War in Ukraine hinges on who gets more rockets and shells first
Bloomberg News December 15, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — The potential addition of Patriot missile defense batteries to Ukraine’s arsenal comes as Kyiv and Moscow both face a critical question with the war in its 10th month: Can they secure enough missiles and artillery through winter to prevail?
A combination of cold but still wet weather and Russian consolidation along defensive lines has slowed advances by either side on Ukraine’s battlefields, but not the war’s intensity. The conflict continues to churn through limited reserves of troops and munitions at a frightening pace.
The big worry now for Russia this winter is to avoid ceding more territory to Ukraine counter-offensives, according to three people close to the Kremlin and the Russian defense ministry. They cited concerns that the supply of ammunition and weapons has been too slow to ensure Russia’s forces hold their ground.
Which side runs low first could decide whether Ukraine or Russia emerges in the spring with the strategic initiative to potentially end the war on its terms.
The two sides have at times fired in excess of 24,000 artillery shells per day, according to a November report by the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think tank, as well as dozens of scarce long-range missiles, attack drones and air-defense munitions. The high fire rates for artillery represent “a much larger consumption than NATO militaries would be able to sustain,” said Nick Reynolds, who co-authored the report.
“Ukraine needs constant artillery support with guns and shells,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told allies in a video-linked appeal for more supplies at a Group of Seven leaders meeting on Monday. “We need more rocket artillery and more long-range missiles.”
The war has had two distinct theaters since at least mid-October, when Russia began a systematic campaign to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure with a mix of longer range missiles and attack drones. On Tuesday, U.S. officials said America is poised to send Patriot air and missile defense batteries to Ukraine, pending final approval from President Joe Biden.
An announcement on that could come soon — though with its Soviet-era stocks of munitions depleted, Ukraine will need more than Patriots.
The U.S. Army has said it will increase production of 155mm artillery shells to 20,000 per month, from 14,000, by the spring, and to 40,000 per month by 2025. The estimated Ukrainian usage is already around 100,000 shells per month. For Russia, RUSI estimates its forces have been firing an average of 20,000 artillery shells per day, to Ukraine’s 4,000.
Tank shells are another concern for Ukraine, as production lines for Soviet-model vehicles are scarce. Zelenskyy made an urgent plea for “modern” tanks in his address, a demand driven in part by the fact that NATO standard tanks would come with a ready pipeline of ammunition.
Meanwhile in Moscow, there are worries its military is spending too many hard-to-replenish resources to little effect, and with no clear strategy to win the war. That’s even as its forces make incremental gains around the town of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, and its arms factories work around the clock.
President Vladimir Putin this month canceled his annual marathon press conference, in what several officials working in or close to the Kremlin described as evidence he recognizes the lack of gains to report.
If Ukraine’s allies continue or increase their arms deliveries to Zelenskyy’s administration, it will be very difficult for Russian forces to avoid further withdrawals, according to a retired senior officer and defense analyst, who asked not to be identified. Criticism of the Russian war effort is punishable by jail.
Outside estimates of the state of Russia’s artillery stocks vary widely. In a lecture at RUSI late Wednesday, the UK’s Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Tony Radakin said Russia faced a “critical shortage of artillery munitions,” having planned for only a 30 day war. “This means that their ability to conduct successful offensive ground operations is rapidly diminishing.”Yet just days earlier, the head of Estonia’s defense intelligence center estimated Russia still had about 10 million artillery shells in stock and was producing more at a rate of about 3.4 million per year. That, he warned, would allow Russia to continue the war for at least another year.
In a sign that preparations for a new counteroffensive may be underway, Ukrainian saboteurs or rockets on Monday struck an alleged Russian barracks and road bridge bridge at Melitopol, a town that sits astride the main road and rail links between Russia and occupied areas of southern Ukraine and Crimea.
Current and former Russian officers offered a rare public glimpse into the military’s concerns via a recent annual conference in Moscow called the Ogarkov Readings, with some of the proceedings uploaded afterward to YouTube. They cited failures of intelligence gathering, accurate guidance systems and training. “Even our Iskander use GPS. So if the grid is shifted slightly we miss,” said Alexander Khodakovsky, a serving field commander. He was referring to Russia’s short range ballistic missiles, known as Iskanders.
Despite greater optimism in Ukraine, where troop morale remains strong and more accurate Western systems have helped turn the war, concerns over supplies also run high.
The Russian air campaign is severely disrupting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, creating the risk of a new wave of refugees to Europe as temperatures fall. A still greater danger is that the relentless missile barrages could deplete Ukrainian air defenses to the point the skies become safe for Russia fixed wing aircraft, a potential game changer for the war, according to Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a government think tank in Kyiv.
“People take for granted that Ukraine has managed to prevent Russia from gaining air dominance,” he said. “They shouldn’t.”
The number of Patriot batteries that the U.S. will deliver, assuming Biden approves the proposal, remains unknown. Whatever the amount, their supply is seen as vital given reports that Iran is preparing to supply Russia with ballistic missiles that Ukraine’s existing air defenses can’t shoot down, according to Bielieskov.
But the Patriots can only deal with one part of the threat in a few areas of the country. In the long run, more mid-range air defense systems such as U.S. NASAMS, as well as fourth generation combat aircraft like F-16s, will be essential to winning the air war, according to Bielieskov.
On the ground, meanwhile, a crunch point is approaching: Either the U.S. and other Ukrainian allies must decide whether to supply enough longer range rocket systems, such as HIMARS, to suppress Russian artillery, or release NATO stocks of conventional artillery pieces and shells reserved for a direct war between alliance members and Russia.
“With 85% of Russian forces bogged down in Ukraine, it would be logical to release those stocks now, because it’s clear there would then be time to build up production lines and rebuild them before Russia can again pose a threat to NATO,” Bielieskov said.
The risk to Ukraine is that Russia succeeds in stabilizing the front lines through the winter, creating time to integrate newly mobilized recruits into an effective fighting force and presenting Kyiv’s allies with a protracted war and no visible path for Ukraine to reclaim its territory, according to Reynolds, the land warfare analyst at RUSI.
That could increase pressure on Ukraine to accept a cease-fire, even with swathes of the country still under occupation, or even see the air war return the strategic initiative to Russia.
“There are several issues that are currently building and will shape how things develop,” said Reynolds. “It isn’t a settled environment.”
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