Eyewitness to war: The Russia-Ukraine ammunition gap

Dire warnings about a Russian edge in materiel have created panic among Ukraine’s allies. A more sober look at the battlefield should lead the West to allocate resources where they really matter.

Ukrainian artilleryman
Feb. 19, 2023: In the Donbas region, Ukrainian artillery team member Mykola lifts a captured shell for a 152-millimeter cannon, dubbed “Revenge,” that was seized from Russian troops in Kherson early in the war. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Russian artillery production is reportedly triple that of the West
  • Such quantitative advantages are substantially offset by systemic inefficiencies
  • Ukraine’s allies may be best served by investing in quality over quantity

Recent assessments of the balance of materiel in the Russia-Ukraine war have been sobering for Kyiv and its supporters. Western media have reported the disconcerting narrative that Russian artillery production is on track to triple the production capacity of the United States and Europe, combined. In April, General Chris Cavoli of the U.S. European Command said in congressional testimony that Russia’s artillery advantage over Ukraine was soon set to double.

The Russian Defense Ministry, for its part, has claimed that its artillery production has risen two-and-a-half times in the past year, while also boasting (somewhat implausibly) that component production has risen some 22-fold. In other words, Russian propaganda – not known for its subtlety or understatement – seems to dovetail neatly with the growing Western sentiment that a major arms imbalance exists.

How reasonable is the view that the Russians are leaping forward in an artillery production race? Having personally suffered the direct effects of targeted Russian artillery fire, I am sensitive to the need for a full, empirical assessment of this worrisome storyline. For all the developments in drone warfare, artillery is still very much the “King of Battle” on the frontlines in Ukraine. This makes it imperative to assess the artillery situation using reliable information and critical context.

Failing to do so can be dangerous, as with the supposed “missile gap” during the Cold War and the “bomber gap” that came before it – both failed Western intelligence assessments that placed Soviet military capacity far beyond reality. This kind of overestimation, while preferable to an underestimation, nevertheless led to a major misallocation of resources. For Ukraine, now engaged in a war of attrition against a much more powerful foe and forced to beg for materiel from allies, mistaken intelligence assessments simply cannot be afforded. Kyiv must understand exactly the level of any artillery disparity and develop strategy and tactics to counter it accordingly.

Doctrinally, it bears repeating that the Russian Army is still essentially a Soviet one. Despite some notable advances, its forces are fundamentally driven by the military principle of mass. As Ilya Varzhanskyi, a frontline Ukrainian operator, told me, this manifests within the artillery component in predictable ways:

A significant portion of Russian artillery involved in the current war was developed in the 1960s and 1970s (such as the Gvozdika, Akatsiya, Hyacinth and Pion). It was designed with an emphasis on reliability and the cost-effectiveness of mass production since, at that time, the Soviet military doctrine did not prioritize the high precision of artillery fire. It was only in the 1980s that analysts from the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces calculated that one high-precision artillery system could replace dozens of traditional systems, giving Western technology significantly greater potential [advantage] for most modern conflicts.

Since that era, the Russian military machine has not made fundamental strides in precision warfare. Given that context, how accurate – and, indeed, how relevant – are reports that Russia is “tripling” the artillery production of Ukraine and its Western allies? It is impossible to know with certainty, but a sober assessment would place Russia far below a three-fold advantage. The gap is dangerous, to be sure, and a threat for the West to counter squarely with coordinated production and deployment schemes, but not such a crisis as to warrant the wasting of resources that might be expended more effectively elsewhere. An uncritical focus on general production numbers or differentials in stocks risks overlooking that numbers themselves do not automatically equal effective firepower, in other words, the actual deployment of functioning munitions where and when required.

Effective firepower

Raw artillery production, after all, is only a single element among a multitude of competing factors. Storage depot numbers do not translate directly into rounds that detonate exactly as intended. Artillery shell production is just one end of a long and complex pipeline, typically meant to deliver high-velocity shrapnel into the bodies and materiel of the adversary. And on this point, Russian effectiveness warrants a closer look.

Quality control (dud rate)

Not every produced round operates as intended. Old propellant, faulty fuses and any number of other issues can cause misfires and wasted rounds. While it is safe to assume that Russia plowed through much of its 1980s-era vintage artillery stocks at the outset of its war on Ukraine, one can also assume they are still not working with an entirely modern store.

Moreover, while newer ammunition is preferable as a rule, ammunition made in a rush – former Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has congratulated workers on their “around-the-clock” efforts – or without adequate quality control is likely to revive the old Soviet habit of achieving production quantity over quality. Compounding the problem, field reports of faulty ammunition are unlikely to circulate back through an interminable bureaucracy to the production line, where there are strong incentives to simply meet quotas. This is an essential shortcoming of command economies.

According to Olena Kryzhanivska, a Ukrainian political analyst:

Russia encounters problems with the increase of domestic production of weapons and ammunition, such as a shortage of skilled labor. For instance, Uralvagonzavod (a tank producer) took on 250 convicts from a nearby prison to close the labor gap. Additionally, Russia uses quite a lot of munitions from its allies, particularly Belarus, Iran and North Korea. Reportedly, North Korea may have shipped the equivalent of around 3 million 152-millimeter artillery shells since August last year, and its factories are operating at full capacity. At the same time, Ukrainian defense officials reported that around 50 percent of shells shipped to Russia from North Korea are faulty.

Ukrainian artillery rounds
May 2023: Artillery rounds and fuses, some shift-stamped from September 1980, seen on the Kharkiv front in Ukraine. Source: Author

Transport, storage and battlefront distribution

A properly functioning logistics chain is as important as production numbers. According to a brigade commander operating in the Kharkiv sector, Russians rely heavily on the effective use of rail lines for heavy artillery shipments.

Yet capillary distribution has been hampered heavily by effective Ukrainian HIMARS and drone interdiction, and the successful targeting of ammunition depots has forced the Russian logistics system to rely on smaller, less centrally coordinated distribution networks. Logistics interdiction, therefore, is an especially useful strategy for Ukrainian defenders – they can leverage internal supply lines and exploit weak links in Russian operations, reducing the scale of ammunition disparities.

Training, targeting and fires control

The Russian Army, even if it were to gain a three-fold advantage in artillery production, faces deep-rooted institutional barriers to effectively deploying such boosted production. I have personally observed that Russian artillery tends to be deployed spasmodically – it is highly reactive and often spread over wide areas in haphazard attempts to suppress incoming fire. Other frontline witnesses attest to similar experiences: “Jackie,” an American volunteer, has called Russian operations “a mess,” noting that their forces “miss a lot.” Ilya Varzhanskyi told me that in his experience:

It seems that Russian military personnel not only lack the capability but also the willingness to conduct precise artillery fire at medium distances (10-30 kilometers). They systematically shell squares [allocated sectors], apparently following their orders, but beyond the short contact zone (five kilometers), which is closely monitored by drones, there is hardly any direct targeting. Sometimes the fire is conducted “preventively,” sometimes as a punitive action, as is the case with border villages in northern Ukraine. Sometimes it happens entirely senselessly, for instance, when they “wipe off the map” completely empty villages. This may be an example of pervasive negligence, where shells are fired for reporting purposes, and then reconnaissance falsely reports destroyed targets.

This latter point – that Russian artillery units may be responding to improper incentive structures (for example, rounds fired versus targets engaged) – significantly impacts ammunition gap ratios. Russia may in fact be forced to triple its production to maintain its advantage against a relatively more deliberate and disciplined adversary.

Ukrainian artillery fires, it should be said, do not (as of yet) meet excellent standards, and units often operate along residual Soviet doctrinal patterns. Though a growing number of units are being trained in top-tier NATO-style tactics, I witnessed firsthand a desultory “barrage” intended to soften an assault target with poorly coordinated sporadic rounds which were often wildly off-target. Accordingly, frenetic efforts to match rumored Russian artillery production levels may risk a wasteful expenditure – the resources could perhaps be better allocated toward training and tactics in modern precision artillery protocols, for instance.

Extreme caution

Be that as it may, one must fight a war with the army one has, not the army one wants. Ukraine is on the ropes, due in no small part to the reduction in ammunition supplies from Western allies. As a frontline Ukrainian military intelligence operator explained to me, “the number of artillery rounds required to kill an enemy soldier has increased extremely in the past decades,” which means that the absolute amount of available ammunition is “really, really important.”

As is regularly noted of the Russian war machine, “mass has a quality all its own.” The ghastly losses suffered by Russian forces in their incremental gains around Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Kharkiv show that the Russian military strategy, crude as it may be, is costly but effective. As Ms. Kryzhanivska described:

While it is difficult to prove the credibility of Russian statements on ammunition production, the capabilities of the Russian military-industrial complex should not be underestimated. That is the reason for Ukrainian intelligence conducting a series of operations in winter/spring 2024 against Russian critical infrastructure. … So, even if Russia’s claims of a large increase in ammunition production are overestimated, in the larger context, this is still alarming, taking into account that Ukraine is much more disadvantaged in terms of manpower, domestic military production and its reliance on support from allies.

Even allowing for shortcomings in Russian quality control and logistics, the Ukrainian military intelligence operator believes the adversary’s forces will still be effective. “In my experience, their artillery units are really precise – but maybe it’s a psychological thing – when you are under fire you think they are really accurate and it is your side that can’t shoot. … Usually [the Russians] are more efficient than we are, so I’m not so optimistic.”

Clearly, frontline observations of Russian artillery deployment are mixed amid the fog of war. And for all the acknowledged weaknesses of a command economy, Russia’s main advantage is in forcing the short-term production of vast quantities of materiel, even if the quality is lacking. Free economies, in contrast, can succeed in the long run by relying on true market prices and a freer exchange of information to allocate resources efficiently. We do not yet know how the race between these dynamics unfolds in the context of an attritional war, but there is room for optimism.



The West should be cautious in reacting to reports of a significant ammunition gap and avoid an overreaction that risks wasting valuable resources. Emphasizing their strengths in innovation and efficiency (such as the refurbished Nammo 155mm production line), Western allies would be wise to take the initiative by producing better ammunition, fired from better equipment with better-trained crews. Allocating resources toward quality artillery deployment is perhaps a smarter bet than attempting to engage toe-to-toe in a production race with a massively larger opponent.

Less likely: Meaningful Russian ammunition edge

Russian forces are unlikely to see a genuine doubling or tripling of effective firepower. While Russian emphasis on increased mass production of artillery is likely to significantly hamper Ukrainian defensive and offensive operations, this does not immediately translate into a corresponding increase in frontline capacity. This fact needs to be properly assessed in strategic terms.

More likely: Adaptation by the West

Russian strategists will double down on core competencies such as command-driven mass production, with commensurate losses in efficiency and innovation. This will lead to an increased drain on Russian resources, which, vast as they are, are not infinite. The long-term stability of the Russian Federation itself is at stake, and wasted resources may help accelerate its dissolution.

Western allies, meanwhile, will likely respond to the ammunition gap in some inevitably wasteful ways. However, under a more adaptive framework, the West can more efficiently route resources in novel ways that will, if properly understood, more than balance the deficit.

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