British outlet Sky News reported last week that Iran had secretly supplied Russia with a considerable amount of ammunition and intends to send more. If true, this would be a boon for Moscow at a time when both Russia and Ukraine appear to be short on artillery ammunition. However, Iran likely lacks sufficient stocks, particularly of 152mm shells, to enable Russia to sustain its current rate of artillery fire.
Citing an unnamed “security source,” Sky News reported that two Russian-flagged cargo ships sailed from Iran to Russia in January via the Caspian Sea, carrying ammunition paid for in cash. The source claimed the shipments comprised approximately 100 million rounds of 5.56mm, 7.62mm, 9mm, 12.7mm, and 14.5mm bullets, plus around 300,000 other munitions. These reportedly included “40mm grenades for grenade launchers, 107mm anti-tank rockets, and mortar shells of different sizes – 60mm, 81mm and 120mm – as well as artillery rockets (130mm, 122mm and 152mm) and armour [tank] shells (115mm and 125mm).”
In addition, the source said Iran also sent nearly10,000 flak jackets and helmets. These could help Russia equip the up to 300,000 troops it’s mobilized since September, many of which have been forced to buy their own gear. This would apparently not be the first time Russia’s received Iranian body armor: Back in November, photos emerged of Iranian-made gear reportedly worn by mobilized Russian troops.
As open-source analysts were quick to point out, however, some of the details presented in the Sky News report raise eyebrows. Many of the calibers mentioned aren’t in service in the Russian military, aren’t produced by Iran, or simply don’t exist. That could mean the report is bogus.
Alternatively, the basic thrust of the report could be accurate, even if some facts were muddled. Notably, Sky News said independent ship-tracking data and satellite imagery confirmed that the vessels traveled from Iran to Russia in January.
The report tracks with Ukrainian and U.S. allegations that Tehran has supplied Russia with at least a small amount of artillery ammunition. Last month, Kyiv’s military intelligence chief claimed Russia had received a “test batch” of artillery rounds from Iran and was now seeking to acquire a larger shipment of around 20,000 shells. The White House subsequently confirmed that Tehran had sent Russia artillery and tank rounds the previous November, but didn’t specify how many.
That Moscow would seek artillery ammunition from Iran comes as no surprise. Artillery has played the central role in the grinding war of attrition in Ukraine. During their campaign in the Donbas last year, Russian forces inched forward thanks to massive volumes of artillery fire. The Ukrainian military said Russia launched as many as 40-60 thousand shells per day at its peak, while Western estimates put the number at around 20 thousand.
However, both sides now appear to face shortages. Kyiv is pleading for more shells from Western partners, whose collective production capacity pales in comparison to Ukrainian expenditure. Factories in the United States and elsewhere are racing to ramp up production, but that will take time.
Russia, meanwhile, has curtailed its artillery consumption to conserve shells, although it’s still employed withering artillery fire in and around Bakhmut. In December, the Pentagon assessed that if Russia kept up its previous rate of fire, it’d exhaust its newer, “fully serviceable” artillery shells and rockets by “early 2023,” leaving it to rely on older, less reliable munitions. Russian firms are also working to increase output, but demand will likely continue to outstrip production.
Last week, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines predicted that if Moscow fails to secure “substantial third-party ammunition supplies,” Russian forces will increasingly struggle “to sustain the current level of offensive operations in the coming months.”
Not all observers agree. Estonia’s military intelligence chief asserted in December that Russia has enough artillery rounds for at least another year of war.
But there’s no denying that in recent months, Moscow has gone to great lengths to secure additional ammunition from abroad. In addition to seeking shells from Iran, Russia has tapped Belarusian stockpiles and, according to U.S. intelligence, received some munitions from North Korea. Moscow is now reportedly asking China for artillery ammunition as well as one-way attack drones similar to the Shahed-136 drones already provided by Iran.
To achieve a significant impact on the battlefield, the Islamic Republic would need to provide sustained, large-scale ammunition deliveries to Russia, currently believed to be firing around 10,000 artillery shells per day.
Iran does produce at least some artillery ammunition. Among other things, it makes 122mm and 152mm shells, the calibers used by Russia’s (and many of Ukraine’s) tube artillery pieces, as well as 122mm rockets fired by the Soviet-made BM-21 Grad multiple-launch rocket system. Incidentally, Ukrainian forces have received an unknown number of Iranian-made 152mm and 122mm shells and 122mm Grad rockets, perhaps provided by Washington or an American ally following seizures of Iranian weapon shipments.
But it seems unlikely that Tehran has millions of artillery rounds to spare. Iran’s defense-industrial base has invested primarily in developing its missile and drone programs, devoting less attention to artillery and other ground capabilities.
Just how many rounds Tehran currently has or can produce is hard to say. At least some of the Iranian-made shells and rockets used by Ukraine appear to have been made in 2022. That indicates Iran has hot production lines, although it could also mean Tehran doesn’t have significant stockpiles of older munitions.
In mid-February, Rybar, a popular Russian Telegram channel focused on military affairs, claimed Moscow and Tehran had struck a deal for 100,000 Iranian artillery and mortar rounds and were negotiating the supply of 152mm artillery shells. Rybar further claimed that Iran has “large stocks” of 122mm shells for Soviet-made D-30 howitzers and 122mm rockets for BM-21s.
Whether that’s true is unclear. But based on the composition of Iran’s own artillery arsenal, one can assume Tehran likely couldn’t supply many 152mm shells, the caliber most commonly used by Russia.
According to The Military Balance 2023, Iran’s artillery arsenal includes roughly 700 D-30s and other artillery pieces that fire 122mm shells, plus almost 160 BM-21s and derivative systems that fire 122mm rockets. By contrast, the Islamic Republic has just 30 systems that fire 152mm shells. It therefore stands to reason that Iran has likely invested comparatively little in accumulating 152mm shells than 122mm shells and rockets.
122mm rockets may be the most plentiful munition available for transfer, given that Tehran has supplied numerous Grad rockets (and the know-how to make them) to militias across the Middle East. Most notably, Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, possessed an estimated 60,000 Grad rockets as of 2014, up from around 10,000-16,000 in 2006, when the terror group fired thousands of rockets at Israel. Hezbollah’s Grad arsenal has likely grown since. But Tehran may be reluctant to deplete that arsenal significantly, lest it reduce Hezbollah’s capacity to threaten Israel.
Thus, while Iranian supplies can certainly help Moscow at the margins, they are unlikely to sustain a Russian military firing many thousands of shells per day. If it’s to receive massive deliveries from abroad, Moscow will likely have to rely on Chinese and North Korean largesse.
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