Since the annual Red Square military parade, there’s been a lot of attention given to Russia’s new T-14 Armata tank. It’s an interesting design and deserves a post of its own but there’s no doubt it represents a big step forward for Russia’s armored forces. That’s particularly interesting at a time when Russia’s still involved in a tense stand-off with Ukraine.
The ceasefire that took effect on the 15th of February this year is still holding, but before the shooting stopped Russia was the clear winner on the ground. The press are accounting this to sheer force, but some more astute observers are drawing very different conclusions. The fact is that, while Russia’s military is a lot bigger than Ukraine’s, they only committed a small part of that force to assist the separatists, while Kiev threw everything it had at the disputed eastern regions. The Russians and their separatist allies could maneuver to gain local superiority but overall they were outnumbered.
Despite that, they won every major engagement.
The Ukrainian infantry and armored forces were nearly as well equipped as the Russians and have benefited from western training, so combined with their greater numbers it seems like they should have done well. In fact, whenever they could grab the Russians by the belt and drag them into close-quarter fighting they held their own fairly well, but in the big picture they were hammered time and time again. Most of the hammering was done by artillery, and a lot of people who should probably know better are surprised at that.
When I worked in an armored division HQ we mostly used Soviet-style forces as enemy. It was convenient, because we had loads of information about their equipment and doctrine, and it also presented a reasonably challenging enemy that the staff understood. Lots of that doctrine is making itself felt in Ukraine now, because while a lot of things have changed in the post-Soviet Russian army, some very important ones have stayed the same.
It’s convenient to think of the Russians as a tank-centered force – after all they have more reasonably modern ones than anyone else – but the truth is it’s really an artillery army with lots of tanks. That artillery is also, generally, of very high quality. Tube and rocket bombardment systems are something Russia has always been very good at, going at least as far back as the wars against Napoleon, and one of the areas where they’re at least as good as the west. In terms of the weapon itself, the 2S19 Msta-S 152mm gun is more than a match for the US M109A6 or British AS90. The 9A52 Smerch heavy MRLS is unrivaled, with the latest versions able to deliver a guided rocket at 120km (73 miles) or a salvo of cluster munitions, HE or thermobaric warheads at between 50 and 90km (30 to 56 miles). In many ways it’s superior to our own M270 MLRS, and there are new lighter versions similar to HIMARS.
Excellent as Russian artillery is, however, they’ve always had trouble controlling it. In WWII the Wehrmacht was quite immune from Soviet guns as long as they were advancing; the kill chain from observers through headquarters to the guns was too slow to bring fire on a fast-moving unit. It was when they went on the defensive and dug in that they started to suffer. Through the Cold War the Soviets put a lot of effort into resolving this through the development of Reconnaissance Fire Complexes, which aimed to create a parallel comms and control channel unifying scouts and artillery, and with the authority to engage some classes of target on its own initiative without asking the combined arms commanders. Unfortunately for them, their communications and battle management systems continued to struggle with the required pace and the concept never reached anything like its full potential. However the battles in Ukraine suggest that it has now.
It looks like the wide availability of reliable, secure data capability has allowed the Russians to seriously compress and accelerate the kill chain. Reconnaissance and combat units down to a very low level, and without necessarily having much in the way of high-technology kit, can now get requests for fire to the gunners much more effectively than ever before. It’s unclear if even more initiative has been given to these updated RFCs or if combined arms command posts are handling requests much faster than they used to but the result is that, when a hostile force is detected or engaged by a Russian one, lots of bad news lands on it very rapidly.
As impressive as the new ability to rapidly get fire on target is, the effects of that fire when it arrives are even more so. The new Russian structure is based around tank and combined arms brigades, and these were created by basically taking one of the old divisions, cutting down its maneuver units and leaving it with the bulk of the divisional assets. That means there’s a lot of artillery floating around, and anything it’s called in on basically ceases to exist as a functioning military organization.
The rapidity and lethality of Russian artillery has some implications for anyone who’s going to be facing them – such as the Second Cavalry right now. It reinforces the point about needing heavy armor to form the spearhead and it also means that commanders need to concentrate on maintaining a high tempo and keeping their units moving. It looks like the Russians have finally achieved the old Soviet goal of maneuvering fires like units, so the methodical, cautious style of war we’ve honed over the last couple of decades – with units waiting in fixed locations while airstrikes prepare the ground, or while HQs write a 300-page FRAGO – just isn’t an option. Any engagement with Putin’s new model army is going to depend on moving fast, getting within knife fighting range and beating them in the close battle before the sky falls in. I’d worry about how our bloated, immobile headquarters are going to cope with that, but they’d be quickly annihilated anyway. I suspect their replacements would put a lot more value on lean manning, EMCON and mobility.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.