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1st Mar 2024

EU figures show intensity of Russia-Ukraine artillery war

  • Battlefield in east Ukraine, seen through an artillery sight, following Russia's first invasion in 2014 (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)
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EU ammunition-buying plans show Russia and Ukraine are waging an artillery battle of the intensity of World War II's El Alamein.

Russia is firing "between 20,000 to 50,000 artillery rounds per day" and Ukraine "4,000 to 7,000 artillery rounds daily" in southeast Ukraine, according to an EU memo dated 13 March.

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  • Modern wars rarely involved high-intensity artillery fire (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

It's been going on for months and "the UAF [Ukrainian Armed Forces] are utilising artillery rounds faster than Ukraine's partners can produce and supply them," the EU foreign service's "concept note" on ammunition-buying said.

Most of them are 155-mm calibre shells, an international standard round which can be fired from short and long-range systems, such as the US-made Himars.

"It is estimated that the UAF require at least 357,000 rounds of this calibre per month to properly support their combat objectives," the EU foreign service said.

Putting the figure in perspective, EU factories can currently produce about 450,000 of them a year.

The Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, from time to time, saw similar levels of artillery fire, according to Jamie Shea, a former senior Nato official who teaches war studies at Exeter University in the UK.

But the last time European nations clashed in this way was the second battle of El Alamein in Egypt in 1942, when Allied forces fought Germany's Afrika Corps, Shea said.

It involved about 1,400 cannons, which fired over 500,000 rounds a day on some days.

The time before that was the Battle of the Somme in World War I, Shea added, in a sign of both the scale and the anachronistic nature of the Ukraine war.

"In modern wars such as Afghanistan, you only needed to fire a few missiles at a time to suppress an enemy position," he said.

"This is why Western defence investment has focused on high-tech capabilities, such as air power, in more recent times," he added.

The EU plan is for member states to ship Ukraine some 250,000, or €1bn worth, of 155-mm rounds "from existing stocks and pending orders". EU countries will then "jointly procure" another €1bn worth of new ones "in a prompt and efficient manner" to replenish their arsenals.

Ambassadors are to finalise the deal in Brussels on Friday (18 March), diplomats told EUobserver, so that leaders can announce it at a summit next week.

The €2bn scheme (covering reimbursals to EU donors and new purchases) is to be funded from an €8bn pot called the European Peace Facility (EPF).

Austria, Ireland, and Malta are opting out because of their constitutional or historical neutrality.

Rheinmetall

The shells are to be produced either by EU or Norwegian firms, according to the draft "concept" seen by EUobserver, details of which could still change.

This would put Germany's Rheinmetall, the EU's largest maker of 155-mm shells, first in line to benefit from the €1bn of new purchases, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), a think-tank.

Norwegian firms Nammo and Raufoss and French companies Eurenco and Nexter were also likely to benefit, Sipri said.

Bulgarian Arsenal, Czechoslaval Group, and Polish firm PGZ might be involved in making components and propellants, it added.

But the EU proposal locks out Israeli, Japanese, South Korean, and US competitors, which also produce the same calibre rounds.

The concept note did not foresee any quick end to fighting.

"The successful counter-offensive by the UAF which started in late August 2022 on two main fronts, while encouraging, has not yet marked a turning point," it said.

And looking at the longer term picture, more EU money should be spent on transforming European arms factories back into production lines reminiscent of World War II, it added.

EPF assistance should support "the ramp-up of manufacturing capacities [of 155-mm shells] to produce more and reduce production time," the foreign service memo said.

"The European Union stands firmly and fully with Ukraine and will continue to provide strong political, economic, military, financial and humanitarian support to Ukraine and its people for as long as it takes," EU leaders aim to say at next week's summit, according to draft conclusions also dated 13 March.

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