How do you win in a siege when the enemy reaches out and ruins your precious artillery? During the Battle of Minas Tirith in the third Lord of the Rings film, Return of the King, the Witch-king faced a unique challenge: seizing a city with multiple layers of defense to include rings of walls armed with trebuchets. The city’s defenders flung giant chunks of stone, destroying siege towers and removing the besieging force’s crude catapults from the fight. The Witch-king knew that it wouldn’t be long before Gondor destroyed his artillery. He also knew what such a loss would mean for the siege’s prospects. He responded by flying his Nazgul to suppress and destroy Gondor’s trebuchet positions, enabling his forces to conduct counterfire of their own.
While fictional, the siege highlights real-world problems commanders can face when besieging an enemy-controlled urban center. Cities will be increasingly likely to play a significant role in large-scale combat operations (LSCO) given global urbanization patterns. Urban areas are the modern-day walls and fortresses of J. R. R. Tolkien’s world, capable of halting advances and bogging down attacking forces. Cities also act as a force multiplier for defenders. While fires can reduce a fortress, field artillery places itself at significant risk by conducting siege operations; lessons from the ongoing war in Ukraine highlight critical vulnerabilities in artillery survivability and sustainability. Moreover, from a US military perspective, habits developed in comparatively more permissive environments and with the benefit of artillery overmatch must be broken. Instead, commanders should encourage judicious targeting that will preserve fires combat power and maximize effects on the defender in a protracted siege.
A Tale of Two Sieges
Though Russia had overwhelming advantages in equipment and manpower over the Chechens during the Second Chechen War, Russian forces needed to conduct a months-long siege before ultimately capturing the capital of Grozny in February 2000. The Russian army relied on artillery to prepare the battlefield before advancing. Maneuver was held in reserve while the city was shelled for weeks. Despite this preparatory bombardment, Russian maneuver forces entering Grozny found themselves heavily engaged by staunch defenders who mounted stiff resistance. Russian forces leveled large parts of the city, suggesting they became increasingly frustrated at their slow progress. While the city eventually fell, the siege demonstrated how a smaller force could resist a larger army in an urban environment.
In November 2004, during the Second Battle of Fallujah, American field artillery offered maneuver commanders tactical solutions to breakthrough urban bottlenecks that pinned down their forces. During the battle, US Marines fired 5,685 155-millimeter artillery rounds in support of coalition ground maneuver. Unit commanders noted that the Marines relied on planned artillery strikes to spearhead their thrusts into insurgent urban strongholds. Artillery preceded advancing units as they moved from block to block. Eventually, after a month of combat, coalition forces were successful—but at a significant cost in lives, ammunition, and time.
In both Grozny and Fallujah, powerful military forces faced a weaker opponent with inferior capabilities and enjoyed several operational comforts that will not be present in a LSCO environment. To better prepare for urban operations, especially protracted sieges, commanders and staffs will need to adjust their framing of tactical employment of fires.
The Counterbattery Threat
Neither Russian nor US forces faced modern or credible counterbattery threats during these urban assaults. Early indirect counterfire became ubiquitous on the battlefield in World War I, where armies attempted to find the point of origin of an artillery strike and fire back at those positions. In World War II, the United States used ground and aerial forward observers to spot for artillery. When Germany attempted to prevent the Allied advance in Western Europe in late 1944, US aerial observers coordinated with ground fire direction centers to silence German artillery batteries. Artillery commanders on both sides adapted to the counterbattery threat by developing procedures to more rapidly displace their guns and better conceal their forces. During the Cold War, counterbattery capabilities further evolved as armies integrated radar systems to find enemy artillery by tracking the trajectory of incoming rounds.
Urban warfare creates an environment where an outgunned defender can disproportionally target and destroy the attacker’s artillery. A siege encourages the defender to bait the attacker’s fire support. Defenders can establish sensor zones such as “critical friendly zones” over areas where the defending commanders expect the attacker to employ fires. Once enemy firing units are acquired by a sensor, the defender’s targeting cells can direct counterbattery fire. The attacking commander could then face a decision—whether to potentially trade artillery pieces and crew for city blocks.
In Grozny, Russian forces did not face sophisticated systems capable of detecting their artillery. The low risk of enemy counterbattery fire encouraged the Russian army to place less emphasis on survivability. Photos of Russian artillery operating in Chechnya show artillery pieces arrayed in close proximity to each other, at times in a linear fashion, reminiscent of World War II Soviet-style employment. The Russian military’s lackadaisical survivability tactics persisted due to a lack of enemy parity, poor Russian training, and outdated Soviet doctrine. Tactics employed in Chechnya furthered complacency and bad habits that are still seen today in Ukraine.
While Mariupol was considered a tactical Russian victory, it furthered an incorrect analysis that the way Russia used artillery was tactically and operationally sound—of which it was neither. Russia’s experience at Mariupol was similar in key respects with its experience at Grozny. Its field artillery did not face a substantial local counterbattery radar threat at the time. As a result, batteries, command posts, and supply points did not emphasize mobility or survivability.
Elsewhere, however, the consequences of Russia’s continued reliance on the same artillery tactics employed in Chechnya—especially in the opening months of the war—were much clearer. This has been especially true when Russian forces faced Ukrainian defenders with capabilities to find and destroy the attacker’s artillery. Russia’s decision to fight in a siege-like fashion exposes its artillery to Ukrainian counterattack. And the decision to saturate the area of operations with targets, without careful consideration for their artillery’s survivability, gave opportunities for Ukraine to mount localized strikes to attrit Russian fires. The Ukrainian military exploited Russian forces’ indiscriminate targeting to find and destroy their artillery. In contrast to Russia’s profligate ammunition expenditure, Ukraine quickly understood that the artillery force ratio at the start of the war was unbalanced, nearly five-to-one in Russia’s favor, so it had to be judicious in its artillery employment.
Artillery survivability drastically decreases the longer the siege continues. When committing forces to besiege an urban target, an attacker must isolate the target to the maximum extent possible and maintain pressure on the defenders. Because the attacking forces tend to get canalized as they move to clear a city, they reveal their avenues of approach. Once an attacker commits to a siege, its force is also limited to a smaller area of operations unless the attacker decides to bypass or withdraw.
While field artillery provides fire support at a much greater distance, it is nonetheless fixed as well if it is to support its force’s maneuver. Planners, for both the attacker and the defender, have a general understanding of maximum effective ranges and capabilities. A 155-millimeter battery, for example, while potentially more than twenty kilometers away, must still be within a certain distance to effectively support maneuver. Therefore, planners can draw threat rings and conduct threat analyses to deduce where enemy artillery positions are likely to be located. While field artillery commanders work with maneuver elements to establish position areas for artillery, there are only so many areas a unit can occupy before having to reuse locations. Furthermore, not every type of terrain is conducive for artillery, thus limiting a battery’s emplacement options even further. If the enemy can narrow down where you position your artillery, it makes the enemy’s counterbattery fight easier.
The massive and technology-enabled expansion of open-source intelligence creates new challenges for artillery formations to survive in a LSCO environment. Footage of Russian artillery movement, deployment, and destruction is commonplace on social media. For artillery, movement and displacement are the best defenses in such an information-rich environment. Stationary units place themselves at greater risk where satellite footage can find and trace vehicle tracks and locate artillery positions. In a siege, field artillery units become trapped with limited space to relocate while still having to service targets for the maneuver commander.
Professionals Talk Logistics
Field artillery sustainment becomes especially problematic in a protracted siege. Besides fuel, replacement parts, food, and water, ammunition supply remains a monstrous headache. As the US Army sends units to test their capabilities at combat training center rotations, artillery ammunition sustainment is almost inevitably a point of friction. Units realize they never have enough ammunition, nor do they have the physical capability to support their desired rates of expenditure. Commanders must decide whether to use their logistics assets to haul ammunition or other classes of supply. Dilemmas created at combat training centers show a gap between what units can sustain and what they would ideally want to shoot.
Similarly, ammunition sustainment shortfalls are evident in Ukraine, where the intensity of combat operations outpace supply. Ukraine regularly asks the United States for more ammunition, especially for its newly received M777-series howitzers. In June 2022, the United States offered a security assistance package with 260,000 complete 155-millimeter artillery rounds and 126 M777 howitzers. Even with this support, Ukraine argues that it desperately needs more to sustain combat operations against Russia.
Russia’s current employment of artillery as it conducts siege warfare is unsustainable. Based on the Russian Ministry of Defense’s daily briefings, RUSI determined Russian forces were firing approximately 585 fire missions per day in late May 2022. RUSI assumed that each artillery strike was conducted by a battery with four guns and four rounds fired per gun. Including estimated wastage, Russian tube artillery fires over seven thousand rounds per day. Ultimately, Russian forces’ ammunition dilemma asks how long their controlled supply rate can match their required supply rate. Evidence suggests that the Russian army has not matched those needs.
Furthermore, tube artillery can only fire a finite amount of ammunition before a howitzer needs a new cannon tube due to wear and erosion. For example, an M777 can fire approximately 2,500 rounds before the barrel must be replaced. In a prolonged siege, it is possible for an artillery battery to lose combat effectiveness simply by burning out its guns. Even before needing replacement, worn barrels reduce accuracy, limiting the effectiveness of each volley. In a combat environment, it can become difficult to receive replacement parts, further slowing the replacement process for a cannon tube.
Preparing for Urban Fires in LSCO
Artillery, for all its capability and firepower, will be vulnerable if used as it was in Grozny or Fallujah. As we shift toward LSCO, ubiquitous use of artillery in the close fight during a protracted siege is an archaic tactic that does more harm than good in the long run. While Russia may have won some early victories by using artillery as a brute force weapon, prolonged combat operations against a supplied and determined enemy with comparable capabilities will create unsustainable long-term costs.
Field artillery plays an important role in developing the initial phases of an urban operation. It shapes the initial phase of a siege, enabling attacking forces to isolate and turn the city into a noncontiguous area of operations for the defender. Commanders should consider that noncontiguous area in its entirety as the close fight. Field artillery then plays a supporting role, servicing essential targets decisive to maneuver under the commander’s high-priority target list.
In a protracted siege, once the target urban area is isolated, artillery’s primary objective on the battlefield is to win the deeper fight. Maneuver commanders should employ artillery to degrade enemy forces attempting to relieve the besieged defenders, neutralize enemy supply nodes, mine avenues of approach to turn or fix the defender’s reinforcements, and neutralize enemy air defenses to enable greater flexibility for friendly aviation. The priority for the maneuver component is to finish the siege as quickly as possible. Employing artillery against enemy attempts to break the siege prevents the defender from reinforcing the isolated forces and prolonging the siege, and thus supports maneuver in the big picture.
As Ukraine continues to provide lessons on an extraordinarily wide range of aspects modern warfare, it is important for observers like the US military to evaluate what changes those lessons should encourage—including, for example, how to support maneuver in protracted urban operations. Russian forces failed to anticipate and adapt their artillery for the LSCO fight. Their continued poor positioning of their artillery, fixed to support their maneuver’s slog through each urban center, continues to prove detrimental to its survivability. Ukraine’s judicious use of fires, by contrast, provides its own lessons for maneuver commanders on how to employ field artillery in an urban fight against a peer enemy. But whether models to be emulated or cautionary tales of what not to do, we cannot afford to ignore either set of lessons.
Alexander Grinberg is a field artillery officer in the US Army. He is pursuing a master’s degree in war studies from King’s College London.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: mil.gov.ua, via Wikimedia Commons