Public records clearly show that Russia intends to win the war for control of eastern Ukraine the old fashioned way: superior and massive artillery fire using hundreds of thousands of unguided projectiles .
The Ukrainian armed forces have a limited number of heavier weapons, around 100 of the American 155 millimeter howitzers, and radars that can track enemy artillery shells in flight to locate enemy guns. This counter-battery fire can be made more effective through the use of precision-guided artillery shells, and over time should reduce the effectiveness of enemy artillery. But so far, that is not the case.
It is unclear why Ukrainian counter-battery fire failed to neutralize Russian artillery fire. Perhaps there are too many Russian weapons. The Russians may be successfully using “shoot and spin” tactics. Ukrainian forces may not yet have mastered the difficult task of accurately locating and firing at enemy artillery. But whatever the reason, the main thing is that the Ukrainian howitzers can no longer compete with the mass artillery fire of the Russians. Which means Ukrainian casualties have increased to a point that may not be sustainable.
So what can be done?
The massive artillery that uses hundreds of tons of artillery shells every day creates a target for modern precision-guided weapons. Large shipments of artillery shells can only be transported from Russia to Ukraine by rail. Civil maps show about a dozen crossings between Russia and Ukraine.
Railroads have been military targets for as long as there have been railroads and have been a major target of air power since World War II. The Soviet Union therefore overbuilt its railways – especially its railway bridges – to withstand air attacks. Just like its Vietnamese allies. American airmen of a certain age remember the difficulty of bringing down the Paul Doumer and Thanh Hoa bridges around Hanoi.
Precision-guided weapons make this easier, but they still need to have big, powerful warheads. Several attacks will be necessary. The problem is that US weapons of this type are fired from manned combat aircraft, rather than fired from ground-launched missiles, as the US Air Force has always possessed this mission.
This means that the United States today does not have precision-guided surface-to-surface missiles with large warheads. Thus, Russian rail lines cannot be cut by giving US surface-to-surface missiles to Ukraine. The United States will not send its air force to combat in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Air Force has limited capabilities while the crossings from Russia have air defenses – so giving Ukraine US air arms won’t work either.
But other countries are making the necessary ground-to-ground weapons. The new Spear cruise missile, manufactured by Singapore and Israel, has the necessary anti-ship and anti-land capabilities and was sold this year to Estonia.
Because the spear can reach the Russian-Ukrainian border, it could also reach Russia. It will be argued that giving Spears to Ukraine could risk a Russian counter-escalation.
But Ukrainian fighter jets and helicopters can already hit Russia, and escalation has been averted by Ukraine showing restraint in the use of these weapons. It could be the same for the Spear missile.
There are other considerations. The Spear could not be operated this summer by Ukrainians. Ukrainians learn quickly, but it is a complex and unfamiliar system. It should be operated by non-Ukrainians.
Which means the choices boil down to this:
The United States must urgently improve the counter-battery capabilities of the howitzers already in Ukrainian hands.
If precision-guided artillery shells have not yet been delivered, they must be airlifted immediately.
Training needs to be intensified.
The American friends who hesitated to arm the Ukrainians should be hired by senior officials in the Biden administration. They must be made aware of the stakes involved in the outcome of the war in Ukraine and vigorously encouraged to provide the necessary assistance.
Or we can see Ukrainians bleeding to accept a Russian settlement offer.