Contested river crossings have been considered some of the toughest operations in the military. Simply gaining control of the waterway to permit a safe crossing can often be a challenge. Once across the river, a small force will immediately isolated, surrounded by hostiles on three sides with their backs to the river.
Historically, major contested landing operations required one of two things:
- Massive superiority of forces (quantitative and/or qualitative)
- Air superiority
The former presumably requires little explanation. The latter can be a major equalizer by limiting the ability of the enemy to bring reinforcements or supplies against the landing site—helping the equalize the logistical challenges faced by the landing force.
A big part of the challenge for Ukraine is the fact that it doesn’t have either of the ingredients of a successful amphibious landing operation.
Despite lacking overwhelming force or air superiority, Ukraine has managed just that—a successful river crossing and the establishing of a beachhead (recent coverage here, here, and here). How did they do that? And why has Ukraine held on to that beachhead and expanded it despite the arrival of Russian T-90M and T-72 tank tanks, mechanized infantry, and Russia’s precious few remaining airborne (VDV) forces?
It appears that Ukraine is leveraging two advantages it DOES have to simulate the effects of these two “traditional” factors—its hard-earned artillery advantage, and its drones.
The first, and arguably most important factor in Ukraine’s current Kherson operation is its hard-earned artillery advantage. Russian sources have warned of a growing Ukrainian advantage in the artillery war since early Summer, and Kherson has been no exception.
Russian military blogger/propagandist Romanov describes how Russian forces in Kherson have been struggling with Ukrainian artillery and counterbattery fire.
This is Kherson oblast. The situation is dire. [The Ukrainians] are striking with artillery, striking with FPV drones, right now shelling is x4 what it was before. We’re holding but we need to think well and strengthen the defense near the bridge.
For this we need proper [electronic warfare], support of artillery for quick destruction of enemy targets. There’s none of that here.[Ukrainians] figure this out and now they’re launching FPV drones at us without punishment killing our best soldiers for nothing.
This Ukrainian artillery advantage has been built on three advantages:
- Superior counterbattery radars: radar units that track where artillery and mortars fire from based on their shells’ trajectories.
- Superior precision munitions: Russians have highly limited quantities of Krasnodar laser-guided shells. Ukraine has the Excalibur GPS shell, BONUS 155mm antitank guided munitions, GMLRS guided rockets, and more for counterbattery fire.
- Superior range: Russian artillery maxes out at around 25 kilometers. Ukrainian GPS guided shells and rockets can strike as far as 50-70 kilometers. Even unguided shells like Rocket Assisted Projective shells (RAP shells) or base bleed shells like the M864 DPICM cluster munition shells have a 30+ kilometer range, far outranging Russian artillery.
Each of these elements allow Ukrainian artillery to strike and destroy Russian artillery more frequently, with far lower corresponding risks of destruction. Currently, it is estimated that Russia loses three to four guns for every Ukrainian gun lost.
Why does this artillery advantage matter, particularly in Ukraine’s river crossing operations?
Because Ukraine can provide much of its necessary firepower from it’s own side of the river, without needing to worry about shifting huge quantities of supplies to the opposing bank.
Ukrainian artillery generally operates around 10 kilometers from the front lines, so operating a similar distance from the front, Ukraine can still strike deep behind the river.
With the river being about 1 kilometer wide in most places, Ukrainian artillery should be able to lay down barrages as far as 20-25 kilometers from the river using standard shells. If Ukraine continues to operate its artillery 10 kilometers behind the front lines, its beachhead can advance another 15 kilometers deeper into Russian lines before it needs to worry about crossing its guns south of the river, with all the attendant supplies challenges that will create.
Ukraine has dispatched the 35th Marine Brigade Krynky—some of Ukraine’s finest light infantry soldiers.
Equipped with relatively few tanks, the Marines are trained to fight on foot, rather than riding into battle on heavily armored infantry fighting vehicles.
This focus on small unit dismounted infantry tactics makes the Marines’s logistical needs extremely light, especially when it can leave its supporting artillery units on the opposite side of the river.
Supplying food, water, small arms ammunition, and a few mortar or anti-tank missile rounds to a marine unit would be far less demanding than trying to operate the fuel-hungry Bradleys or BMP1 infantry fighting vehicles that equip Ukraine’s strongest heavy mechanized infantry brigades—let alone fuel devouring monsters like the Abrams tank (which burns around 2 gallons per mile).
When encountering heavy Russian armor, the Marines will have to rely on shoulder-fired anti-tank guided munitions like the Javelin missile, or upon precision anti-tank munitions from the rear, such as the 155 BONUS anti-tank shell fired from a standard 155mm howitzer, which deploys two radar-homing anti-tank munitions in midair that blast into enemy tanks and armor.
The Ukrainian beachhead would struggle against a massive Russian armored counterattack, but thus far none has materialized. This may be due to Ukrainian strikes that have severely depleted Russian equipment reserves and stockpiles.
Specifically, Ukraine has targeted Russian air defenses, supply depots and troop concentrations, and electronic warfare units. As such, Russian supply lines are unprotected from Ukrainian drone strikes. Russian units along the Dnipro, such as the 205th Brigade, have been repeatedly complained of supply depletion since as early as August 2023.
Numerous videos of Ukrainian drones intercepting Russian supply trucks attempting to move fuel, food, or ammunition to the front lines have shown the effectiveness of Ukrainian drone interdiction.
Russian air defense is so deteriorated that Ukraine has begun launching attack helicopter raids, flying in at low altitude before lobbing a salvo of unguided rockets at a target and then pulling back.
These factors explain Russia’s ineffective response to the growing Ukrainian beachhead. A Nov. 6 Russian armored counterattack was quickly dispatched by Ukrainian drones, with at least three tanks destroyed. Ukraine lost no ground.
Next up for Ukraine: expand its beachhead to allow for the establishment of a pontoon crossing—most likely around Krynky and Korsunka, from which they can then push east toward Nova Kakhovka, and Melitopol beyond, south to Crimea, or west to clear space around the Antonivskyi Bridge for perhaps a second river crossing.
A pontoon bridge from L’vove to Korsunka would give Ukrainian supply trucks a series of small roads through which to drive supplies. I wrote a whole story on this potential river crossing point here. But these are small roads, thus Ukraine would need to liberate a place like Nova Kakhovka to truly unlock strong logistical routes for further advance.
With this dense network of highways, as many supply trucks and troops Ukraine can bring across by pontoon bridges can be brought forward.
So a Ukrainian campaign would likely take the steps of
- Secure Korsunka or another pontoon bridge site.
- Keep the fighting within 10-15km of the riverbank so the artillery on the right bank can provide the bulk of the firepower.
- Leverage the supplies from this crossing to expand the bridgehead force, and advance to capture a larger logistical hub (Nova Kakhovka ideally, or Oleshky, which would allow Ukraine to bridge around the destroyed Antonivskyi Bridge).
- Use supplies from this logistical hub to bring a mechanized force to the left bank–begin advancing on Russian positions deeper in Kherson.
After that? Ukraine can look east toward Zaporizhzhia and Melitopol, or south to Kherson, forcing Russia to make some difficult decisions about how and where to deploy its forces.