The FIVE WEAPONS that DEFINED the WAR
By Campbell MacDiarmid, MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT24 February 2023 • 7:00am
In the year since Russia launched its full scale invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, both sides have defied expectations about how they would perform.
From the outset, Russian forces – purportedly from the second most powerful military globally – failed to achieve their goals, mired in a morass of poor planning, inept leadership, equipment failure and at times drunkenness.
Ukrainian forces meanwhile mounted a heroic defence against what initially seemed like insurmountable odds, revealing in the process how far a Nato-backed reform programme had upgraded a military that just eight years earlier had been in ruins.
From the beginning one factor stood out as having the power to define the outcome of the war – foreign military support to Ukraine.
How each weapon changed the course of the conflict
PHASE 1FEB–MAR 2022NLAW
PHASE 2APR–MAY 2022M1955 HOWITZER
PHASE 3JUN–AUG 2022HIMARS
PHASE 4SEP–DEC 2022SHAHED 136
Fighting a better armed enemy with massive stockpiles, a well-developed defence industry, and virtually inexhaustible manpower, Ukraine needed support from its allies to survive.
“Russia can win by itself, Ukraine can’t win by itself,” said Jamie Shea, a former senior Nato official and associate fellow at Chatham House.
Recognition of this has led Ukraine’s allies to commit ever greater quantities of heavier and more complex weapons, a flow that now reaches billions of dollars monthly. While Western weapons like NLAWs and Himars kept Ukraine in the fight, Russian weapons have proved the old adage attributed to Stalin that “quantity has a quality all its own”.
These are the weapons shaping the war in Ukraine.
PHASE 1 | FEB–MAR 2022NLAW
CREDIT: Eddie Gerald/Getty Images
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, announced his “special military operation” on Feb 24 2022, with Moscow claiming it was responding to calls for help from separatist territories in Luhansk and Donetsk that the Kremlin had recognised as independent days earlier.
As Russian missiles landed on Ukrainian cities before dawn on Feb 24, Russian troops rolling across Ukraine’s borders were soon coming under attack from a new kind of weapon.
A month earlier, as Putin threatened to overthrow the government in Kyiv, Royal Air Force C-17 cargo planes had flown from Brize Norton to Boryspil International Airport, east of Kyiv, carrying pallets of the British military’s Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapon, or NLAW.
The UK initially delivered 2,000 of the disposable weapons – assembled by defence contractor Thales, in Belfast, Northern Ireland – as a deterrent to the looming Russian invasion.
While deterrence did not work, the NLAWs soon proved their usefulness to outgunned Ukrainian defenders, who engaged entire convoys on foot whilst fighting in small mobile squads. The NLAW, which could destroy Russian battle tanks from up to half a mile away, cost about £30,000 each, making them an extremely cost-effective way to destroy a 45-ton T-90 tank worth up to £3.7 million.
Their portability and simplicity endeared themselves to Ukrainian soldiers, who could be trained to fire the NLAW in under an hour. “How do you say in English ‘God save the Queen?’” one Ukrainian soldier asked while surveying a Russian tank destroyed by an NLAW outside Kyiv.
A huge column of Russian vehicles some 40 miles long was soon bogged down outside the Ukrainian capital. This was not what Russian military planners were expecting.
Russian military planners – expecting the Ukrainian military to perform as badly as it had in 2014 against separatist militiamen in the Donbas and the “little green men” covertly sent from Moscow to support them – had promised a victory parade through the streets of Kyiv within days. But in the eight years since, an urgent Nato-backed defence reform programme had done much to update and upgrade the post-Soviet Ukrainian military.
Much of the support had focused on limited-range defensive weapons that donors hoped would avoid provoking Russia into a major confrontation. Among these shoulder-fired weapons, including US Javelins, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles (and the locally made Stugna P anti-tank missiles) destroyed huge numbers of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles in the first month of the invasion, becoming emblematic of Ukraine’s plucky David versus Goliath resistance. A meme of Mary holding a Javelin spearheaded a public fundraising campaign that raised over $2 million, while the mayor of the eastern city of Dnipro kept an expended NLAW in his office as a memento of British support.
Experts say the NLAW was critical in disrupting Russian plans to capture the capital within days of the initial invasion, with Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, hailing the weapon as having “played a decisive role in supporting Ukraine’s army to drive back Russia’s illegal invading forces”.
By late March the Russian advance on Kyiv had stalled and by the end of the month Moscow announced the withdrawal of its forces from around the Ukrainian capital.
PHASE 2 | APR–MAY 2022M1955 Howitzer
CREDIT: BBC Motion Gallery Editorial/BBC News
In April, Russian forces regrouped to focus on capturing the eastern Donbas, a region of Moscow-backed pro-Russian separatism where the Kremlin hoped to turn the war to its advantage by exploiting its vastly superior firepower.
Moscow’s military doctrine has long relied on heavy artillery and rocket fire to outgun opponents, with much Russian indirect fire weapons outranging Nato stock by a third or more.
In the spring, from Kharkiv in the north to the Kherson region on the Black Sea, eastern Ukraine came under a relentless bombardment. The US estimated Russia was firing 20,000 shells a day on average, while Ukrainian officials said it was even more.
Russia’s arsenal included MSTA self-propelled artillery, able to fire a 152mm projectile nearly 40 miles; the workhorse M1955 152mm towed howitzer; BM-21 Grads, which shoot salvos of rockets up to 28 miles; the 220mm TOS-1A heavy flamethrower system, whose thermobaric warheads obliterate anything within football field-sized radii; and the most powerful howitzer in the world, the colossal 2S7 Pion, which lobs 110-kilogram shells over 20 miles.
While Ukraine had some of the same ex-Soviet weapons, its stockpile was a fraction that of Russia, and some Ukrainian gunners complained of being able to fire just one shell for every 10 incoming.
By the end of June the massive shelling had overwhelmed Ukrainian troops defending the eastern cities Severodonetsk and Lyschansk and was causing hundreds of deaths per day, the bodies often destroyed beyond recognition. Ukrainian forensics labs faced a backlog of remains, while cemeteries used earth-movers to pre-dig hundreds of graves.
Volodymir Voychenko, the chief of the Dnipro regional forensics bureau, told The Telegraph last April that often there were just fragments left to identify. “This is a war where a large proportion of the warfare is done by artillery, rockets, bombs, and tanks,” he said by way of explaining why so many bodies were mangled beyond recognition. “This is not a war that will be won with small arms.”
As the situation in the Donbas became increasingly bleak for the battered defenders, Ukrainian officials pleaded with allies for more military support.
In an attic of an old Second World War barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, Ukrainian officers presented representatives from dozens of donor countries with an ever growing wish list of weaponry.
When Ukraine’s deputy defence minister complained in the spring that Kyiv had received a mere 10 per cent of the weapons it had requested, the officials at the International Donors Coordination Cell at Patch Barracks – the US Army headquarters in Germany – worked urgently to catch up.
In the early days of the invasion donors had sent mostly small arms and ammunition, but after Russian forces withdrew from around Kyiv revealing the massacre they had perpetrated in Bucha, many of Ukraine’s allies overcame some of their fears of strikes inside Russia escalating the conflict and began supplying heavier and more complex weapons.
Artillery pieces and rocket launchers began arriving in their dozens by April, including British-made 155mm M777s from the the US, Australia and Canada, 155mm Krab Self Propelled Howitzer, and French CAESARs. From July, 54 British 105mm L118 and L119 artillery pieces were delivered.
The arrival of these guns and large quantities of ammunition reaching the front allowed an outgunned Ukraine to hold on through the summer, while Russian advances in the Donbas eventually proved to be a pyrrhic victory.
“The battle for the Donbas bled the Russian military of manpower, at a time when it lacked the forces to both hold captured territory and continue offensives,” write Rob Lee and Michael Kofman in an analysis for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “The Russian military offset this deficit by dramatically increasing its rate of artillery fire. This burned through Russia’s second most critical resource, artillery ammunition.”
PHASE 3 | JUN–AUG 2022HIMARS
SOURCE: Getty Images
Russia’s heavy reliance on “iron rain” to force grinding victories in Donbas had exposed its Achilles’ heel – the enormous logistical challenge of transporting and stockpiling huge numbers of shells and other material. In particular, Russia’s heavy reliance on railways for transport and centralised logistics system presented the opportunity to take out massive ammunition dumps and key supply lines far in the Russian rear.
By early summer, the United States and the UK had overcome some of their earlier reticence over supplying Ukraine with long-range offensive weapons. On June 1, Joe Biden, the US president, announced the US would send Ukraine a weapon that would be able to strike deep behind Russian lines – the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or Himars.
Like its British counterpart, the M270 multiple rocket launch system that was also given to Ukraine, the Himars used GPS-guided rockets to allow precision targeting at a range of up to 50 miles.
Soldiers manning front-line positions said they immediately felt the pressure ease as the long-distance rockets started taking out Russian ammunition depots, supply lines, bridges across the Dnipro river, command centres and concentrations of Russian forces.
“Now we have the Himars, we’re destroying their logistics,” Psikh, a 36-year-old commander on the Kherson front, told The Telegraph last summer.
“The rhythm of the war depends on their supply of ammunition,” Phoenix, a 25-year-old soldier on the Kherson front, told The Telegraph. “Since the bridge [over the Dnipro river at Kherson] was targeted by Himars they’re not shelling as much, they’re conserving their ammunition.”
By July, the cost of Russia’s massive expenditure of munitions and manpower in the east had begun to show. Speaking at a security conference that month, Richard Moore, chief of MI6, noted that Russian advances had slowed to near nil as he predicted that its invasion was “about to run out of steam”.
“Our assessment is that the Russians will increasingly find it difficult to find manpower and materiel over the next few weeks,” he told the conference in Colorado. “They will have to pause in some way and that will give the Ukrainians the opportunity to strike back.”
His forecast was soon borne out. Western deliveries of heavy weapons enabled Ukraine to bridge the gap with Russian firepower, allowing Ukrainian forces to recapture lightly defended territory in the Kharkiv region in September and by November to free Kherson, the only regional capital to have fallen during the invasion.
PHASE 4 | SEP–DEC 2022Shahed 136
After a humiliating rout from Kharkiv, depleted Russian forces needed to adopt new tactics.
Russian shelling of Ukrainian positions had dropped by up to three-quarters, with US officials estimating that around 5,000 shells daily were being fired along the whole front. Instead, Russia began a new strike campaign on civilian infrastructure away from front lines in a bid to exhaust Ukraine.
Throughout the war Russian cruise missiles, and later as stocks ran lower repurposed S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, had landed on Ukrainian cities but now the attacks became more systematic. Revenge attacks, Ukraine said, in retaliation for their recent battlefield successes.
On Sept 11, a barrage of missiles struck electricity infrastructure in the Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk regions, leaving Ukraine’s second-largest city in darkness and large swathes of eastern Ukraine temporarily without water or electricity. Two days later, Russia struck the Karachun dam outside Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine.
Days later Putin threatened that the strikes on civilian infrastructure were just beginning. “Just recently the Russian armed forces hit some sensitive targets. Let’s consider these to have been warning strikes,” he said. “If the situation develops further in the current direction, our response will be more serious.”
By mid-December – before the worst cold of the winter – six major waves of strikes had destroyed half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, leaving millions of Ukrainians without heat, running water and communications. The attacks came roughly every fortnight. “They need about 10 to 14 days to reorganise after the [previous] massive attack they carried out on the territory of Ukraine,” said Natalia Humeniuk, head of the Joint Press Centre for Operational Command Pivden (South).
Fragments of cruise missiles recovered from some of these attacks showed that Moscow was firing stock manufactured in October and November, which analysts interpret as a sign of dwindling stockpiles. But Russia had a new weapon of its own to unveil.
The distinctive delta wing of the Iranian shahed-136 was first seen over eastern battlefields in September. But in October the Kamikaze drones began targeting Ukrainian cities.
The petrol-engine drones were slow enough for Ukrainian forces to target with small arms but plentiful enough they could be deployed in swarms, with a 35 kilogram warhead that could destroy buildings on impact. Built from hobbyist components, the Iranian-supplied drones cost less than £18,000 per unit, a fraction of the cost of conventional Russian missiles, which range from about £270,000 for a Tochka-U up to £11.6 million for a X-101 cruise missile.
Despite Ukrainian forces reportedly shooting down 80 per cent of the relatively primitive drones – dubbed “mopeds” by Ukrainian soldiers for their distinctive whine – Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, warned the US Congress in December that swarms of the “deadly” drones posed a “threat to our critical infrastructure”.
The threat continued into the new year, with Mr Zelensky warning on Jan 3 that Russia was planning a “protracted” campaign of drone attacks, after Ukrainian officials reported that their defences had destroyed over 80 shaheds on Jan 1 and 2 “It is probably banking on exhaustion,” the president said.
“Exhausting our people, our anti-aircraft defences, our energy.”
PHASE 5 | 2023Tanks
CREDIT: SLM News/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images
This kind of prolonged attrition is what Ukraine needs to avoid. Western donors may tire of the war before Ukraine does. Already there are signs of donor fatigue in the United States, which by January had provided about 60 per cent – nearly £20 billion – of the total aid to Ukraine. Before being elected speaker of Congress, Kevin McCarthy said a Republican-controlled house would reduce or end funding to Ukraine, suggesting that Washington may pressure Europe to increase contributions in 2023.
In January, with sides reportedly planning a fresh offensive when the weather warms, Ukraine was eager to secure game-changing new support. “To win faster we need tanks,” the Ukrainian ministry of defence said just after the new year.
Amid recent announcements of further weapon transfers, including US and German Patriot air defence systems, and various new armoured fighting vehicles, calls for main battle tanks dominated the start of 2023. Valerii Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, says he needs at least 300 of them, alongside 600 more armoured fighting vehicles, to mount a successful offensive.
Though predictions of the tank’s obsolescence are nearly as old as tanks themselves, many military experts agree that the tank’s speed, mobility, armour and firepower make it unsurpassed for making breakthroughs on the battlefield when deployed as part of a combined arms force with infantry support.
Overcoming earlier reluctance to supply offensive weapons – that could be viewed as a red line by Putin – the UK announced in mid-January that it was considering supplying Ukraine with the British army’s main battle tank, the Challenger II. Shortly after, Germany approved export licences for Leopard II tanks while the US followed with a promise to send its M1 Abrams.
Analysts warn this ad hoc response risks worsening an already considerable problem for Ukraine – the logistical difficulties inherent in maintaining a disparate force of incompatible vehicles and weapons, requiring separate ammunition, training, and spare parts.
“I see lots of logistical challenges with multiple new systems in the field,” said Franz-Stefan Gady, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “Maintenance and repair for these systems will be very difficult and I expect a high breakdown rate for the foreseeable future.”
However, many military observers have been surprised at how well Ukraine has managed to build an efficient fighting force with whatever they can get their hands on.
However, to help smooth the process of arming Ukraine, Mr Shea of Chatham House argues: “Europeans need to form consortia to supply weapons and ammunition.”
With so much at stake, progress in the spring will be critical, he said. “If the Ukrainians are able to keep the momentum going in the spring… it will be easier for those Western supplies to continue to flow.”