Ukrainian gunners are coordinating with drone strike teams

David Axe


March 18, 2024


At the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 18, Czech defense policy chief Jan Jires startled his audience when he announced his government had identified 800,000 artillery shells “sitting in non-Western countries,” potentially including South Korea. For $1.5 billion, the Czech Republic could buy the shells—and ship them to Ukraine in order to end a potentially catastrophic shortage of artillery ammunition that began when Russia-friendly Republicans in the U.S. Congress blocked further U.S. aid to Ukraine starting in October.

Three weeks later on March 8, Czech president Petr Pavel confirmed that a consortium of 18 countries—notably excluding the United States—fully had funded the ammo-purchase.

And the good news kept coming. As implied by Czech officials and recently confirmed by The Wall Street Journal, the Czechs soon found an additional 700,000 shells costing another $1.8 billion. Ukraine’s allies are lining up to fund the purchase.

Ukrainian officials already are planning how they’ll distribute and deploy their firepower windfall. And at least one of them, famed artillery officer Arty Green, said he expects Ukrainian gunners to achieve with their newly-delivered shells more than what Russian gunners can achieve with their own, potentially larger consignments of shells from North Korea. “We work more effectively with our artillery,” Green said in a recent interview. A single shell, fired with intention by a Ukrainian howitzer, on average kills more Russians than a single indiscriminate Russian shell kills Ukrainians, Green claimed.

The impact of the Czech artillery initiative already is being felt along the 600-mile front of Russia’s 25-month wider war on Ukraine. In the worst days of Ukraine’s artillery crisis, last month, Kyiv’s batteries were firing just 2,000 shells a day—a fifth as many shells as Russian batteries were firing.

That ammo gap is one reason why the Ukrainian garrison in Avdiivka, in eastern Ukraine, ultimately had no choice but to retreat in mid-February, delivering to the Russians their only major battlefield win of the winter.

But the ammo gap now is shrinking, and Ukrainian brigades are holding the line all along the front while inflicting devastating—and unsustainable—losses on attacking Russian regiments. Lately it hasn’t been unusual for the Russians to lose a thousand people and dozens of armored vehicles in a single day.

The first batch of Czech-brokered shells isn’t due to arrive until June, but it seems that Ukrainian gunners—knowing fresh ammo is incoming—have felt more comfortable dipping into their last emergency shell reserves.

Adding up all of Ukraine’s sources of artillery shells, and it’s apparent why some officials in Kyiv have been willing to utter, for the first time in many months, the word “offensive.”

In truth, it’s highly unlikely the Ukrainian armed forces can mobilize enough fresh troops for a major attack this year; they probably would need hundreds of thousands of new recruits. But this talk of an offensive is an indicator that the Ukrainians’ artillery crisis is ending, and the mood in Kyiv is improving even as Russia-friendly Republicans in the United States continue to withhold aid.

The European Union pledged a million shells last year and is late delivering them. But the millionth shell should arrive soon, if it hasn’t already arrived. The administration of U.S. president Joe Biden last week identified $300 million in savings from a previously-approved contract for Ukraine aid and used it to pay for a modest consignment of shells. At the same time, Ukraine is getting small batches of ammo in country-to-country deals with some of its European allies. Finally, Ukraine does produce some artillery rounds at its own factories.

Altogether, it’s possible Ukraine could acquire more than two million shells this year—enough for its batteries to fire at least 6,000 rounds a day every day until New Year’s Eve.

That’s a lot of shells, but fewer shells than Russia likely can acquire. Russian factories produce around two million shells a year. And Russia has been receiving, from North Korea, large ammo consignments: perhaps two million shells in 2023 and potentially another million or so this year.

A lot of the North Korean rounds are duds. Subtracting those, the Russians still have enough shells to fire 10,000 of them every day—thousands more than the Ukrainians might fire at their likely peak shooting-rate for 2024. Still, Ukrainian artillery officer Green said he isn’t worried. “We are more creative, smarter,” he said of his gunners. It’s obvious what he’s hinting at. As the artillery crisis deepened late last year, a network of hundreds of small workshops across Ukraine ramped up production of two-pound first-person-view drones, each of which can haul a pound of explosives as far as two miles.

Today these workshops are churning out more than 50,000 drones a month, exceeding—seemingly by a lot—Russia’s own production of effective drones. The Ukrainian government’s goal is to take delivery of a million FPVs this year.

An FPV isn’t a direct replacement for a 100-pound shell that might deliver 25 pounds of explosives as far as 15 miles. But the drones can complement traditional artillery—and could mitigate Ukraine’s narrowing but persistent ammo disadvantage.

One Ukrainian tactic we’re seeing is for a well-aimed artillery barrage to hit a massed Russian assault group and scatter its troops and vehicles. The disorganized survivors, sheltering outside the protection of their radio-jammers and air-defenses, become easy targets for FPVs that pluck at individual soldiers and vehicles.

Where before, a Ukrainian battery might fire 10 shells to defeat a Russian assault group, now it can fire just five shells—and coordinate with nearby FPV-operators to finish off the Russians.  In that way, Ukraine’s artillery windfall—a couple of million shells, mostly from the Czech Republic—should go a long way toward killing or maiming the 100,000 Russians that, according to Estonian defense ministry, it would take to erase Russia’s offensive combat power this year.


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.