The conflict in Ukraine is poised to enter a new phase of high intensity as Kiev forces prepare for an expected counter-offensive.
Ukraine’s persistent lobbying of allies has yielded significant results as NATO members have gradually given in to supplying high-tech weapons.
The fighting in the coming weeks is likely to be bloody as Ukraine looks to take back territory that Russia took in the first weeks of the 2022 invasion.
What are these weapons and why are they needed?
More than 230 Western main battle tanks have been transferred to Ukraine, including the United States-made Abrams M1s and the British Challenger 2s. But the vast majority are German-made Leopard 2 tanks.
These models are among the best in the world in terms of firepower, protection and mobility – the tanks are specifically designed to defeat Russia’s strongest efforts on the battlefield.
A powerful combination of upgraded electronics, sensor suites and night combat abilities enhance their capabilities, giving commanders the means to detect and destroy Russian tanks at a much greater distance than the enemy.
Why is this useful? They will be the armored fist, at the tip of the counter-offensive, punching holes through enemy defenses, exploiting gaps where they can, then wreaking havoc behind Russian defenses – but they won’t do it alone.
Mobility of troops
Mechanized infantry units will advance with and just behind the tanks, mainly with infantry fighting vehicles such as the American Bradley or the German Marder.
Capable of transporting troops with relative safety, these vehicles are armed with a variety of 30mm guns or anti-tank missiles and can defend themselves while providing support fire.
Hundreds of IFVs have been given to Ukraine by NATO members for this offensive, the most important of the war so far.
Ukrainian troops have undergone intensive training in waging a modern war the NATO way, in addition to the tactical innovations that the Ukrainians have already proficiently mastered. Speed will be key to getting through the relatively flat, open plains of southern Ukraine. To help them do that, artillery will come into play.
Both sides stockpiled massive amounts of 155mm ammunition in anticipation of the battle ahead. The thirst is colossal, with the Ukrainian military recently estimating it needs at least 12,000 shells a day to reach its targets. Modern howitzers can fire these shells up to 30 km (18.6 mi), but in a fast-moving conflict, targets deep behind Russian lines will have to be destroyed.
HIMARS and long-range artillery
One of the most effective weapons of the war to date is the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS. A precision guided missile system, it can fire a salvo with a 100 kg warhead that will land within meters of each other up to 80 km away.
This packs it a serious punch, as high-value targets far behind the front lines can be completely destroyed.
Russian military logistics rely heavily on the railway system and marshalling yards and train depots make very easy targets as they cannot be moved or modified.
HIMARS has been extremely efficient in destroying Russian fuel and ammunition depots, troop concentrations and command and control centers as Ukraine has sought to reduce Russia’s ability to conduct military operations.
The Russian military is unaware of this and has been slowly withdrawing its supply centers where possible and moving its command posts further back, out of range of HIMARS missiles.
The recent gift of hundreds of Storm Shadow cruise missiles from the United Kingdom will greatly complicate Russian military plans.
Flying just below the speed of sound at treetop level, the stealthy cruise missile can fire a 480 kg (1058 lbs) “bunkerbuster” warhead with pinpoint accuracy over a range of 250 km (155.3 mi). It is advanced enough to fly around obstacles and areas heavily protected by air defense batteries.
It has an extremely small radar cross-section making it extremely difficult to spot and track.
As it approaches, it climbs and dives down on its target. The first of two charges blows a hole in the target, allowing the main charge to penetrate from the inside and explode, completely destroying it.
It’s designed to destroy high-value targets with little to no warning, whether they’re fortified or buried underground.
It will also be highly effective against any major structure, such as the vital bridge over the Kerch Strait, which has already been damaged in a previous attack.
Ukraine may not have many, but if used carefully against big targets, they could very well tip the balance in the coming conflict, as they have given Ukraine the long-range punch it has always wanted.
All this will amount to little if Ukraine cannot control the skies over the battlefield.
Despite President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s regular pleas to the international community, the promised Western jets are unlikely to arrive to make a difference in this battle.
What has been helpful, however, are the donations of Soviet legacy MiG-29 fighter jets from Slovakia and Poland that have made up for losses in the conflict.
The Russian air force outnumbered Ukraine’s by more than four to one at the start of the war. It is one of the great surprises to observers of the conflict that Russia, despite having an overwhelming advantage, failed miserably to destroy the Ukrainian air force in the first days of the invasion.
The Ukrainian Air Force is still conducting missions, bombing targets and supporting infantry more than a year later, and this small but well-trained force will be of great use in the counter-offensive, supporting ground forces and destroying high-potential targets.
Almost as important are the many types of drones that fly over the battlefield. Now used effectively by both sides as artillery spotters and fire controllers, accurate artillery strikes can now be launched in minutes, making the open battlefield an even more dangerous place than it once was.
Small armed drones will drop payloads on individual infantry positions, while larger UAVs like the Bayraktar TB2s will search and hunt easy targets like slow moving or stationary radar stations.
The weapons used are extremely important and can give Ukraine a significant advantage, but the glue that binds it all together is the training provided not only by infantry units but also by senior officers in the use of combined arms – the ability to all of these weapons use weapons together as a single entity, each enhancing the other’s abilities, to form a cohesive whole army.
NATO members have trained cadres of officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers on how the West conducts high-intensity offensive military operations.
Some of that has focused on air defense as Ukrainian units have learned to make the most of the wide range of complex air defense systems at their disposal.
This has already been effective in defending the capital, Kiev, against a recent attack by Kinzhal hypersonic missiles and Shahed-136 drones, the vast majority of which were shot down.
A mix of complex weapons from around the world requires good logistical handling if the offensive is to maintain momentum, and resupply and repair are vital for any advance to be successful. The Ukrainian army will have to work hard for it. Russian troops have had months to prepare for the series of battles that could well define the nature of the war.
Both sides realize what is at stake, and Russia will not give up easily, despite rumors of low morale among the Russian armed forces.