Russia: Can Russia Continue the War After 2024?


March 20, 2024: Hard limits are appearing on Russia’s ability to continue the Ukraine war. It has begun running out of tube artillery (as opposed to rocket artillery) and light armored fighting vehicles (AFVs). The artillery shortage is because tube artillery barrels are wearing out, while the light AFV shortage is because so many have been lost in combat.

Russia’s stocks of self-propelled tube artillery pieces were eliminated by combat losses in the Ukraine, worn-out barrels or exploded from firing with worn-out barrels, and were replaced by towed artillery from its reserve stocks. Now the Russians have lost, worn out or almost worn out everything but their oldest reserve tube artillery, 50+ year-old 122mm towed guns of which they allegedly had about 4,000 in 2021. These are Russia’s last artillery reserve, are being put into service now and, when those are worn out this year, Russia’s tube artillery park will be reduced to their current production of about 200 yearly tube artillery pieces. At that point Russia can no longer continue the war unless their 2024 production increases to at least 2000 a year.

The barrels of tube artillery pieces have a crucial inner sleeve called a barrel “liner” composed of better quality steel than the barrel and coated with special chemicals for greater resistance to super-hot propellant charge gases when fired. Spiral grooves (lands) cut into it engage the rotation bands around artillery shells to rapidly spin them when fired for greater accuracy. Barrel liners are commonly replaced when worn out during peacetime. This makes the more expensive artillery tube last longer.

No country is known to keep spare barrel liners in reserve for wartime, and it takes as long to create new liner manufacturing capability as it does for whole barrels – about two years. If Russia or any other country started developing new liner and barrel manufacturing capability immediately after the Ukraine war started, it will come online sometime this summer. That is unlikely. No one expected a long war. If anyone has done that, they’d more likely have started in late 2022 or early 2023.

Barrel liners incur wear with each shell fired. How much depends on many factors, particularly including how rapidly successive shells are fired, the size of the propellant charge (bigger for longer range), etc. Barrel liners have a useful lifetime of 1000 (for Russia) to 1500-2000 (for NATO countries and South Korea) rounds before needing replacement.

Artillery tubes with liners beyond recommended lifetimes can still be fired with rapidly decreasing range and accuracy such that firing of 5-20 times as many shells is required for the same results as one shell from tubes with useable liners. Worse, erosion of the barrel tube itself, once the liner is gone, produces pitting and eventually defects so bad that shells detonate in the tube producing an “exploding cigar” effect at the end of the barrel, and death or wounds to half or all of the crew. The Russians have consistently done that in the Ukraine war.

The range of the 122mm tube artillery pieces is so low that they will generally be fired with full propellant charges (maximum corrosive effect) at their extreme ranges to increase their survivability against Ukrainian UAV attack. All this means that the average number of shells they can fire before their liners wear out, and the tube steel itself is too corroded for safe firing by even Russian standards, is probably under half the 2,000 rounds the Russians have been firing from their now useless larger caliber towed and self-propelled artillery.

It is highly likely, given Russian corruption and maintenance standards, that only about 3,000 of the nominally available 4,000 pieces of 122mm artillery can be made ready for service. If those can safely fire only about 1000 rounds each, the Russian tube artillery park can only fire three million rounds before becoming useless, which is about their expected three million rounds of shell production for 2024.

The Russians began the war with about 27,000 light armored fighting vehicles in their active army and in reserve stocks. Half of those have been lost so far. New Russian production of those has been only several hundred a year. The number of Russian light AFV in the field is now plunging because they can no longer replace losses from reserve stocks. That is shown by increasing Russian use of imported Chinese farm tractor carts (which look like big golf carts) to transport troops on roads, off roads, and through mud and heavy snow.

Light AFV are crucial for medium-intensity combat between peer opponents such as the Ukraine war, and not only for combat and transport. They are essential for command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) because they provide electric power for better and longer-range radios than those which can be carried by troops on foot. This is even more important for the Russians because of their lack of encrypted man-pack radios. Their troops will use unencrypted cell phones for tactical communications when radios are not available, which is extremely dangerous, so the backbone of Russian tactical communications are vehicle-borne radios in light AFV. It is not clear whether the Chinese farm carts can power those. Russian tactical communications may collapse once their number of light AFV drop below 7,500 or so, and that will probably happen by the end of 2024 because 2022-2023 losses have been about 6,500 – 7,000 a year.

These are reasonable grounds for believing that Russia will be unable to continue its war in Ukraine past the end of this year.

--- by Tom Holsinger




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