Increasingly heavy artillery for Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky prayed and begged for weeks for missile artillery systems for his army that could prove crucial in the devastating, stalled, artillery war in the Donbas. He almost demanded them. But early last week, US President Joe Biden seemed to shatter Zelensky’s hopes. Admittedly, he announced that Ukraine would receive missile artillery systems from the United States, but not systems “that could hit Russia”.

Will the United States or will it not respond to Zelensky’s prayers? “It’s a bit of a semantic discussion,” said Danny Pronk, a former employee of the Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) and weapons expert at Clingendael. “As soon as you get to the border, all types of ammunition end up in Russia.”

During the week, the consequences of Biden’s commitment proved real but limited: Ukraine will have four HIMARS missile systems, but so far only with missiles with a range of 70 kilometers. The Ukrainian government has also promised not to attack Russian territory.

The delivery of the missile artillery is part of a new $ 700 million US military aid package that includes four MQ-C1 Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles, anti-aircraft radar and artillery detection, four helicopters, armored personnel carriers, 7,000 anti-tank missiles and ammunition.

In addition, Britain on Wednesday promised an unknown number of comparable M270 MLRS missile artillery systems. According to the German daily newspaper The day mirror Germany will supply four MARS II systems, in addition to the IRIS-T anti-aircraft system. And on Sunday, the Spanish newspaper reported El Pais that Spain wants to send 40 old Leopard 2A4 tanks. If Germany, which produces the tanks, approves this transfer, it would be Ukraine’s first time to get Western tanks.

A British M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System during military exercises held in Latvia in late May.
Photo Ints Kalnins / Reuters

Thus, the West is supplying Ukraine with even heavier weapons, which will arrive in the coming weeks. In the weeks following the raid, thousands of Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, such as Stinger, Javelin and the Dutch Panzerfaust 3, flooded into the country. Hundreds of tanks and dozens of Russian planes and helicopters have been deactivated. In May, the United States, France, Germany and also the Netherlands supplied howitzers with a range of about 40 kilometers to the artillery war in the Donbas.


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And now follows tanks and rocket artillery. “Howitzers fire grenades that do not have their own propulsion,” Pronk explains the difference with rocket artillery. “They are projectiles, although there are also guided ones, such as the Excalibur grenade, which steers with control fins and can hit targets with great precision.”

Multiple rocket launchers, or MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket Systems) systems, fire multiple rockets powered by a solid fuel rocket engine. This gives them a much wider range.

In an artillery war, range is everything, Pronk says. ‘It comes down to artillery pieces firing at each other. You observe your opponent’s fire, for example with drones or a radar, and you trigger a counterfire. The further behind the front line you are, the harder it is for the opponent to counter-shoot. ” In addition to enemy artillery, Russian supply lines, troops and command posts will also appear.

The UK-supplied M270 MLRS is mounted on a tram base that allows maneuvering in any terrain, and has two magazines with room for six missiles. M142 HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) from the USA is a lighter version with one magazine and a truck chassis, which can only drive on roads and paved surfaces. The advantage is that he can be transported more easily and that he can drive away quickly after shooting so as not to become a target himself.

For the time being, Ukraine will only be equipped with the M30 and M31 missiles, with a range of 70 kilometers, and not the heavier ATACMS missiles, which can reach up to 310 kilometers. This would put the HIMARS system on a par with Russia’s Iskander-M missiles, which can reach up to 500 kilometers and have wreaked havoc in Ukraine since February.

As long as heavy missiles are not delivered, the delivery is not military-technical Game changersays Pronk.

Both Russia and Ukraine already use the Soviet-made missile artillery BM-30 Smerch, BM-27 Uragan and BM-21 Grad. These are also the systems by which Russia destroys Ukrainian cities. But Ukraine is running out of ammunition, and re-ordering from Russia is not really an option. The Soviet systems also fire largely unmanned missiles, meaning targets are less accurate to hit.

A significant size heavier is the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, an armed unmanned aerial vehicle from the United States that is larger, heavier and faster than the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones that Ukraine has bombed tanks and armored vehicles with. They can fly around for 24 hours, are equipped with the heavy Hellfire guide missiles and are controlled by satellites. Nevertheless, Russian anti-aircraft guns have already shot down several Bayrakts, a risk that the gray eagle is also running.

‘Serious consequences’

Russia has repeatedly threatened “serious” consequences if the West provided heavier weapons, which seems to work in part: At an earlier stage, Zelensky asked for fighter jets, which he did not receive. However, unspecified ‘parts’ were provided that the Ukrainian Air Force could put additional aircraft into operation. Fighter jets can come back into the picture as weapons get heavier and heavier.

The weapons provided require a few weeks of training, Ukrainian military personnel receive this training from the countries that supply the weapons. Pronk does not see the delivery of Patriot air defense systems happening at any point as they require extensive training. “In addition, NATO countries need it for their own air defense.”

There will come a point where the West can no longer or will not deliver

In addition, the numbers will also play a role, Pronk says: “At some point, it will stop a bit what you can still deliver without doing violence to your own armed forces.” For example, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles are starting to run dry, US manufacturer Raytheon warned in April. Fresh delivery will not start until 2023.

Russia is estimated to have lost about a thousand tanks, much of its operational stock, but also has thousands of old tanks in stock, such as the 1960s T-62. Pronk: “The T-62 is old-fashioned and therefore very vulnerable, but so far the Russian weapons are far from finished.”

In return, Ukraine so far can still count on a supply of Western weapons, Pronk says. “But there will come a time when the West can no longer or will not deliver.”

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