A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 15, 2022

Precision Versus Massed Artillery Fire: Lessons From the Ukraine War

The lesson seems to be that precision is a preeminent consideration, but so are range, mobility and availability. 

Drones can help make 'dumb' artillery more accurate, meaning that war between major industrial powers requires advanced capabilities in production and logistics. JL 

Dan Goure reports in Real Clear War:

What combination of munitions and missiles is needed and in what numbers to prepare U.S. forces for potential conflicts with Russia or China? Massed artillery are being used by Russia to compensate for the poor quality of its personnel, of its combined arms tactics, and weak command. While the Ukraine conflict demonstrates the importance of precision, other factors of note are range and mobility. The Ukraine conflict (suggests) the US Army's priorities on long-range fires and air defenses were correct. U.S. weapons outrange many Russian systems. (But) Ukraine may be reteaching the West the lesson that conflicts between major powers are contests of production and logistics.

Ukraine may provide answers to many questions regarding the way high-end wars of the 21st century will be fought. One of the most important of these questions is the appropriate balance between precision and massed fires. Both sides have employed large numbers of precision and unguided projectiles in the nearly year-long war. The answer to this question is of critical importance for the Department of Defense (DoD) as it not only seeks to replenish munitions stockpiles drawn down as a result of aiding Ukraine but also considers what combination of munitions and missiles is needed and in what numbers to prepare U.S. forces for potential high-end conflicts with Russia, China, or both.

It is clear that Ukraine has become an artillery/rocket war. The two sides have fired a stunning number of artillery rounds. These are largely non-guided projectiles of various calibers. Some reports have Russia firing up to 20,000 rounds a day while Ukraine has been expending between four and seven thousand per day. These usage rates are reminiscent of past Great Power conflicts. As a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute observed, massed artillery fires are being used by the Russian Army to compensate for the poor quality of its personnel, the inadequacy of combined arms tactics, and poor command and control:


The generally mediocre performance of Russia's ground forces has been increasingly offset by their leveraging of massed artillery fires to facilitate a slow and methodical advance. Sustained bombardment has progressively displaced the local population and levelled the settlements and infrastructure that were being defended, forcing the Ukrainian military to abandon territory after it is devastated.

At the same time, there has been extensive use of precision-guided munitions, particularly rockets, cruise missiles, and drones. Russia is using a combination of air, ground, and sea-launched long-range precision missiles for strategic purposes, going after deep targets including civilian infrastructure.

Similarly, Ukraine has employed a mix of domestically built and Western-provided systems to strike a range of targets. Ukraine claims to have had particular success employing the HIMARS system in attacks on Russian logistics centers, and it appears to have developed long-range drones that can strike deep into Russian territory. In addition, Ukraine has had the good fortune to have access to a supply of U.S.-manufactured precision-guided artillery shells.

While the Ukraine conflict demonstrates the critical importance of precision in engaging high-value and defended targets, two other factors of note are range and mobility. To date, Russia has maintained an advantage in long-range strike capabilities. Ukraine has requested the ATACMS missile for the HIMARS with a range between 180-300 kilometers. This would allow strikes against the Crimean Bridge and the naval base at Sevastopol.


There have long been concerns in the U.S. military that Russian artillery and battlefield missile systems might outrange those of the U.S. The Ukraine conflict makes the case that the Army’s modernization priorities, particularly the focus on long-range fires, air defenses, and advanced vertical lift, were correct. The U.S. Army’s program for Long-Range Precision Fires, involving the Extended Range Cannon Artillery, Precision Strike Missile and the Typhoon capability based on the Tomahawk and Standard Missile 6 systems, will outrange many Russian systems.

Mobility is another issue for all fires systems. The proliferation of ISR capabilities, particularly drones, but also manned aerial platforms and low-cost space systems has created a real threat to both fixed installations and formations that are not dispersed and highly mobile. This is particularly true for fires systems. Counter-battery fires are becoming ever more important. This puts a premium on mobile fires systems. Ukraine has received a number of truck-mounted howitzers from Western countries, which it has employed with great effect.

Mobile artillery is one area where the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are behind other countries. A number of allies, notably France, the UK, and Israel, have invested in truck-mounted 155mm howitzers. These systems have the ability to rapidly set up, conduct a fires mission, and then redeploy. The U.S. Army should consider replacing its obsolescent towed 155mm howitzers with a truck-mounted system.

Also, there will be a need to disperse munitions stockpiles. We have long known that fixed sites of any kind are vulnerable to direct attack. But we have learned of late that Russian saboteurs were at work over the past eight years going after Ukrainian ammunition storage. There are reports of some 210,000 tons of munitions being destroyed prior to the February 24th invasion.

Ukraine may be reteaching the West the lesson from past conflicts between major powers that these are contests of production and logistics. It is quite clear that a future conflict with a Great Power will require that the U.S. military have both quality and quantity with respect to munitions. The nature of the potential conflict will require precision weapons in mass, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. But wherever we anticipate a land engagement of any size or duration, there will also be the need for massed fires based on cheap, unguided munitions.

Buying munitions, even precision-guided weapons, has not been a priority for the post-Cold War U.S. military. Despite the massive and continual growth in the size of Chinese naval forces, the Pentagon’s munitions acquisition plans, to date, envisioned buying only relatively small numbers of critical long-range precision anti-ship systems such as the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) and Joint Air-To-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM).

One potential solution would be to develop cheap precision weapons. There are reports that several defense companies have presented the U.S. government with proposals to produce cheap, long-range precision weapons. One such proposal by the Boeing Corporation would marry the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, a guided air-launched projectile, with an M26 rocket motor to create a weapon with a 100-mile range.


DoD needs to acquire sufficient stocks of munitions, both precision weapons and unguided projectiles, with which to handle more than just a few days or weeks of high intensity conflict. Fortunately, House and Senate authorizers have proposed language in the FY2023 NDAA that would support multiyear procurements of a range of precision munitions and missiles, including Stinger, Javelin, ATACMs, Excalibur artillery shells, LRASM, JASSM, and Sidewinder. It also provides for acquisition of hundreds of thousands of unguided artillery projectiles.


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