(CNN) — There is a new and potentially very significant factor in the war in Ukraine: the ability of the Ukrainians to use newly supplied Western systems to attack Russian command posts, logistics centers and ammunition depots far beyond the front lines.
Huge explosions have taken place in several occupied areas in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson regions in the last week. Available evidence, from satellite images and Western analysts, indicates that the attacks have been highly effective.
For months, the Ukrainian military has begged its Western partners for long-range precision artillery and rocket systems. They now have them and are deploying them to considerable effect in both the south and east of the country.
The Ukrainian military does not give many details, but Vadim Denysenko, a senior official in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said Wednesday that in the last two weeks, “mainly thanks to the weapons that Ukraine received, we were able to destroy approximately two dozen warehouses with weapons. and fuel and lubricant stocks. This will certainly affect the intensity of fire” the Russians can muster, he said.
Best in class is the US-supplied HIMARS multiple launch missile system, but the Ukrainians have also received M777 howitzers from both the US and Canada, and Caesar long-range howitzers from France.
In addition, the UK has pledged to provide M270 Multiple Launch Systems (MLRS), which are more powerful than HIMARS, but it is unclear when Ukraine will complete training on the system and deploy it.
The versatility of the HIMARS is in its name: High Mobility Artillery Missile System. Its mobility makes it more difficult to target and it can be manned by only eight soldiers. The missiles supplied to Ukraine have a range of 70 to 80 kilometers. And their GPS guidance systems make them extremely precise.
As Mick Ryan, a military analyst and former Australian Major General, puts it: “It is used to destroy critical communications nodes, command posts, airfields and important logistics facilities.”
Therefore, Russian senior officials are especially vulnerable. The accuracy of HIMARS also means that the Ukrainians may worry less about civilian casualties. The guided missiles are accurate to between two and three meters, two defense officials told CNN, allowing the Ukrainians to use far fewer bullets to accurately hit targets at a distance.
HIMARS appears to have been used in a massive attack on a warehouse in the town of Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region on Monday night. The attack sparked secondary explosions and caused widespread damage, according to satellite images reviewed by CNN. The images showed the precision of the attack, which only left a small crater.
Local pro-Russian officials said parts of a HIMARS rocket had been recovered; the serial numbers matched the gun.
Large explosions also occurred in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, causing multiple detonations. The same thing happened in Shakhtarsk, in Donetsk, and in the Kherson region over the weekend, as well as near Melitopol in Zaporizhia last week.
In total, it seems that a dozen targets deep in the Russian lines have been attacked in July, most of them at a distance of at least 40 kilometers behind the front, a distance at which the accuracy with the old Tochka missiles -U would be difficult.
The Ukrainians have also been firing HIMARS at night, making it more difficult for the Russians to detect and attack the launchers. Russian forces have had difficulty fighting at night since the beginning of the conflict, and the Ukrainians continue to take advantage of this circumstance.
changing the battlefield
The targets may also have been made easier by the way the Russian military stores and moves its weapons.
Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews, says the attack on Nova Kakhovka is revealing “about the state of logistical warfare and the real problems facing the Russians”.
The target was adjacent to a rail hub, vital to the Russian logistical effort to sustain their offensive, making it an obvious target.
“The Russians left a ridiculously easy-to-find major supply depot exactly where someone would expect to find it. Either the Russians are unable to react due to command failure or they can’t move the depots because they lack road movement.” O’Brien tweeted.
A Ukrainian official hinted that targeting the depot had been easy. “In Nova Kakhovka minus one Russian ammunition depot. They brought, brought, stored, stored and now they have fireworks at night,” Serhiy Khlan, a member of the Kherson regional council, said on Facebook.
Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe, tweeted after the Kherson attack over the weekend: “Least favorite job in the Russian army? Munitions handler.”
At a briefing last week, a senior US Defense Department official said “the focus on the most capable, accurate and ranged weapons” for Ukraine was at the forefront.
On Friday of last week, the Pentagon announced a shipment to Ukraine of 1,000 155mm artillery rounds, but newer and more accurate ammunition, according to the official. The Ukrainians have been spending 155mm ammunition at a rate of 3,000 a day. Like HIMARS, more accurate shells should mean fewer are needed.
The official claimed that HIMARS was changing the battlefield. “What we have seen is the ability of the Ukrainians to use these HIMAR systems to significantly disrupt the ability of the Russians to advance.”
“If the Russians think they can outlast the Ukrainians, they have to rethink it,” the official added.
A Russian military journalist, Yuri Kotenok, said this week that the HIMARS pose “a serious threat.” The liberated areas of the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions, the DPR and the LPR, as well as the territory of Russia, come under possible HIMARS fire.”
Kotenok, who has about 300,000 followers on Telegram, said Russian air defenses need to be improved, as well as the targeting of HIMARS, whether in transit or deployed. He said that “if this continues, it is necessary to hit the decision-making centers. Our limitations in retaliatory attacks against the enemy are to some extent incomprehensible to me.”
Another Russian reporter, Roman Sapenkov, said he witnessed the weekend attack on Russia’s Kherson airport base.
“I was struck by the fact that the whole package, five or six missiles, landed on practically a dime. MLRS typically land over a wide area, and at maximum range they spread out like a fan,” he wrote, referring to MLRS systems. multiple launch, less advanced than HIMARS or M777.
“Clearly this is just the beginning… They will cover all command posts and military installations – the data for this has been collected over the last 4 months.”
The importance of platforms
One of the problems for the Russians may be the way they transport the ammunition, which is where the platforms come into play.
Few Russian military trucks include a crane to lift the heavy ammunition, which is rarely transported on pallets, but is instead loaded and unloaded by hand. Many aging Soviet ZIL trucks have been seen in Ukraine.
Moving weapons and ammunition in this way is cumbersome, time consuming, and can give enemy surveillance a better chance of detecting these shipments. Instead, the UK and US militaries palletize much of their ammunition or ship it in containers.
The Russian way of waging war—as seen in the past three months in eastern Ukraine—relies on huge artillery barrages to pulverize targets before advancing. Russian military doctrine has always emphasized the massive use of artillery, MLRS and mortars. That requires constant resupply: Some analysts estimate that Russia is using at least 7,000 shells and missiles a day in Donbas, and often many more.
“The Russian army does not stop bombing. However, it will most likely save the existing reserves of shells, because their supply has been interrupted by the work of our new long-range weapons,” said Serhiy Hayday, head of the Luhansk regional military administration.
Ukrainian officials say the Russians are being thrown off balance by their growing ability to carry out long-range precision missile strikes.
In and around Melitopol, for example, the Russians have imposed restrictions on civilian movements in recent days. There have been at least two major attacks in the area this month against Russian bases.
But for the Ukrainians to keep up this rate of attack, ammunition needs to arrive unhindered from the West. The Ukrainian military is transitioning from an organization heavily reliant on Soviet-era missile and artillery systems—with inadequate ammunition—to using Western precision weapons with sufficient ammunition in a matter of months.
It is also unknown if any of the few HIMARS dispatched so far have been shot down by Russian fire. The Ministries of Defense and the Ukrainian Army avoid giving details about their deployment.
Ryan warns that although the HIMARS “have provided the Ukrainian Armed Forces with a new ‘long hand’ to attack the Russian invaders, there is no silver bullet in warfare.”
But US officials are confident that the weapon’s accuracy — as well as other accurate long-range systems — will progressively change the battlefield.