Russian Lancet-3 kamikaze drones destroyed nearly 45 percent of towed and self-propelled artillery guns from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since the beginning of the war in February 2022.
This primarily includes the US M777 light-weight towed howitzer, Polish 155mm Krab, and US M109 Paladin self-propelled guns (SPG).
This is according to a report in RIA Novosti that followed Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s video conference with Russia’s senior military leadership on April 4. They shared staggering figures of the various artillery systems Russia destroyed since the beginning of this year.
This has highlighted the role of loitering munitions, which has dramatically evolved from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to the battle in Ukraine.
Also, Ukrainian troops have pioneered using civilian and leisure drones for military purposes by strapping them with explosives and dropping them into enemy positions.
Lancets On M777 & M109 Artillery – Figures
According to Shoigu, since January 1, 2023, the Russian military destroyed 59 M777 artillery systems, 13 M109 Paladin SPGs, 14 US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers, and 30 SPGs from Poland, Germany, France, and the Czech Republic. How many of these were hit by Lancets or other means is unknown.
These were, however, destroyed “both in combat positions and at the stage of transportation,” some Telegram groups quoted Shoigu.
One Telegram group, which often posts battlefield updates and interviews Russian soldiers with their faces blurred, said the Lancet destroyed 80% of the M109 Paladin self-propelled guns and 25% of the M777 guns out of the total number of such guns destroyed.
Whether these figures were from the beginning of this year or since February 2022, since the war began, is unclear. The post was, however, shared in several Russia-friendly groups on Facebook and Telegram.
The most publicity material from Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) has a video of the Lancet-3 hitting an M777 at an undisclosed location. Russian troops can be seen assembling the drone on a catapult launcher before it is recorded by another overhead UAV – possibly an Orlan-10 – and hitting the M777.
— EurAsian Times (@THEEURASIATIMES) April 7, 2023
A video on Twitter from April 7 showed another Lancet hitting an M109 Paladin from behind while the vehicle was speeding ahead. It, however, doesn’t seem to obliterate the system, and only a bright fire is visible at its rear, between the engine and the turret.
However, another video, claimed to be from Bakhmut, showed an M109 engulfed in a bright fire and a massive explosion after a Lancet-3 struck it from the side.
Kamikaze Drones Are The Future
The Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) had successfully begun targeting thinly stretched Russian supply lines, making sustained combat untenable, which forced Russia to withdraw to the west side of the Dnieper River in Kherson in November 2022.
Russia then switched to using Lancet-3 loitering munitions (kamikaze or suicide drones) to eliminate the need for long-range guns, rocket artillery, and the supply lines that feed them.
The complications with artillery were not only with their supply lines but also manufacturing their ammunition, as the US experienced when it dwindled its own stock of 155mm rounds in the pursuit of supplying Ukraine.
The Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) were burning through around 11,000 rounds in just a few days – an amount the American defense industry could only manufacture in a month. Russia, too, couldn’t escape these industrial vagaries.
By late February, administrative issues within the Russian MoD had also triggered friction with the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC), whose chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, complained about his fighters not receiving 80 percent of the ammunition they had requested, while the Russian military was being prioritized over them.
He was later quoted in many Telegram groups, which paraphrased him as saying that it was essential to mass produce “shock drones” for more “effective counter-battery combat” against Ukrainian artillery. The appeal resonated among many Russian defense bloggers, who, too, called for increasing the production of one-way loitering munitions and arming all units with such systems.
The Transition From Artillery Duels
Within Russia itself, apart from the dramatic galvanization of the industry and academia to become a drone power, as is being witnessed in drone hackathons, seminars, and component indigenization efforts, drone piloting is emerging as an in-demand trade.
Russian units are being equipped with specialized training in operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for commercial, civilian, and specialized military purposes.
But around this time, the Lancet evolved when RIA Novosti reported a modernized version with a new electro-optical system and improved software that enhanced flight control.
“It also received a more powerful warhead, which makes it possible to reliably hit howitzers, tanks, armored vehicles, radars, air defense systems, and enemy manpower,” the report added. The drone now comes with three types of warheads – cumulative, high explosive fragmentation, and thermostatic.
There have been a few instances recorded by overhead UAVs showing the Lancet-3’s inability to destroy a tank or a self-propelled gun (SPG).
However, the RIA Novosti report noted that counter-battery combat now nearly exclusively involves only Lancet-3 loitering munitions that act in congruence with reconnaissance drones. Counter-battery attacks target enemy artillery by backtracking the shells’ trajectory from the guns fired.
Earlier, it was manual calculations by forward observation officers that coordinated both artillery fire plans and counter-battery fire. In Ukraine, both Russia and Ukraine pioneered using regular commercially available drones like Chinese DJIs for reconnaissance, basic battlefield surveillance, and directing and correcting artillery fire.
But a counter-battery fire in the Russian military practice seems to involve only drones. “Russian troops are conducting counter-battery combat as part of a special operation using a reconnaissance-strike circuit, which may include reconnaissance UAVs of various types, ground-based sound, radar, and sound-thermal artillery reconnaissance systems, ground observers and directly kamikaze drones as a means of destruction,” the RIA report added.
This, therefore, saves artillery rounds for core battlefield strikes and not to tackle enemy guns, affecting a series of logistical and transport conveniences.