Might Russia run out of big guns?

Russian guns are firing around five times as many shells as Ukraine’s are. Fighting has intensified in recent weeks. On February 17th the invaders seized Avdiivka, a town on the eastern front. They have since taken several nearby villages. In the south Ukrainian soldiers are defending the village of Robotyne with just 20 to 30 shells a day. Russia’s firepower gives it a clear advantage—but does it have enough guns to keep it up?

In this photo released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, A view of a workshop of the Uraltransmash plant during Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Shoigu inspected the plant that manufactures artillery systems. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)(AP)

In February, Russia had just under 5,000 artillery pieces in the field, according to the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank in London. It produces about 50 artillery-gun barrels a year, according to Pavel Luzin of the Centre for European Policy Analysis, a think-tank. Ramping up production would be difficult: gun barrels are made with specialist machinery using high-grade steel. At the outbreak of war, only two Russian factories were equipped to make them. Few countries export gun barrels and fewer still would sell to Russia: North Korea is a possible source, having already supplied shells. But satellite images suggest that Russia is replacing a large share of the big guns it loses from a stock that is stored in the open air.

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At the start of the conflict, Russia had around 19,000 artillery pieces in unsheltered yards. But some of those guns have been rusting for decades, making them unusable. Many have been raided for parts over the past two years: gun barrels have frequently been used to replace those worn out by firing thousands of rounds. A study by one open-source intelligence (OSINT) analyst on X, who goes by Ben on the site, suggests on that basis that just 2,000 self-propelled guns and 2,400 towed artillery pieces could still be used. Those figures are uncertain: it is hard to estimate how many of Russia’s oldest guns, D-1 and M-30 howitzers, which date back to the Second World War, can still be used—or how much ammunition Russia has for them. But the dwindling supply of artillery, and of gun barrels in particular, is a clear problem.

It is hard to estimate the rate at which Ukraine is destroying Russian artillery: big guns are usually stationed far from the front lines, making them difficult to count. Ukraine’s armed forces claim to have destroyed more than 10,000, but the number which can be visually confirmed is far lower. Oryx, an OSINT analysis team in the Netherlands, whose estimates are often reasonably consistent with those of state agencies, has images of around 1,000. Based on the rate at which equipment is being withdrawn from the open-air stock, the OSINT analyst on X suggests that the Ukrainians have destroyed perhaps 5,500 big guns. Russia is expected to run out of barrels in 2025, says one informed analyst, at which point it will need to rely on rocket artillery, which requires far greater supplies of explosive material.

In the past year, Ukraine has become much better at destroying Russian artillery (and vice versa). Its detection systems have improved: counter-battery radar supplied by its allies tracks Russian shells back to their source. A plentiful supply of small kamikaze drones, launched up to 20km from their target, can destroy Russian guns. The invaders could protect their artillery by moving it further back from the front lines, or withdrawing some pieces altogether. But that would hamper their ability to pummel the Ukrainians. For the defenders, that would provide welcome relief.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com


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