As the United States military remains wedded to 155mm artillery, Russia’s military is employing heavier fires that, when combined with additional fire support systems, will be able to not only outrange American and NATO guns, but decimate formations.
In a column for the Association of the U.S. Army, Col. Liam Collins and Capt. Harrison “Brandon” Morgan note that the Russian army is reactivating “its heavy artillery forces, beginning with its 2S7 Pion, mounting an impressive 203 mm round with a maximum range of 37.5 km” (about 23 miles).
In addition, the Russians are currently in the process of reactivating the 2S4 Tyulpan heavy mortar, which fires a massive 240mm round — double the U.S. military’s heaviest 120mm mortar round — at a range of 9,650 meters, or nearly six miles.
The United States’ 155mm artillery pieces have a range of about 22 kilometers (13 miles), meanwhile, and are smaller than the Russian 2S7 Pion’s 203 mm rounds.
Why does this matter? Not only would the Russians have more range and firepower against U.S. and NATO forces, these systems — combined with multiple rocket launch platforms — would also give Moscow’s forces a huge psychological advantage once the shells began raining down on American and NATO formations.
Collins and Morgan use a real-world example from Ukraine in 2014:
On July 11, 2014, battalions from Ukraine’s 24th and 72nd Mechanized Brigades assembled outside of the town of Zelenopillya, located about 5 miles from the Russian border. Having achieved success against the Russian-led separatist forces in the breakaway oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk (the Donbass) over the previous two months, they were assembling before what was planned to be a final push to the border to cut off the supply lines of the paramilitary forces from their Russian sponsors.
What started as a fairly normal day soon took an unexpected turn. It started with the buzzing of Russian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) overhead and cyberattacks against Ukrainian command, control and communications systems. The Russians then launched an attack consisting of short-range BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket system rockets from across the border. The attack lasted only two or three minutes, but it was immensely destructive to the Ukrainian forces. The attack destroyed most of the armored vehicles, killed at least 30 soldiers and wounded hundreds more. The attack left the Ukrainian forces decimated and demoralized, and represented the high-water mark for the Ukrainian offensive.
“Russia’s investments in artillery have given them a tactical supremacy over the United States. Advantages in indirect fires can be broken down into three basic categories: firepower/range, responsiveness and culture,” the write.
American troops have been fighting since 2001 — but in theaters like Iraq and Afghanistan against low-tech foes with little more than small-caliber mortars and RPGs. Major power war against a foe like Russia or China, both of whom would deploy high-tech firepower in the form of advanced, highly lethal artillery, is something that American and NATO troops haven’t experienced.
Russian forces have, however. The Ukrainians, though outgunned by Moscow, have substantial artillery assets themselves, and have used them to ward off Russian-backed separatists. When the big rounds start going off on the battlefield, they can serve as game-changers, devastating nerves and the will to fight as well as formations.
Notes The National Interest in March 2018:
The newest American system is the 155mm M109A7, which is slated to slowly replace the M109A6 “Paladin” that forms the bulk of American self-propelled artillery. In the Russian Ground Forces, the Cold War vintage 152mm 2S3 is still in service, though it is flanked by the more modern 2S19 and its upgrades, the 2S19M1, 2S19M2 and 2S33. However, unlike the United States, Russia retains a significant light to medium self-propelled artillery component with the 122mm 2S1 and 120mm 2S34 systems.
Overall, the differences in these systems are significant. The M109A7 is an improvement over the earlier Paladin in that it uses an entirely new chasis and is able to fire up to four rounds per minute. But the Russian self-propelled heavy guns are much faster; employing a programmable autoloader, they can pump out up to 10 rounds per minute.
Also, the Russian Army fields light artillery pieces — self-propelled and towed — that American forces don’t possess at the battalion level. Collins and Morgan write:
While the U.S. maintains its artillery at the brigade level for centralized control, the Russian army is fielding its artillery directly to maneuver battalions, providing maximum responsiveness when short windows of opportunity present themselves on the dynamic multidomain battlefield.
“Overall, the biggest differences between the howitzers comes down to rate of fire and battlefield integration,” The National Interest adds.
“The U.S. Army has a far better integrated howitzer, but it shoots slower. Russians seem to prioritize firepower, with fast howitzers and more deeply integrated artillery. Each philosophy has validity, but it’s always easier to install or refresh a set of electronic equipment than to reengineer a main cannon.”
Collins and Morgan conclude:
The U.S. Army must be prepared for the return of the King of Battle and to fight a near-peer threat with a sizable artillery capability. As usual, acquisition and technology have a role, but so do tactics, training, culture and doctrine.