Images being shared on social media and in news reports from the frontlines in the Donbas and the Kherson region are striking in that they remind us of the despairing Western Front of the First World War. Trenches, shell holes, muddy fields… A far cry from an idealistic vision of modern warfare.
These images are however indicative of one perhaps unanticipated result of the current war: artillery and big guns have returned as the foundation of modern tactical warfare, both offensive and defensive. Stalin once referred to it as ‘the God of War’, and with the limited role of air power in Ukraine, it has been revived as the dominant weapon of choice. Artillery is being used in a hybrid way by both sides, through precision strikes and area denial tactics. A war of attrition has set in and European militaries have responded in kind. The Ukrainian army itself has benefitted, with shipments of European guns like the CAESAR self-propelled howitzer on the rise as European powers continue to for the country. Lessons from the Ukrainian battlefield are certainly being heeded…
The Ukrainian effect
Each side on the battlefield in Ukraine has been using artillery in a number in different ways. The Russians, with a superior number of guns, has been using artillery as its primary attritional offensive weapon, used to target the Ukrainian military, be they defending or attacking units, or dug-in command posts, etc. The Ukrainians, with a smaller number of guns, but better trained infantry units and heavy armour divisions has relied on mobility, precision accuracy and more modern technologies with help from the West. The effectiveness of this approach was highlighted during the Ukrainian in the Kharkiv region.
With armies across the Western world having turned away from artillery and big guns as they focused on expeditionary forces engaging less capable enemies, stocks have been depleted and diminished, leaving them ill-equipped for hybrid, high-intensity, constantly evolving battlefield situations like the ones we have seen this year in the Donbas. As mentioned above, some armies have put in place modernisation schemes to update and expand their artillery capabilities. A pressing theme yet remains. With three principle schools to choose from, armies have to decide which would suit them best, whether to use them in a complimentary fashion, and how to deploy them in the battlefield to maximum effect, while taking into account accuracy, range and the survivability of their crews.
The three schools
The first ‘school’ is towed artillery. Light, cheaper than their heavier counterparts and easily deployable by air, towed artillery guns have shown considerable prowess in the battlefield in Ukraine and further afield, in spite of their considerable disadvantages when it comes to mobility, survivability and lack of kinetic protection in high-intensity battlefield situations. The most famous towed 155mm gun on the market is the British-made M777 Howitzer developed by BAE Systems. First deployed during the US war in Afghanistan, the M777 is currently in service in the armies of Australia, Canada, Colombia, India, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and the United States. Costing around $3.5 million per unit and weighing in at 4,200 kg, it is 41%, lighter than the M198, meaning it is easily deployable to distant theatres of war material power balances are key. The gun’s performance in Ukraine has led to a revival in interest, and BAE recently that it is considering restarting production. “The demonstration of the effectiveness and utility of a wide variety of artillery systems is what is coming out of the Ukraine conflict,” said Mark Signorelli, a vice president of business development at the firm. However, Russia recently a battery of M777s destroyed by high-precision MLRS in the Kharkiv region, proving that although the M777 is effective in expeditionary theatres where opposing artillery is weak, it has serious disadvantage in an attritional context against heavy firepower. In particular, its crews are left exposed and it lacks in mobility and agility.
The second ‘school’ involves the heavy armoured, self-propelled tracked guns. These guns are advantageous mainly thanks to their tactical mobility, and crew protection qualities. The classic example of this is the German-made PzH 2000 155mm howitzer developed by Krauss-Maffei Wegman and Rheinmetall in the 1980s and 1990s for the German Army. Costing €17 million per unit, it has an effective firing range of 30-67 km depending on the gun mounted on its turret and the shell used, but this comes at a cost. Maintenance of this type can be cumbersome. It is that 1 in 3 of the PzH 2000s in operation in Ukraine is already in need of repair, and these repairs are being carried out in Slovakia, far from the front. These types remain popular however; the US-made M109 Howitzer is another of this type that has been in Ukraine.
Finally, the wheeled truck configuration combines the best of both worlds, and responds to the most obvious disadvantages: mobility and maintenance. Wheeled howitzers come in both heavy armoured configurations, like the German RCH 155 or the Archer– FH77BW L52 still under development, and lighter, highly mobile, crewed configurations like the 1980’s Czech Dana, with either a 155 or 152mm gun, or the aforementioned CAESAR. Both of them are certainly combat-proven, most recently in Eastern Europe. Mounted on either a 6×6 or 8×8 chassis, a CAESAR unit costs around $7.5 million and has a firing range of over 50 km depending on the shells deployed. Indeed, the gun’s mobility, reliability, versatility and speed have led to more to Ukraine, with limited until now, as the AFU continued its push in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. Other countries, those especially concerned by the Russian threat, and with limited budgets, have also opted for CAESARs, such as , alongside the famous US .
Modernisation in European defence
The War in Ukraine has not only transformed military doctrine in some European countries (Germany, Sweden, etc.) but also accelerated modernisation programmes as European armies increase defence budgets to help shield against any future Russian aggression on the EU’s eastern borders. The Italian army is one example, which has launched a for its heavy brigades, a program involving upgrading its combat support units and PzH 2000s. Spain, equally, has launched its modernisation push and is rather keen on the wheeled howitzer option. Spanish Army Brigadier General Luis Torcál Ortega, Commander, Field Artillery Command, : “Both options have their advantages. But full-tracked, self-propelled guns are very expensive to procure. They are also more expensive to maintain, and in fact, the main reason for me to support the wheeled option is that, as gunners, we don’t really need full-track vehicles, because we don’t fight like tanks. We are not in the need of full-track capability. And that’s why I think that it’s much better and much more affordable to have a wheeled solution.” These preferences have led the Spanish army to take a closer look at the CAESAR solution, with gunners visiting their French counterparts to in the way they operate the system.
Greece is also set to benefit from a new agreement between the French firm Nexter, who produced the CAESAR, and the Greek state-owned firm Hellenic Defence Systems (HDS), who have to modernise and bolster the Greek army’s infantry fighting vehicles fleet. Notably, the partnership will focus on the development of PHILOCTETES, code name for the VBCI MKII in Greece.