War in motion: Will new Western arms tip current balance in Ukraine?
As the war enters its second year, both Russia and the Western-backed Kiev forces are ramping up their efforts to win a war that still looks far from being over.
As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, costs continue to accumulate on both the Russian Federation on one side and Ukraine and its Western backers on the other. In a previous article, we discussed how the conflict in Ukraine possesses the potential to change the whole global system currently dominated by the collective West. Since gains or losses of such magnitude are anticipated by both parties, they will find themselves forced to pour resources and efforts into a WWI-style conflict that seems to be sometimes driven by the sunk cost fallacy.
On most of this war's fronts, trench warfare is raging; this type of warfare is characterized by the lack of any major breakthroughs through defensive lines in order to strike the enemy's backlines, destroying command outposts and surrounding units, thus crumbling their forces without the need to win the slugfest in the trenches. Such type of warfare is determined by the current military technology, employed military doctrines, and the limitations on the use of force. This warfare relies on the logic of inflicting the maximum amount of casualties on the enemy while conserving as much force as possible, so solid firepower and its quantity turn out to be the decisive factor in most of the occurring engagements. Firepower is reliant not only on the type of delivery system but also on what guarantees its consistency and perseverance, hence on the logistics and the industrial or diplomatic capacity to bring more shells than the enemy to the battlefield one way or the other.
Moscow looks to have a relative incremental advantage on the battlefield at the moment, represented by the marginal territorial gains it is slowly but surely making. Ukraine, on the other hand, despite its autumn successes, is on the back foot, as its forces lost the initiative some time ago and are reacting to the Russian forces' initiatives. Such results are due to many factors, including Russia's partial mobilization, and its force regeneration advantage (troops and equipment), and while it still has not integrated the bulk of its 300,000 mobilized men into the front lines, good results are starting to show. Such results are expected to augment, as Ukraine's military, which is almost utterly reliant on foreign supplies, is suffering from attrition that supersedes its current force regeneration capabilities.
Still, Kiev's forces are far from being defeated, as major Western arms shipments are on their way to Ukraine. These shipments include weapons systems never previously delivered, such as Western-made tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and long-range missiles. So what are the capabilities of such systems? And what effects will these systems have on the battlefield?
Tanks and IFVs
Despite Kiev's forces receiving hundreds of tanks and IFVs in the last year, the vast majority of such systems were Soviet-built and had not been modernized - unlike their Russian or Ukrainian counterparts. Some Western-made Armored Personel Carriers, like variants of the US-made M113, have been delivered, as well as various types of Western light troop transporters, like the US M-ATVs and French VABs. The new package is completely distinct, as it has Western-made players from different weight classes, including the German-made Leopard 1 and Leopard 2, US-made M2 Bradley IFVs, British-made Challenger 2 tanks, and the German-made Marder 1 IFVs, to name a few.
Such systems without a doubt enhance the Ukrainian forces' firepower and maneuvering capabilities amid talks of a Kharkov-style incoming spring offensive. Despite the advantages, such systems pose serious logistical challenges to the Ukrainian supply chains and systems, as they require a whole new league of maintenance efforts and spare parts, as well as experienced technicians. Doctrinally, the crews of such systems require months or maybe years of training before being able to efficiently man these vehicles, but due to time constraints, Ukrainian crews are to receive extremely condensed and shortened training of merely weeks, thus degrading their future performance on the battlefield greatly, as crews skills and expertise are one of the most important factors in armored warfare.
Another aspect is that these systems differ slightly from the previous systems available in the Ukrainian inventories. While the most modern of the to-be-delivered Western systems are undeniably technologically advanced, possessing modern electronics and communications systems as well as thermal sights, they would offer a marginal advantage in comparison with the previously present systems. This marginality is emboldened by their low numbers, meaning they will either have to be diluted through the whole front, reducing their effectiveness, or organized into compact brigades, which will localize their advantage, and make it easier for the enemy to concentrate appropriate forces to counter them.
In addition, the modern battlefield is a complex space, made out of the many systems that occupy different spatial dimensions and levels, meaning that a tank with older systems might be more effective than a modern one if complemented by other systems, such as appropriate air or ground reconnaissance, anti-tank teams, artillery, mortar tubes, mobile infantry, etc...
King of the battlefield
Yet again in warfare and since its inception, artillery has proven itself to be the ultimate king of the battlefield, as multiple reports indicated that most of the casualties in this war have been caused by indirect artillery fire. The high consumption of artillery shells has proven to be a decisive factor in many battles. Since the summer, numerous media reports quoting Ukrainian military officials conveyed their descriptions of the amount of damage shells can cause on the battlefield. Consequently, the ability to provide tubes and launch systems, as well as adequate shells, became one of the most significant races of this war.
The new Western aid package meant for Ukraine is expected to bring dozens of new and previously available systems, such as the French Caesar and the Swedish Archer, both in 155 mm caliber, as well as supplementary US-made M777 towed howitzers, to the front. One of the major problems expressed by Western leaders, such as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and British Defense Minister Ben Wallace, is that Ukraine's consumption of shells superseded all Western expectations, as well as their production capacities, and thus exhausted their stockpiles and those of other systems like ATGMs and MANPADs.
Rheinmetall, the german arms giant already banking billions out of this war, said it was ready to up its production numbers for artillery shells. Some US firms also followed suit, but still, such upticks would need some time to be fulfilled, as productions lines, long dismantled, would need months or maybe up to a year to be re-established, as production will increase gradually since private firms will be hesitant to put costs into enlarging the production base for equipment that would become in excess of supply if the war stops at any moment, thus incurring financial losses.
Long range munitions
While the M142 HIMARS and the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems were effective in inflicting damage on the Russian backlines by bombing troop concentration points, ammunition depots, and command centers with their precise munitions, they are far from being the game changer they were proclaimed to be. The actual effectiveness of such a system does not come from its own capabilities, rather mostly from NATO's Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) network doing the bulk of the work for the Ukrainians. Russians have pretty much tied hands when it comes to dealing with such systems, as they would be required to shoot down NATO countries' satellites and drones with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) flying in the Black Sea in international space and scanning for Ukrainian forces.
The Russian armed forces would be facing a serious challenge in intercepting the upcoming Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) shells that Ukraine is about to receive, as they possess more than double the range of the GMLRS ammunition currently used by Kiev forces (82 Km Vs. 150 Km). Such range will give Ukraine a much longer hand in hitting sensitive targets behind the front lines, but at the same time, since the new shells are glide bombs, they fly at much lower speeds, making them relatively easier to intercept by air defense systems than the GMLRS. An article published by The Washington Post quoted a Ukrainian official ad saying that they rarely if ever strike targets without receiving the proper coordinates from the NATO forces from a base in Europe.
To summarise, the aforementioned systems would provide a boost to the Ukrainian forces' fire and maneuvering capabilities while extending their area of action behind Russian lines. But each one of these systems possesses previously mentioned limitations and will have other limitations to be discovered on the battlefield, such is the nature of warfare. In addition, Western countries are already bringing down the numbers of the offered systems that will arrive in time for the advertised upcoming "spring offensive".
Russia, on the other hand, undoubtedly has problems of its own, and many of these problems have been created by the effectiveness of Ukrainian forces in the fall offensive, as well as the continuous Western support for Ukraine in this war. Moscow has all the military means and the numbers to nullify the effects of the to-be-delivered systems in the coming period, especially since they could only contribute to forming only a handful of brigades if they were concentrated. Nevertheless, as history has shown, possessing the means is far from being a sufficient condition to win a battle, as the wielder of the weapon, his tactics and prowess are the kingmakers in the heat of war.