Artillery still matters

Turning the tide

Ukraine’s summer 2023 offensive was a complete failure and Russia now appears to be making tactical gains. But Kyiv is not going to be a pushover, writes Eddie Ford

There has been a whole stream of stories ringing the alarm bell for Ukraine. Crucially, in a months-long logjam, the Biden administration has not been able to get its $60 billion ‘aid package’ for Ukraine - or war package - through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives (we shall see if that is about to change anytime soon).

Militarily this ‘aid package’ really matters. Ukraine not only needs surface-to-air missiles. It needs shells, shells, shells. Millions of them. It is extremely difficult to see Europe, Japan or any other country doing this. There are, of course, some armchair generals who say that artillery does not count for much in the age of drones, cyber-warfare, satellites, and so on. However, even though Iranian drones are often looked down upon in a slightly snooty way, they still cost $250,000 each. Now contrast that with the humble artillery shell which costs a mere $5,000.


In other words, after observing what has been going on in Ukraine and looking at the general trend of modern warfare, artillery is far from antiquated. By contrast, you can make a good case that aircraft carriers are nowadays sitting ducks (and still hugely costly, coming in at around $4 billion each). In fact, after two years of war in Ukraine, you could argue that the ultra-sophisticated drones that the US has been producing are now white elephants in what is now the era of mass drone warfare. We are not talking about one expensive drone that hovers over the skies in Afghanistan - Ukraine and Russia get through thousands every week. Quite staggeringly, Kyiv has been losing 40,000 drones a month. Some of these drones are not even the size of the Iranian ones - they are not capable of carrying anything more than a hand grenade and are mostly just for observation purposes.

Either way, drones are easy to shoot down, as we saw with the Iranian armada launched against Israel. We are told that Israel and its allies managed to intercept/destroy “99%” of them, but so what? They are cheap!1 But the real point is that artillery warfare now is informed by drone technology. So increasingly what you have are artillery officers who are given pretty accurate details about the location of the enemy - where to strike can now be done with some precision. But massed artillery also still serves, just like in World War 1, to take territory and to keep territory.

That was the pattern quickly established in Ukraine after the initial phase, where we saw the use of tanks, yet things quickly settled down to some sort of rerun of the 1914-18 western front. And it was Russia which went for trench warfare, as described in the pages of this publication, with its three layers of defence that involved anti-tank ditches, rows of dragon’s teeth, razor wire, and all the rest of it. Ukraine is now doing the same on its side - not only on the front line, but all the way up to the international frontier between the two countries.

Regarding Ukraine, the sunshine is out and the country has had some dry weather. But what spring actually means in Ukraine is that you are going to have a lot more wet days: and the general expectation is not of a Russian spring offensive, but rather a summer offensive. Meaning that there will be a race between the ground drying out to enable offensive warfare and Ukraine digging its trenches to put in those lines of defence. Critically, without Ukrainian mass artillery Russia can attack with tanks and maybe make a breakthrough.


Recently, there have been a lot of sensationalist headlines - ‘clickbait’ - about Ukraine being on the verge of collapse if it does not get its US aid package. You should treat such stories with a large grain of salt. Yes, it cannot be denied that Ukraine has problems, when it comes to conscription. Last week the Rada passed legislation lowering the draft age from 27 to 25, in a situation where the average age of a frontline Ukrainian soldier - quite incredibly - is 43, essentially meaning that you will have a load of people in their 50s trying to fight a war. How much puff have these guys got? More to the point, how come Volodymyr Zelensky has not mobilised people from 18 upwards to fight the Russian invader that wants to annihilate the Ukrainian nation? It remains a bit of a mystery, though it is hard not to speculate that maybe there is an anti-war mood amongst that generation - which would be an excellent development.

Even though fewer people are now enthusiasts for the war than two years ago, when it began, Ukraine is not going to be a pushover. People will resist the Russian invader and that is not going to change. Even if you had a situation where they had no choice but to use partisan warfare - which does not seem likely, as it is very hard to envisage Russia conquering the whole of Ukraine. You cannot entirely dismiss the possibility, of course, but given the experience of the US in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the idea does seem fanciful. These superpowers had vastly more in the way of population, economic resources and military hardware. However, both were forced into humiliating scuttles.

Now, whether fanciful or not, it is worthwhile mentioning a headline that appeared over the weekend on the BBC website: “Ukraine could face defeat in 2024” - a story that has been widely circulated in many media outlets.2 Actually, the BBC article was based on comments by the former commander of the UK’s Joint Forces, general Sir Richard Barrons. Obviously speaking on behalf of the military establishment, the general told the BBC that there is “a serious risk” of Ukraine losing the war this year, because the country “may come to feel it can’t win” - and “when it gets to that point, why will people want to fight and die any longer, just to defend the indefensible?” However, the article emphasised that Ukraine “is not yet at that point”.

We go on to read that last year everyone knew when the Ukrainian offensive was going to happen, summer and not spring, and the direction it would take - south with their new shiny Leopard tanks, plus a few British and American ones added on, where they would smash through the Russian lines of defence and go all the way to the Azov Sea. But it was always a fairy story, no matter how often repeated in the western media. The Russians planned accordingly and the Ukrainian offensive was a complete failure. With their first contact with the enemy, they lost large numbers of tanks and armoured cars - reduced to using infantry at night, crawling on their bellies, in order to demine Russian defences.

Now, as the article points out, the boot is on the other foot, as Russia readies its troops and keeps Kyiv guessing where it is going to attack next - could be anywhere. What you can say is that it is a very long front line indeed and the Ukrainians need to be able to defend it all. It almost goes without saying that its defences are not yet in place, even if Zelensky has given a target for the end of spring. So it is a game of ‘wait and see’ for everyone.

Five to one

But in the opinion of general Barrons, whatever direction they go in, the shape of the Russian offensive that is going to come is “pretty clear”. That is, at the moment we are seeing Russia “batter away at the front line”, employing a five-to-one advantage in artillery, ammunition, and newish weapons - including the FAB glide bomb (an adapted Soviet-era ‘dumb bomb’, fitted with fins, GPS guidance and 1500kg of high explosive, that is wreaking havoc on Ukrainian defences). But at some point this summer, argues the general, expect to see a major Russian offensive, “with the intent of doing more than smash forward with small gains to perhaps try and break through the Ukrainian lines”. If that happens, he says, that could see Russian forces managing to break into “areas of Ukraine where the Ukrainian armed forces cannot stop them”.

That does not necessarily mean that Ukraine is on the verge of going down, or Russia marching into Kyiv, with the capital falling this year, or anything on that scale. But it could mean that we see Moscow making substantial gains that start turning the tide of the war to its favour. If that were to happen, it would be a calamitous blow for imperialist plans to get regime change in Moscow, the dismantling of Russia as any sort of viable independent state and - most cherished prize of all - the encirclement and eventual defeat of the global hegemon’s only real rival, China.

  1. abc.net.au/news/2024-04-16/how-israel-air-defence-stopped-iran-drone-missile-attacks/103707770.↩︎

  2. bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-68778338.↩︎