Feb 12, 2023
Russian tanks keep running into Ukrainian mines outside Vuhledar. Either the Russians are getting sloppy, or the Ukrainians have tweaked their minelaying tactics.
More likely, both.
Indeed, there are indications the Ukrainians have adopted a clever new method of laying mines. Ukrainian gunners wait until Russian troops clear a path through an old minefield—then toss fresh mines onto that same path right as the Russians are crossing.
This tactic appears to be on display around Vuhledar—a town with a pre-war population of just 14,000 that lies a couple of miles north of Russian-held Pavlivka, 25 miles southwest of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The Russian marine corps’ 155th and 40th Naval Infantry Brigades and potentially the newly formed 72nd Motor Rifle Brigade—an inexperienced formation that belongs to the ill-fated 3rd Army Corps—several weeks ago launched a series of direct assaults on the Ukrainian 72nd Mechanized Brigade and 55th Artillery Brigade in Vuhledar.
The assaults seem to be part of a wider escalation of offensive operations by the Russian army in Donbas—and possibly the vanguard of the Russians’ much-ballyhooed winter offensive. But the Vuhledar assaults each have ended in disaster for the Russians.
The pattern is familiar. Armored vehicles roll in neat lines across the fields and forests between Russian-occupied Pavlivka and Vuhledar. The lead tank hits a mine and explodes. The rest of the column falls into disarray. Some vehicles try to go around the wrecked lead vehicle, only themselves to run into mines. Even retreat is dangerous: there might be mines behind the column, too.
In just one bloody, chaotic day last week, the Russians lost 30 or more armored vehicles around Vuhledar. Their losses deepened in the following days. And it seems Ukrainian mines inflicted much of the damage.
Specifically, two types of mines. The Soviet TM-62 and the American Remote Anti-Armor Mine system. The 21-pound TM-62 is your traditional mine: a big metal disk, packed with explosives and fitted with one of several fuze types. The pressure fuze might be the most popular. Engineers bury TM-62s by hand or speed up the operation by deploying a GMZ minelaying vehicle.
The Remote Anti-Armor Mine system is a pack of four-pound mines stacked nine apiece in a hollow 155-millimeter artillery shell. A few well-aimed volleys can scatter scores of the tiny
mines—each with a magnetic fuze—across a wide area. The United States late last year donated to Ukraine 6,000 RAAM shells.
The Ukrainian army for a long time adhered to Soviet doctrine. And in Soviet doctrine, engineers try to lay defensive minefields right before an anticipated enemy attack. The minefields tend to be narrow but deep, like a road is, rather than long but shallow like a fence is.
Soviet doctrine assumes shallow minefields “lack stopping power,” Lester Grau and Charles Bartles explained in their definitive The Russian Way of War.
There’s a simple countermeasure to these strip-like minefields. Fit a heavy steel plow to the lead tank in a formation and line up the rest of the vehicles right behind that tank.
But it’s a delicate tactic. If the lead vehicle misses a mine or the trailing vehicles stray even a few feet left or right, the column can collapse in a cataclysm of mine blasts and confusion.
Even a clean pass by a mine plow doesn’t guarantee safe passage for an armored column. According to one moderator of the pro-Russia forum Lost Armour, the Ukrainians have been aiming RAAM shells behind the mine-plows, “filling up the cleared corridor with them.” “The vehicles following the lead either were blown up by these mines, or when trying to leave the corridor,” the moderator wrote.
To defeat these tactics, the Russians need—at a minimum—better intelligence and more flexible command and control. If you know where the narrow TM-62 minefields are, it shouldn’t be hard to avoid them. But to keep up with Ukrainian engineers, a Russian commander would need 24-hour surveillance and reliable means of quickly disseminating fresh information to front-line forces.
The problem, of course, is that the Russian generals and colonels aren’t exactly known for their responsiveness.
But even good intel and flexible command might not save a Russian column from mines raining down from above. Probably the only way to stop RAAM is to suppress the guns that fire the mine-shells.
That means effective counterbattery: artillery firing on the enemy’s own artillery. While counterbattery once was a Russian strength, a year of war has sapped that strength.
Too many wrecked guns. Too many dead gunners. That could leave the infantry and tankers at the mercy of Ukraine’s artillery-delivered mines.