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How To Cross the Dnipro in Slow Motion
A quick word on bridging operations
‘Readovka News,’ a Russian milblogger, was just extolling the virtues of “the time-tested D-30 howitzer, which turns the advancing Armed Forces of Ukraine into another open-air cemetery” yesterday. He did however acknowledge some drawbacks. “The main difficulty is the constant counter-battery fight, which does not allow us to relax for a minute,” he writes in another Telegram post, for “as soon as our artillery hits the targets, the enemy immediately begins to respond.”
Entering service in 1960, and used by both sides in Ukraine, the 122mm D-30 towed howitzer is indeed unsuited for modern artillery counterfire battles. Readovka News is doing for artillery what other milbloggers have done for T-55 tanks with obsolete optics: put a winning face on a losing proposition.
“The enemy simply does not allow the artillery to raise its head, trying to transfer reserves and weapons to” the left bank of the river, ‘Paratrooper’s Diary,’ another Russian Telegram account says. According to the 1992 version of US Army FM 90-13: River Crossing Operations, counterbattery dominance is essential to success in any such endeavor. According to Russian bloggers, Ukraine has enjoyed counterbattery dominance along the Dnipro since the winter. It is hard to see a scenario in which the Russian artillerists in southern Kherson Oblast enter the new winter any better off.
While Paratrooper’s Diary does not expect a crossing in force very soon, “the main thing is not to allow reinforcements of enemy forces from the right bank,” he advises. More interesting, however, is the observation that Ukrainians are resupplying and reinforcing “near the settlements of Podstepnoye and Krynki during short breaks” (emphasis added). These surges are characteristic of bridging operations. “Friendly forces can only arrive on the battlefield at the rate at which they can be brought across the river,” FM 90-13 reads. “This rate changes at different times throughout the operation.”
A bridge that stays in place is supremely vulnerable to long-range fires. Three decades after the FM was published, Russia used hypersonic missiles and gliding bombs all this summer trying to stop Ukraine from maintaining a foothold on the left bank. They failed because there was no actual bridge, and moreover no single bridgehead, to target.
Rather than stand in place, “ribbon bridges operate for a limited period of time, normally two hours, before the engineer bridge units break them apart and move them to other sites,” the FM reads. (These days, one hour is perhaps a safer time limit.) “When the division uses this pulse-bridging tactic, its units wait to cross in staging areas and surge across when bridges are in place.”
Units must maintain operational security, and deception efforts are not optional, the FM says, because the trick is to get convoys across and then move the bridge before the enemy hits it. To this end, a convenient foggy morning is perfect for crossing whole battalions at once. Approaching the bridging points from “multiple approach routes from assembly areas to crossing sites,” as well as “lateral routes to switch units between crossing sites,” and using auxilliary sites set up in advance to keep the enemy guessing just where you are waiting to cross, the successful bridging operation requires intense planning and very efficient traffic control.
A bridge can be replaced. It is less important than the people and machines and supplies it carries. “If the unit comes under fire while on the bridge, those vehicles on the bridge continue moving to the other side and leave the area…Once all vehicles have cleared the bridge, the bridge crew will break the bridge into rafts and disperse them to reduce vulnerability to incoming fire,” the FM explains.
The reader may have already seen this video of Ukrainians training with German bridging rafts, and this is indeed exactly the sort of equipment they require to cross an army over the Dnipro. Engineers can set up and break down such bridges quickly and move them to new locations just as fast, for they can use roads as well as water to get around. A raft bridge can connect two points “where access and exit routes are not aligned opposite each other,” the FM says. Some amount of time will be taken up by the combat engineering of the crossing point.
Sappers must prepare the banks to receive the convoys. Every landing point should have more than one exit to make it harder for the enemy to interdict traffic. Cover and concealment along the far shore are essential and must be prepared in advance. The Dnipro is a good river for crossing operations: the rate of current is slow enough, per the FM: about 1.5m/s. The banks are gentle, potentially allowing Ukrainians to surge out of the bridgehead “at multiple points.”
However, “a river crossing is a race between the crossing units and the [enemy] to mass combat power on the far shore,” whereas Ukraine has been ‘crossing’ the Dnipro for months. Ordinarily, “the longer the force takes to cross, the less likely it will succeed, as the threat will defeat in detail the elements split by the river.” With western equipment arriving slowly and in insufficient numbers, crossing the Dnipro in a major combat operation would have been far too dangerous before now.
Blessed with an enemy that chooses to expend his strength In Luhansk and Avdiivka without reinforcing the frontage along the Dnipro, that race appears to finally be on. Ukraine is sensing the opportunity. If they do cross in force soon, it will go much faster. “Speed is of the utmost importance to crossing success. The commander must allow no interference with the flow of vehicles and units once the crossing has started,” the FM reads. Emphasis mine:
The challenge is to minimize the river’simpact on the commander’s tactics. The force is vulnerable while crossing, as it must break its movement formations, concentrate at crossingpoints, re-form on the farshore, and reduce its movement rate to the speed of the crossing means. The commander cannot effectively fight his force while it is split by a river. He must reduce this vulnerability by decreasing his force’s exposure time. The best method is to cross the river in stride as a continuation ofthe tactical operation, whether in the offense or retrograde. Only as a last resort should the force pause to build up combat power or crossing means before crossing.
Written with Soviet armies in mind — because all of America’s potential enemies at the time were either Soviets, or else trained by the Soviets — the FM notes that modern bridging operations seldom take place unopposed in “the wide-frontage warfare of [the 20th] century.” Instead, “campaign success has more often depended on an army seizing and holding crossings against direct opposition.” It is even more true along the extensive Ukrainian battlefront.
Russian armies are still following their Soviet scripts, defending “to the rear of the river” with units that “harass and disrupt the attacker’s assaulting and supporting units” in order “to provide time to establish the main defense.” They have been doing it for months, though, and now they are perhaps running out of time. Milbloggers are complaining about Ukrainian electronic warfare dominance and Russian shortages of drone munitions.
Col. Gen. Mikhail Teplinsky has reportedly taken command of the forces defending southern Kherson, replacing Col. Gen. Oleg Makarevich. Teplinsky has a reputation for competence, so perhaps he will succeed in preventing a breakout where Makarevich has failed. Or maybe the race is on, and he cannot fix things in time.
Of course, so far there are no actual bridges of any kind reported over the Dnipro. All the traffic to date has reportedly been conducted by boats or by rafts instead of combat bridges. Ukrainians made this much progress possible by dominating the river itself using small boats. Russians complained about their boats being destroyed without replacement months ago, and soon thereafter the landings began to redouble. Clearing and controlling miles of complex river frontage with islands and bends that stubborn defenders might use to harass river traffic simply takes a long time, even when you enjoy riverine dominance. Has it taken too long?
“A hasty river crossing is preferable to a deliberate crossing,” the FM says. It is better to control the far bank before bridging the river. When Russians withdrew from northern Kherson last year, leaving no bridges behind them, Ukrainian marines did immediately cross the river to make demonstration landings. They did not stay, however, until the preparatory phase of Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive. Last week, at least two battalions of marines landed and established a long-term presence. This was a deliberate crossing, which “requires the sudden, violent concentration of combat power on a narrow front, capitalizing on the element of surprise.”
“The assault across the river phase normally begins with an attack to secure a dismounted infantry lodgement on the exit bank,” the FM reads. “The dismounted infantry assault is normally a battalion task force from the bridgehead force. The assault battalion normally crosses in waves, as sufficient boats are seldom available to carry the entire battalion task force across at once.” What has already just occured in recent days was therefore “a very complex operation, requiring synchronization between multiple-force elements and skilled application of technical procedures.” It succeeded because Ukrainians conducted the “training and extensive rehearsal” called for in the US Army FM.
Should a Ukrainian breakout force start to cross, there will be combat bridges. They will be necessary. Nimble as they may be, there will be photos and video of the engineers’ bridging operations on Discord channels an hour after the first large formations have crossed. Until then, all resupply comes by boat — or delivery drone, a technology not envisioned in the 1992 FM — and Ukrainians are merely building up the combat power to hold and defend their bridgehead.
Russians still have time to defeat the crossing, but their efforts so far have been underwhelming. According to a Facebook post by Ukraine’s Operational Command South, yesterday Russian aircraft dropped 45 guided bombs on the hapless residents of Kherson. “About forty houses were destroyed and damaged,” the report says. At least two FPV (first person viewer) drones, as well as “26 fragmentation munitions from UAVs of other modifications,” were included in this bombardment.
Over the past day, the enemy carried out 70 artillery attacks using about 400 shells, including 18 attacks on settlements in the Kherson region and Mykolaiv region. At the same time, the enemy shelled Kherson at least 7 times, Beryslav, Bilozerka, Zimivnyk, Tomina Balka, Kozatsk, Antonivka, Veletenske, Ochakiv were also shelled.
As a result of airstrikes and artillery shelling, 1 civilian was killed, 17 were injured, 4 administrative buildings, a library, a dormitory, more than 10 private houses, and a transformer substation were damaged.
This is the “open-air” cemetery that ‘Readovka News’ is so proud of the ancient howitzers for creating. Vengeance is a waste of expensive weapons. Russia is still prioritizing the murder of Ukraine over successful defense of the parts they hold. If Ukraine does keep bringing in reinforcements, as Rybar reports, and if they do break out of Krynki, Poima, and Peschanivka, as War Gonzo fears, we can blame the Kremlin. Russia’s war leadership has been abysmal throughout the conflict. If not for a cooperative, slow-walking, red-line-respecting pack of cowards running the western world (looking at you Jake Sullivan), Ukrainians would have finished this thing already.