Defense expert Colijn on the big gun duel in eastern Ukraine


Defense expert Ko Colijn has been providing the Dutch with information on armed conflicts for more than forty years. For he follows the battle in Ukraine and answers our (and your) questions. This time: why the Battle of the Donets Basin is now above all an artillery duel.

After the failure of the attack on the capital kyiv, the Russian military operation (which Russian President Vladimir Putin should not call a war) went to plan B: the strangulation of the eastern Donets basin.

This requires different combat gear on both sides. No more vulnerable convoys on the Russian side and no more long supply lines through Belarus from distant Russia. And – last but not least – more surprised soldiers, who in the first days hardly knew what was happening to them and even thought that they were training in Belarus for a few days.

On the Ukrainian side, there is now much less need for kamikazedrones to stop Russian convoys or anti-tank guns to destroy old Soviet tanks.

Not that Ukraine no longer needs it in the Donets basin, but the second part of the war looks more like a battle between guns and missiles. An artillery duel, say the specialists. This should eventually pave the way for advancing infantry and tanks to drive out the invading force (Ukraine) or occupy the Donets Basin (Russia).

To move forward, the Russians must first eliminate the Ukrainian army’s piece de resistance: 40,000 well-trained soldiers, who have been in the trenches since 2014. That doesn’t seem to be working well either.

The time of arms

Western countries, first and foremost the United States, initially sent mainly “defensive” weapons, so as not to irritate Putin. They did not require any additional training, as they were simple. Subsequently, the United States also sent weapons to Eastern European countries, which in turn gave their old Soviet weapons to Ukraine. This provoked angry reactions from the Kremlin, but these weapons reached the frontline effortlessly through Polish airports, often within days.

Now it’s the artillery’s turn. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in late April that he would be decisive for the war in the months to come. Shortly after, the United States also explained why: not only to stop the Russians in Ukraine, but also to ensure that Russia will remain weakened and unable to undertake similar foreign adventures in the years to come.

Among the weapons that Ukraine needs for the artillery duel in the Donets Basin, we choose the howitzer. These are heavy cannons that can fire 30 to 50 kilometers with grenades that weigh up to 50 kilos each. Modern ones are very accurate and can fire about eight of these grenades in a minute.

In total, about 150 howitzers have been pledged to Ukraine, including more than 100 from the United States. Half are already deployed in the Donets basin. Russian attempts to block air transport by attacking railway stations (“infrastructure”) from the air have largely failed.

Since early May (but secretly at least half a month longer), 155mm guns from US Army depots have been sliding into the holds of C-17 Globemaster II transport planes. They are flown from March Air Reserve Base in the US state of California to Poland and then to Ukraine.

US servicemen load M777 155mm howitzers destined for Ukraine onto a transport plane at a naval base in California in late April.

Self-propelled or behind the tractor

Howitzers are self-propelled or can be hung on a “tractor”. The first type is more mobile and requires fewer people. (If the tractor people can also take care of these self-propelled vehicles, you have a save as well.)

Mobility is an advantage, as Ukrainians know the area and constantly change position, while Russians often get lost in the swampy landscape. Another advantage is that the howitzer can be used 24/7 and in all weather conditions. The United States provides night vision goggles with the pistols.

It comes with 200,000 grenades, far more than Ukraine will need. For comparison: during the 2003 operation in Iraq, “only” a thousand people were fired (but the US Air Force was again much more active there).

Howitzers form a so-called kill chain (“chain of death”) if you also supply counter-radar and communications equipment. The counter-radar calculates where an enemy grenade is coming from within three seconds, so the enemy howitzer can expect an immediate counterattack, often a rake.

Operation requires some training

The Pentagon has been familiarizing a number of Ukrainian military personnel with this radar equipment since 2015. Fourteen additional contra radars are currently being supplied to Ukraine, and other NATO countries are likely to supply these devices as well.

The use of howitzers also requires some training. More than 250 Ukrainian soldiers are undergoing an intensive five-day course in three different secret locations in Western Europe (probably in Germany).

The handling of state-of-the-art weapons normally requires three months of practice; fine, but the Russians also have quite old hardware, so you don’t even need to use the crème de la crème. Russian howitzers are quite rigid and easily give their position to cheap Ukrainian drones or even American satellites. And sometimes you also take a Russian general, because they are often at the front.

US howitzer training is provided by the US National Guard, flown in from the US state of Florida. Before February 24 (the first day of the Russian invasion), it was already active in Ukraine itself, alongside the Canadians.

A Ukrainian 2S1 Gvozdika (self-propelled howitzer) in action in the Kharkiv region in early May.

Missiles on Russia?

The United States spends 250 million dollars (more than 236 million euros) for the howitzers. This is only a fraction of the total $4 billion arms aid package. Two weeks ago, US President Joe Biden was given permission to set aside over $30 billion in the coming months, so we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

The next step is exciting; At the end of April, Secretary Austin was already talking about a “decisive” delivery Long range“Perhaps he was referring to howitzers that can reach 50 kilometers, but kyiv’s next plea will be about missile launchers from the manufacturer Lockheed, which can easily hit targets in Russia itself. In search of “red lines ‘, that is, the last step towards ‘evil’ and ‘uncontrollable’. Hopefully it doesn’t have to come to that, although some pundits think Putin deserves it now.

And do the weapons waver? Don’t worry, Slovakia has already offered a repair center, where the Americans will probably also come to help.

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