January 12, 2024
Thanks to a huge consignment of shells from North Korea, Russian forces in Ukraine are flush with artillery ammunition. What gunners don’t have in abundance are howitzer barrels. And there’s evidence the Russians are maintaining their best guns by dismantling their worst guns.
A howitzer barrel usually is good for a few thousand shots before its steel becomes brittle or bends. If an artillery battery doesn’t replace worn-out barrels in time, it risks catastrophic accidents as shells explode inside their guns. Something we’ve seen many, many times on both sides of Russia’s 23-month wider war on Ukraine.
The math is unforgiving for Russia’s gunners. There might be 2,000 Russian howitzers along the 600-mile front line in Ukraine. Altogether, Russian batteries are firing at least 10,000 rounds a day.
That’s just five rounds per gun per day, over average. At that average firing rate, a howitzer barrel should last a little over a year. But in practice, the guns in the most critical sectors of the front fire much more than average, while the guns in the quieter sectors might fire less.
Around Avdiivka, Bakhmut or Krynky, Russian artillery batteries might need to replace their barrels every couple of months.
An artillery barrel requires high-quality steel and precision machining. Before the war, just two factories in Russia were equipped for producing artillery barrels: the Motovilikha Plant in Perm and Barrikady in Volgograd. It’s unclear whether the Kremlin has established any new production facilities or found a foreign source for replacement barrels. North Korea, perhaps.
In any event, it’s evident the Russians are struggling to produce the thousands of replacement artillery barrels they need to keep their big guns firing at their current high rate.
According to open-source analyst Richard Vereker, the Kremlin has been pulling out of long-term storage thousands of Cold War-vintage towed howitzers. But it’s not necessarily sending those old—but lightly-used—guns to the front in order to make good the roughly 1,100 artillery pieces Russian forces have lost since February 2022.
No, it seems technicians instead are yanking the barrels off the old towed guns and using them as a replacements for worn-out barrels on the most important self-propelled howitzers.
Vereker came to that conclusion after noting the precipitous decline in losses among Russia’s towed artillery batteries. Towed artillery “is coming out of storage much quicker than [self-propelled guns], but I think it’s to strip off the barrel and put it onto an SPG.”
If Vereker is right and the Russians are cannibalizing their towed artillery in order to keep their self-propelled artillery in action, the question—for advocates of a free Ukraine—is how many old guns the Russians have left, and thus how many spare barrels they can generate without building them from scratch.
In other words, are barrels a bottleneck in Russia’s artillery supply? And could a shortage of barrels throttle Russian firepower?
Not this year, if at all. According to Vereker, the Kremlin in 2021 was sitting on 12,300 old towed artillery pieces. After nearly two years of fighting, it was down to 7,500 stored towed pieces—implying it has yanked the barrels off as many as 4,800 old guns.
The recovered barrels, plus any new barrels Russian industry has produced, were enough to keep 2,000 howitzers shooting for two years. Assuming most of the 7,500 old towed howitzers remaining in storage aren’t already totally worn out, these guns—stripped for parts—could keep the front-line batteries in action for another two years.
If so, that points to 2026 as the crisis year in Russian weapons-supply. As it happens, that’s also the year the Russians could run out of infantry fighting vehicles and tanks.
David Axe – Forbes Staff. Aerospace & Defense. He is a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Columbia, South Carolina. Axe founded the website War Is Boring in 2007 as a webcomic, and later developed it into a news blog. He enrolled at Furman University and earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 2000. Then he went to the University of Virginia to study medieval history before transferring to and graduating from the University of South Carolina with a master’s degree in fiction in 2004.