A WALL OF FIRE. WHAT PROJECTILES HIT THE UKRAINIAN POSITIONS AND HOW
A WALL OF FIRE
WHAT PROJECTILES HIT THE UKRAINIAN POSITIONS AND HOW
Up to 3-5 thousand shells can be fired at a single section of the frontline every day, according to military expert Andriy Rymaruk. Similar figures were also confirmed by Ukraine officials. Ukraine’s military is outgunned by Russia and therefore cannot destroy the systems that fire on Ukrainian positions.
Translation: Dmitry Lytov, Mike Lytov and Tetiana Sykes
In this project, we decided to show what hypothetically happens around the Ukrainian position when it’s showered with "lead rain".
To turn the tide, Ukraine needs even more arms, including long-ranged weapons, such as M777 howitzers and HIMARS, as well as shells in very large quantities.
Here is how our fighter describes one day in the trenches in a letter to his family:
1.03 – mortar shelling begins
2.05 – another mortar joins in
2.45 – they fire white phosphorus, everything starts to burn
3.15 – they "work" on our positions with 120 mm mortars, "Vasilek" (Cornflower, an automatic 82 mm gun-mortar) joins in
4.10 – incessant fire with "Grads" continues until 6 am
6.05 – barrel artillery joins in
8.03 – a tank joins in
8.35 – enemy infantry tries to break through – we fought them off
8.55 – our artillery sets to work – the Russians retreat, regroup and attack again
9.45 – our tank and an armored vehicle shoot on the "green area". The Russian shelling does not stop.
At about 11 o’clock, three Russian tanks roll out, along with an armored vehicle and a miracle of Russia’s armored machinery, a BMPT (tank support combat vehicle). Our artillery fires at them, they retreat, tanks left smoking.
At noon, ammo arrived – the shelling does not stop.
13.24 – the shelling becomes very intense. Our liaison officer is killed.
For 2.5 hours, Russians do not let us stick our heads out. They shoot with anything that can shoot.
19.15 – the shelling subsides
20.00 – complete silence, unless we are deaf
23.25 – a mortar starts working…
We made a graph that illustrates one minute of shelling when several systems are firing on our positions simultaneously. This intensity cannot last long, it may also be different at different times of the day. Using a hypothetical trench as an example, which we reproduced based on the data from one of our previous projects, we decided to show what kind of fire our soldiers can experience in the hottest spots at the frontline.
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The number of shells fired:
Akatsiya-M (self-propelled howitzer)
Msta-S (self-propelled howitzer)
Koalitsiya-SV (self-propelled howitzer)
Grad (multiple launch rocket system)
The scale of the image is about 3 km in width and 2 km in height. This position is shelled by “Akatsiya (Acacia)” (declared intensity — 4 shots per minute), “Msta-S” (8 shots per minute), and “Koalitsiya -JI” (16 shots per minute), as well as "Grad" (which launches 40 missiles in 20 seconds). In this example, self-propelled howitzers work in batteries of four units, and Grads in batteries of three units. The actual intensity is usually lower because the guns may need to adjust their targets or the situation may vary depending on the terrain and so on.
We found the real sounds of volleys of this caliber and set up the program to simulate the stated intensity of the shots. The red dot represents a place that was hit, and the circle shows the spread of debris (in reality, it is 15 to 25 m in radius, but on our scale, this radius is negligible).
Of course, the artillery does not fire all the shells at a single point. In different systems, about 60-70% of the shells will hit the target area at best. In our model, about 50% of hits are concentrated around the conditional target. Specific shelling zones are different each time; you can try "shelling" several times. Larger dots indicate clusters of "launched" missiles from the "Grad" – they often lie in a conditional rectangle and cover a certain area. On our scale, it meets the stated tactical and technical characteristics for the "Grad" – each unit’s “square” is 145 thousand square meters in area.
Artillery is the main type of weapon used in modern warfare. Destroying enemy artillery systems is almost a key task for each party in the conflict. In this text, we will not consider the advantages and disadvantages of the organization of artillery units or quantitative indicators of the weapons available to the conflict parties. Instead, we will try to systematize the key factors that will allow us to better understand what is happening in the hottest spots on the battlefield.
HOW THE SYSTEM IS ARRANGED
Artillery includes mortars, cannons, howitzers, self-propelled guns, flamethrowers and volley fire systems. They differ in caliber, range and rate of fire, as well as the area that could be covered by debris, cartridges or flamethrower fire. We showed them in more detail in the infographic.
The artillery system is the whole complex of equipment, which includes the "device" for launching shells, the radar equipment, charging component, reconnaissance drones, and transport equipment (chassis or a tow truck).
Artillerymen work in batteries that each have 2 to 6 guns (in this case, “guns” refer to any type of artillery unit). Barrel artillery can work from one point without stopping, as long as the ammunition lasts – you will only have to reload it fast enough, which is relatively easy, given the light weight of the shells. On the battlefield in real conditions, guns usually change position after a few volleys. A jet system, which fires the entire "package" of 12-20 missiles, has to "hide" for a while because it requires much more time to reload due to the heavy weight of each missile.
The Russians organize their work mainly "by the book" or as they got used to in training, where a beautiful picture is more important: they place the battery at certain distances, shoot in a certain order, and so on. In addition, having superior firepower, they can use more intense artillery fire in divisions of 15-16 units on a single target or area and for a longer period of time (using both tube artillery and MLRS). If they wish, they could continue such shelling for several days in a row.
Our gunners usually work in "economy mode" with a focus on efficiency and accuracy. "If our battery launches on average up to 50 shells per "run" on a very "quiet" section of the front, then we get 3-4 times as many shells fired back at us. And that’s only from tube artillery, without taking into account
MLRS, aircraft and mortars,” says one of the combatants, who we interviewed, when talking about the approximate balance of power. At the same time, despite fewer numbers due to higher mobility and organizational flexibility, which has been repeatedly noticed by Western experts, the work of our artillery is often more like an anthill or a carousel.
WHERE TO PLACE THE ARTILLERY
Positioning various types of artillery depends on several factors:
- stage of the operation (i.e. offense, defense, sustainment of a certain area, etc.);
- combat task assigned for the unit (extermination, destruction, suppression, exhaustion, in particular, psychological exhaustion) in a specific area (for details, please see the reference section);
- importance of a certain target (several types of artillery may be focused on a specific target to make sure it has been eliminated);
- range of the target (different types of weapons will be used to engage with forward positions, command posts or supply facilities deep in the rear. For example, the shelling of Mykolaiv or Zaporizhzhia is often carried out by the "Smerch" multiple launch rocket systems (for details, see infographic below). This is because "Smerch" is the only available system in the region that reaches both cities from the Russia-occupied territory);
- the enemy's ability to retaliate (availability of systems with the same or greater firing range on specific section of the frontline);
- availability of specific types of guns at a certain point (it is impossible to ensure the uniform presence of the entire combat spectrum on all sections of the front);
- type of the military formation positioned in this part of the front (for example, "heavy" units will most likely have tracked artillery, while infantry might have light towed guns or wheeled howitzers);
- possibility to organise deep reconnaissance in this area (it makes no sense to use a gun with a 40 km firing range if the UAV will only fly for 20 km);
- availability of the ammunition for a certain type of weaponry in this location and the ammunition supply routes.
Guns with the longest range — "Pion (Peony)", "Malka", "Koalitsiya-SV" — are usually positioned at a distance of up to 50-70 km away from the target. "Smerch", "Uragan-1M", "Tornado-S" multiple launch rocket systems are placed within a distance of up to 120 km from the target. "Akatsiya (Acacia)", "Msta", "Giatsint (Hyacinth)", D20 and D30 guns can shoot at a range of 20-30 km on average, and "Uragan", "Tornado-G" and "Grad" systems all have a firing range of 30-40 km. We described the properties of different types of artillery guns in more detail in the interactive graphic below.
There are four main types of military tasks assigned to artillery units:
- destruction — complete loss of combat capability;
- demolition — putting defense structures out of action;
- suppression — temporary loss of combat capability;
- exhaustion — moral and psychological pressure on the enemy force.
Depending on the nature of the task, different types of artillery fire may be employed:
- target artillery fire — strikes executed at a specific target, identified either previously or just now;
- concentrated artillery fire — strikes directed at one or more points concentrated in a specific area, often from several guns of the same or various types;
- standing / rolling barrage fire — a solid curtain of fire from one or more lines to repel attacks and counterattacks of infantry and tanks (mainly using tube artillery);
- barrage fire (a wall of artillery fire) — a combination of blocking (barrel) and concentrated (mortars and rocket artillery) fire used during an offensive;
- massed artillery fire — fire from all possible guns directed at a single specific point such as an important object for quick and reliable destruction; in a small area, the units work by mounting fire at the center of a conditional square simultaneously or in turn.
We tried to visualize the intensity of the fire under which Ukrainian soldiers often find themselves in the hottest spots on the frontline.
"Counterbattery combat is one of the main ways to protect troops against the damage from the enemy fire. Russian artillery systems are our priority targets. When they are detected, they are getting hit by all available means suitable at that point in time. It is better when the artillery is being positioned in the deployment areas and has not started the fire yet. If we talk about the column of “Grads” and the column of tanks, then the Grad column is a priority target for us," says Ihor Levchenko, an expert from the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Research.
QUANTITATIVE AND QUALITATIVE ADVANTAGES OF THE ENEMY
For the Russian army, hitting smaller targets with bigger weapons in larger quantities is the norm, even if the current situation, military logic or common sense does not require this. For example, employing "Tochka-U" tactical missiles, intended for deep rear targets with a firing range of 120 km, to strike the frontlines is a typical Russian artillery style. Moreover, Russians are frequently "mixing" various calibers and systems with different firing ranges when shooting from the same position.
The reason is banal: Russian artillery systems and shells outnumber Ukraine’s. “Especially now, when the battlefield has narrowed to Donbas and Kherson regions, the concentration of enemy systems has become even greater,” Levchenko explains.
According to him, Russians have other advantages that need to be considered, in addition to Russia’s artillery arsenal outnumbering Ukraine’s.
First, Russia’s own barrel production makes it possible to replace Soviet specimens with modernized tubes, which, in turn, are more accurate. "Ukraine mostly uses Soviet-made systems; on top of that, they were never largely replaced. Our tubes and chassis have already high wear and tear – in this war alone they have been employed for the past 8 to 9 years non-stop. No one predicted such loads. If they continue to be used like they currently are, the service life of a barrel will be 1 maximum 2 years," says Taras Chmut, Director of "Come Back Alive" Charitable Foundation during the broadcast of the "To Arms" programme. Furthermore, according to Western media, the Ukrainian artillery barrages have been so intense that several dozen of the M777 howitzer tubes have burned out and are being repaired. Ukraine expects to receive replacement barrels from Canada and other partners to allow the sustainment of M777 howitzer artillery guns.
Secondly, because of Russia’s own manufacturing production, they have an almost endless supply of shells. Thirdly, a large fleet of reconnaissance UAVs such as "Orlan", which enables precise identification of the artillery targets, is another contributing factor. "Although Ukraine has better intelligence systems in terms of price and quality, we certainly don’t have such level of air intelligence presence as Russia," Levchenko adds.
A combination of these factors allows the enemy to often gain a firepower advantage: detect and destroy targets faster, more precisely and effectively.
Due to large quantities of ammunition, Russian troops often resort to artillery barrage tactics, when several types of weapons "hammer up" a certain area, creating a "wall of fire" that way (see "How the artillery batteries operate"). At the same time, the Ukrainian forces employ this tactic selectively, only in cases of extreme necessity.
Instead, Ukraine's military rely on high-quality intelligence data and the precision of strikes to achieve lower use of the ammunition for the destruction of specific targets. "For example, to destroy a target like a platoon base, around 60 to 65 shells of 122 mm caliber are usually needed. This means employing D30 or self-propelled "Gvozdika" type of artillery. We accomplish such tasks using 10 to 12 shells on average," Levchenko says.
In addition to resourcefulness and creativity in the field, the use of Western artillery systems – some of which have been already seen in combat action – should help to overcome the Russian onslaught. The advantage of using foreign artillery is its greater target range and higher accuracy compared to the systems we use today. Another perk, of course, is the surprise effect, when the enemy does not know until the last minute where exactly at the frontline Ukrainian army will employ more powerful artillery assets. In addition to modern systems such as HIMARS or M777, Ukraine also needs ammunition – not only for West-supplied systems but also for Soviet-era artillery and rocket ammunition. As Ukraine is running critically low on them, important developments on the battlefield are slowing down.
Basic artillery concepts
A "device" with a barrel / barrels, from which the projectile is being directly fired (a gun in its broadest sense).
A "device" with a barrel / barrels (i.e. an artillery installation) + projectiles + fire control / reconnaissance devices (if available / necessary) + radar system + chassis + charging system.
A type of weapon that fires artillery mines to mount fire on covered targets or for the destruction of field fortifications. A mortar mine is a munition used for a mortar column; there are fragmented, fragmented explosive, incendiary-cumulative, cluster and other types of munitions. They are not the same as area mines.
A weapon with a long barrel, a high initial velocity of the projectile, a good firing range when aimed directly at a target and a small angle of barrel elevation. It can hit moving objects; when it fires fragmentation projectiles, the fragments cover a large area. It is more suitable for defense tasks. и.
A type of weapon used to mount fire from closed positions without direct line of sight of the target. The length of the barrel and the initial velocity of the charge are shorter, but the angle of barrel elevation is larger than that of a gun. It is significantly lighter than a gun of similar caliber and therefore more suitable for offensive. It can sow panic in the rear of the enemy, disrupt communication and control and also create a wall of artillery fire in front of its own troops in offense.
A system that can simultaneously fulfill both the role of a gun and that of a howitzer. It has a large angle of elevation of the barrel and a high initial velocity of the projectile at the same time. It is thus able to convey both direct and indirect fire.
Self-propelled artillery unit (SAU)
Artillery system on a self-propelled base, designed for direct fire support of tanks and infantry in combat action. It can also perform artillery support for mobile formations and engage in tank combat. SAUs are equipped with either a gun or a howitzer or combine both of these weapons simultaneously.
A weapon that hits the enemy with fire mixture which flies out of the barrel in a special projectile and explodes when the projectile flies over or near the target. Russian heavy flamethrower systems (TOS) are designed to put light equipment out of action and destroy buildings and enemy manpower with high temperature and high pressure volumetric explosions.
Reactive systems of salvo fire (i.e. multiple launch rocket systems)
Usually, a multi-barrelled system designed to engage in open and sheltered manpower, unarmoured vehicles and armoured personnel carriers in the concentration areas, command posts, as well as for remote mining.
A unit consisting of 2-6 guns / howitzers / mortars / MLRS / self-propelled artillery units, etc.
Artillery that is equipped with its own propulsion system (wheeled or tracked chassis) to move toward its firing position.
Towed / wheeled artillery
Artillery that additionally requires either towing by a truck or a tractor or transportation in a body or on a platform.