Zapad 2017: Artillery to Vitebsk?

An interesting train passed Orsha central train station this week.

The location is next to a walkbridge just northwest of the central station, looking west-southwest. The bridge is the major hint, but you can also make out the apothecary with its green roof, the lower market buildings in front of it, and the low trees on the other side of the track.

Screenshot 2017-08-31 at 20.43.53
The position of the cameraman on the Yandex map. Note the location of the apothecary, Magazin No.127 and Nochnoy Ekspress.

This means that the train is heading east at the time of the filming. However, the railways around Orsha has several interesting features, and nothing certain can be said about the destination. However, the likely target is Vitebsk in northeastern Belarus, where the Losvido training range has been linked to Zapad 2017.

The train holds 12 2S19 Msta-S heavy self-propelled guns. The number is interesting, as a mechanized or armoured brigade would field 18 of these modern artillery pieces. Looking at the rest of the vehicles, the most prominent are the nine different vehicles based on the MT-LBu chassis, most of which seem to be of the 1V12-family of observer vehicles, either the older 1V12-3 “Mashina-M” or the newer 1V12M “Faltset”. A single BMP-based command vehicle is also seen, likely the command vehicle of the whole artillery unit. Suspiciously absent are not only the last third of the artillery pieces, but also the large number of different trucks which accompany artillery units, only four of which are aboard the train.

In conclusion, this leads me to believe that:

  • The last six artillery pieces and most of the trucks are being transported on a second train,
  • The complete heavy artillery of an armoured or mechanised brigade is being transferred to the area of Vitebsk for Zapad.

Putin’s Undeclared War – A look at Bellingcat’s Artillery Investigation

It is by now no secret that regular Russian units played a major role in turning the tide of the Ukrainian summer offensive of 2014. This has been reported by international actors as well as the Ukrainian government, and Russian support has included both older as well as newer systems (such as the Pantsir and T-72B3), and whole units. One aspect which has received relatively little coverage is the considerable artillery support provided by the Russian Army to the Russian/Separatist forces. The latest Bellingcat report remedies this.

The report, titled ‘Putin’s Undeclared War – Summer 2014 Russian Artillery Strikes against Ukraine’ (ENGLISH/RUSSIAN), uses satellite imagery from the border area to locate possible firing positions that can be tied to Russian Army units, as well as artillery craters from a firing direction pointing towards Russia within close proximity to the border. These have then been classified according to a given set of criteria, to give a high probability that any firing position or crater field really could be tied to Russian artillery.

Perhaps the single most damning picture in the report: Presenting all the cases where it has been possible to directly link artillery targets to Russian firing positions. Source: Bellingcat

The method employed is described in detail in the report, with helpful examples and illustrations to show its implementation. The numbers are staggering. Russian artillery units fired on Ukrainian targets on at least 149 separate occasions during the summer of 2014, with another 130 positions being identified as ‘likely’. On the receiving side, 408 crater fields coming from the direction of the border have been identified within range of Russian artillery, and of these 127 are within 3 km of the border itself, a range close enough to more or less rule out that the firing system has been stationed on Ukrainian territory. The Russian artillery have participated in the war by firing thousands of shells, a number so great that even in case of some of the incidents would have been from Ukrainian or separatist guns, there’s no denying the underlying conclusion: Russia provided a significant amount of indirect fire in support of their campaign in the Donbas.

There are at least three distinct phases of the campaign, with the first being the early shellings. Here, Russian units crossed the border, and once just inside Ukrainian territory they took up a firing position, and once again withdrew back to Russian territory once the firing was over (leaving easily identified tracks and thread marks). This poorly disguised attempt at getting some kind of deniability was then phased out as the campaign went on, the downing of MH17 being something of a watershed moment, and it became more and more common for the units to fire from Russian territory. The targets in most cases were the Ukrainian military camps set up during the Ukrainian offensive. A third phase of the artillery campaign started with the Russian ground offensive that reversed the Ukrainian gains. Here it is harder to determine which side has performed the attacks, as the Russian artillery pieces moved deep inside Ukrainian territory on the heels of the advancing Russian units. The attacks were usually performed by a limited number of guns, ranging from three to eight artillery pieces (though some sites have been targeted from multiple firing positions), with everything from mortars to self-propelled as well as towed howitzers and MLRS having been used. In some cases these included newer pieces of equipment, such as the BM-30 Smerch heavy rocket-launcher and the Msta-S self-propelled howitzer, both systems which indicate Russian involvement.

The Russian BM-30 Smerch is identifiable on satellite pictures due its size compared to earlier systems. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Digr

The report as a whole gives a thorough picture, and is probably the first up until now to disclose the full extent of the Russian use of cross-border artillery strikes in the conflict. Noteworthy is the fact that 35 of the targeted sites sported more than a 100 impact craters.

Does the artillery strikes in themselves constitute an act of war? The report claim so, but as my knowledge of international law is limited, I asked Oscar Jonsson, a visiting researcher at Berkeley and  PhD-Candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, for a second opinion. His answer, to my surprise, was that as ‘War’ isn’t really properly defined. The UN Charter e.g. does not use the word (except in the preamble), but instead forbids the ‘use of force’ (except when defending from an armed attack). Cross-border raids and artillery strikes doesn’t necessarily amount to war unless they reach a certain (non-specified) intensity, with e.g. Nagorno-Karabakh having seen cross-border shootings which usually aren’t described as war. As such the question of what exactly constitutes a war largely rests on the individual states and the security council to pronounce.

However, as Jonsson also pointed out in an earlier post, the question is largely semantic, as the fact that Ukraine has international law on their side in Putin’s secret war doesn’t really help, unless they got the power to implement it (i.e. fight back). Even though the report indicates a degree of fighting that would classify as an armed attack, Ukraine still defines the conflict as an anti-terrorist operation from their lack of power.

All in all, the report is well worth a read, and gives yet another piece of the puzzle regarding Russia’s direct involvement in Ukrainian affairs.

K9 Thunder – Release the Hounds


That is, to the best of my OSINT-knowledge, the number of artillery pieces currently active in the Finnish army.

Ever since World War II, artillery has played a key role in the Finnish take on warfare. The reasons are many, but include having fought the Winter War with preciously little artillery support, the brilliant General of the Artillery (and Mannerheim Knight) Nenonen and his trajectory calculations making what artillery Finland had very effective, having been on the receiving end of the Red Army’s massed artillery strikes in 1944, and a lack of ground attack aircraft for battlefield interdiction. Artillery has also been seen as extremely cost-effective, and has a very long lifespan (thereby reducing life-cycle cost). A measure of the importance placed on artillery during the post-war years was the fact that Finland not only bought the widely-spread 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm self-propelled howitzer, of which around 72 still serve under the 122 PSH 1974 moniker, but was also one of the few export customers for the more powerful 2S5 Giatsint-S 152 mm long-range self-propelled gun. All 18 pieces of this impressive (but poorly protected) vehicle have now been retired.

The venerable 2S1 ‘Gvozdika’, mainstay of the current Finnish SPG-fleet. Source: Teemu Maki/Wikimedia Commons

Apart from these two self-propelled vehicles the Finnish artillery relies on mass amounts of traditional towed pieces. The most important artillery piece based purely on numbers is the old (or rather, antiquated) 122 mm D-30 2A18 (122 H-63) Soviet light howitzer, of which just under 500 still remain in service, a number of ex-Finnish howitzers having been shipped to Estonia where they provide an important part of the 1. Jalaväebrigaad’s indirect fire support. For a heavier punch, the 152 mm 2A36 (152 K 89) heavy gun and the legendary 130 mm M-46 (130 K 54) of Khe Sanh fame are available. The final pieces are the Tampella-designed (now Patria) 155 K 83-97 and 155 K 98, the later being the first towed piece with a 52-calibre barrel length to enter service in Europe.

The target area during an artillery bombardment by 130 mm M-46’s, footage from Finnish Army Vaikuttamisharjoitus 2013 (literally “Impact Exercise 2013″) Edit: Correct designation is ‘Joint Fires Exercise 2013′. 

While getting hit by a 40 kg howitzer shell still hurts as much as it did in 1946, development on the battlefield has not stopped, and a quick look at the Finnish artillery park shows that it is headed for massavanheneminen, a Finnish word which means “many things reaching obsolescence at the same time”. The gap left by the old 122 mm D-30 is largely being covered by advances in heavy mortar technology, and the indigenous 155 mm guns still have useful years left (despite a troubled beginning), but the 2S1 as well as towed 130 and 152 mm guns needs to be replaced.

This isn’t something new, and the Finnish Army held trials with a number of modern SPG’s already back in the early years of the millennium, with the German PzH 2000 reportedly coming out victorious. Budgetary constraints however pushed the acquisition back ‘past 2006’, and the process was restarted with the issuing of a request for information last year. My personal bet was that the PzH 2000 would have come out on top (unless the Army would have thrown a curveball and decided to go for wheels in the name of better operational mobility) The PzH 2000 have bagged an impressive amount of export orders in addition to having proved its worth in Afghanistan.

However, early July the Ministry of Defence released a surprise statement saying they were in negotiations with the Republic of (South) Korea over the acquisition of used K9 Thunder SPG’s. The exact details are still unconfirmed as the negotiations are ongoing, but according to an interview in Finnish tabloid Iltalethi ‘tens’ of guns will be bought for ‘around 100 million [euro] or slightly more’. Notable is also the fact that the original press release says that the deal ‘partially covers artillery becoming obsolete in the 2020-2030 time span’, indicating that further buys, either of more K9’s, another SPG, or some other weapons system, are likely.

A Korean K9 Thunder being resupplied by a K10 Ammunition Resupply Vehicle. Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces/Wikimedia Commons

The K9 Thunder might not be as widely seen in Europe as the PzH 2000, but it isn’t a complete stranger to our part of the world either. Turkey has placed a major order on a slightly modified version under the local name T-155 Fırtına, and the chassis was used to salvage the troubled Polish AHS Krab SPG-programme. Perhaps more importantly, the K9 Thunder has been evaluated for the Norwegian new artillery programme, with Finnish (and Danish) observers having attended the trials in Norway.

K9 Thunder during trials in a very snowy Norway earlier this year. Source: Mogens Rasmus Mogensen

The K9 Thunder is pretty much everything you would expect from a modern SPG. The gun is of 52 calibre length, and sports an automatic loader. This allows MRSI (multiple rounds, simultaneous impact), in other words a single artillery piece can fire off a salvo of shells at different angles and with different charges (giving them different speeds), making them all hit the same spot at the same time. This is a key component in allowing the K9 to make shoot and scoot surprise attacks. A battery of vehicles drives into firing position, fires off a number of shells which impact on the unprepared enemy position all at the same time, and then drive away before counter-battery fire hits their position. Interestingly, the K9 Thunder beat the Russian 2S19 Msta-S in an Indian tender, with the K9 now being on track to enter local license production.

A K10 Ammunition Resupply Vehicle. The K10 is based on the same vehicle as the K9. Source: Defense Citizens Network/Wikimedia Commons

To maintain such a high rate of fire, the vehicle is supported by a dedicated loading vehicle, the K10 Ammunition Resupply Vehicle, which connects a munitions transporter to a loading port on the K9, and then feeds ammunition into the SPG at up to 12 shells per minute, until all 104 shells have been transferred. Presumably a number of K10’s would also be bought to support our K9’s.

A dramatic picture of a K9 Thunder preparing for the counter strike during the bombardment of Yeonpyeong. Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces/Wikimedia Commons

The K9 Thunder has seen combat in the Bombardment of Yeonpyeong, in which a total of 80 shells were fired at North Korean installations in retaliation of a North Korean artillery bombardment. The bombardment was not a particularly glamorous combat debut, as of six Thunders returning from an exercise in the area, two were damaged by the initial shells and unable to return fire, with a third getting a dud shell stuck in the breech, leaving the other three to conduct the retaliatory bombardment. As the vehicles had been on a live-firing exercise, their stocks of shells were also running low, and as no K10 was available, new 155 mm shells had to be carried by hand through the North Korean bombardment to the K9’s, something which severely limited the rate of fire. In addition, the North Korean artillery was placed in emplacements dug into the cliffs, and as such extremely well protected.

…and when discussing the nickname thirty years from now, remember where you heard it first 😉