ½ to 1/3rd that of West European countries. There are forested and swampy areas, but the major trafficability issue is a low density of bridges to cross Ukraine’s many north/south rivers. It is quite common to have a gap of 50km between bridges, with no crossing points in between. From this appreciation we can see that there are few chokepoints available to Ukrainian forces, but those that do exist could have significant impact if effectively attacked. However, bridges can be repaired or bypassed through the use of ferries and pontoons and require constant attention to keep out of action.

Furthermore, bridges can be effectively defended from air attack, particularly if they are visited on a regular basis. All of the Ukrainian Air Force’s combat aircraft, including the MiG-29, are capable of carrying ordnance sufficient to bring down a bridge, but their numbers are too few to sustain the constant losses of continuous action over obvious targets. A better solution would be to employ long-range, heavy rockets with precision guidance. The United States has already supplied Ukraine with the HIMARS multiple rocket launcher and GMLRS GPS-guided rockets. It is unknown (and doubtful) that the GLMRS 200lb warhead would be sufficient to destroy a bridge, even with multiple hits.  However, the HIMARS is also capable of firing the larger ATACMS rocket equipped with a 500lb penetrating warhead that likely could do the job. The Biden Administration has thus far refused to send weapons to Ukraine that could be used to strike targets inside Russia. But why does Putin get to call the tune? His entire strategy is based on deliberately committing atrocities against non-combatants on such a scale that it will force the Ukrainian government to capitulate out of shock. If the Ukrainians occasionally hit military targets inside Russia with weapons we have sent them, what of it? Putin’s actions have strengthened the hand of NATO—the very thing he most feared—and he now has his hands full trying to salvage a losing war that is steadily weakening his military forces. He can threaten NATO all he wants, but he has no capacity for meaningful retaliation.

Of course, dropping a few bridges will only throw a few kinks into Russian plans; they certainly won’t win the war. What can help level the playing field for Ukraine is the synergy between destroying artillery ammunition dumps where they can be found and attacked, and throttling down the flow of ammunition resupply moving across Russian MSRs to replenish lost supplies. Fortunately, Ukrainian forces are already engaged in destroying Russian ammunition dumps, allegedly using the newly fielded US HIMARS systems—all eight of them! 

So, what do we do? First, we need to convince the Ukrainian Army that this is the Critical Vulnerability on which they should concentrate the full weight of their efforts—assuming they haven’t come to that conclusion themselves. Second, we need—along with our allies—to provide Ukraine with the maximum amount of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information on Russian ammunition dumps and MSR chokepoints for Ukrainian forces to target. Third, we need to send them HIMARS systems and rockets as quickly and in as great numbers as we can. Fourth, we need to send them ATACMS rockets and fighter aircraft despite the misgivings of some. The MiG-29s they have asked for are, by far, the least threatening combat aircraft we could give the Ukrainian Air Force. Its air-to-ground capabilities are limited, and its range is almost cripplingly short. We have little to fear from former Warsaw Pact NATO countries transferring their MiG-29s to the UAF. Furthermore, holding back on needed weapons is a sure way to weaken our allies’ confidence and earn us the contempt of the world if Kiev is forced to capitulate to a murderous tyrant. Fifth, we need to clean out the ammunition depots of NATO’s former Warsaw Pact members of their Russian-type artillery ammunition. It is highly unlikely that NATO will be able to reequip Ukraine’s artillery forces with Western artillery pieces before it is too late to impact the current war. So far, a few dozen artillery pieces have been delivered—this against an estimated 2,500 guns in the Ukrainian inventory. Save the modern NATO weapons for special use or modernization after the war, but concentrate on feeding their existing guns, now.

If Ukraine can level the artillery playing field, Russia has no further trump cards up her sleeve. At that point, the war becomes a loser for Russia, and it becomes a just a matter of time before Putin must pay the piper for his brutality and arrogance.

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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.
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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.
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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).
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Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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