With more and more Russian battalions, warplanes and warships staging along Ukraine’s borders, analysts warn it’s increasingly likely Russia will widen its war in the country.
Anticipating an attack could come from Crimea, which Russian forces have occupied since 2014, the Ukrainian army has moved a tank brigade to the narrow isthmus connecting the peninsula to Ukraine’s mainland.
And to back up the tanks, Kyiv also has deployed one of its five artillery brigades. With its mix of old and new equipment, the 55th Separate Artillery Brigade is typical of Ukrainian fires units.
The 55th Separate Artillery Brigade and the unidentified tank brigade hit the road in early February. An official video depicts MTLB armored tractors towing MT-12 anti-tank guns apparently belonging to the brigade’s 4th Anti-Tank Artillery Battalion.
Also visible in the video: tanks, truck-towed mine-dispensers and ZU-23-2 towed anti-aircraft guns. Not visible: the most powerful weapons in the 55th’s arsenal. Its 2A65 towed howitzers.
The 55th Separate Artillery Brigade has three 2A65 battalions, each with around a dozen guns. The 2A65 is a towed howitzer that can lob a 152-millimeter-diameter shell 18 miles. It seems that in the 55th, unarmored trucks tow the indirect-fire howitzers while MTLBs, which are better protected, tow the direct-fire anti-tank guns.
The brigade’s firepower is a function of its fire-control system. Guns need targets. The faster and more accurately observers can spot targets and transmit coordinates to the gun crews, the better the brigade can shape the battlefield.
To that end, the 55th deploys a wide array of target-acquisition systems, many of which are visible in official photos and videos. Handheld sights have a range of just a couple miles under the best conditions, meaning forward-observers must expose themselves to the fighting.
But they can be highly effective. During intensive fighting around the town of Debaltseve in 2015, a 55th Brigade gun crew—apparently corrected by an F.O. on the ground—scored a direct hit on a Russian T-72 tank.
Tracked 1V13 fire-control vehicles offer some protection, but drones can keep the F.O.s entirely out of harm’s way. To that end, the 55th in recent years has added Furia fixed-wing drones. The 12-pound, propeller-driven drone can fly as far as 30 miles under radio control and spot targets nearly a mile away with its gyro-stabilized camera.
The Ukrainian army also possesses Zoopark-3 counterbattery radars that can detect the enemy’s own artillery fire and, by extension, the guns firing the shells.
If the 55th has concentrated its batteries and its forward-observers, drones and radars are working unimpeded, the brigade in theory could lob several hundred 152-millimeter shells per minute—assuming, of course, it has access to an adequate supply of ammunition.
That’s not a foregone conclusion. The Ukrainians have more than enough guns. But they’ve struggled in recent years to produce or import ammo. It doesn’t help that, in the eight years of fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region, anti-government separatists and their Russian backers have destroyed several Ukrainian ammo depots.
It’s not for no reason that the Polish government answered Kyiv’s pleas for help by sending a consignment of 152-millimeter shells.
In classic Soviet doctrine, which the Ukrainian army still follows, artillery—not tanks or infantry—is the decisive force. Front-line troops fix the enemy. The big guns destroy them.
But when two artillery-centric armies face each other, each will strive to destroy the other’s guns. The army that can shoot and move the fastest, while still acquiring targets and massing fires to good effect, is likely to gain the advantage.
The Russians have honed Soviet artillery tactics to a fine art. Their guns are mobile. Their drones are numerous. They not only use ground radars to spot the enemy—they also track the signals from opposing troops’ cellphones.
It’s worth noting that, during the Debaltseve battle, Ukrainian survivors claimed the Russians fired 10 artillery salvos for every one salvo their own guns fired.