Artillery types

Powerful US artillery enters the fight in Ukraine

Soon a single shell shot out with a boom and a howling metallic screech as it sailed towards the Russian positions.

This is the American-made M777 howitzer. It shoots further, moves faster and hides easier, and that’s what the Ukrainian army was waiting for.

Three months into the war in Ukraine, the first M777s – the deadliest weapons the West has supplied so far – are now deployed in combat in eastern Ukraine. Their arrival bolstered Ukraine’s hopes of achieving artillery superiority in at least some frontline areas, a key step towards military victories in a war now fought primarily on a flat, open steppe at long range. .

American howitzers are large steel and titanium machines covered with hydraulic pipes and perched on four struts that fold up and down. They have already fired hundreds of rounds since arriving around May 8, destroying armored vehicles and killing Russian soldiers, according to Ukrainian commanders.

“This weapon brings us closer to victory,” Colonel Roman Kachur, commander of the 55th Artillery Brigade, whose unit was the first unit to deploy the weapon, said in an interview. Mixing confidence with an implied plea for more weapons, he added: “With every modern weapon, every precise weapon, we come one step closer to victory.”

Proximity remains uncertain, according to Western military analysts. The arrival of the new weapons is no guarantee of success, as the Russians continue to engage in fierce fighting in the eastern region of Donbass. It all depends on the numbers.

“Artillery is about quantity,” Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at NAC, a research institute in Arlington, Va., said in a phone interview. “The Russians are one of the greatest artillery armies you can face.”

The United States said weeks ago it would supply the howitzers, but their combat use has so far been mostly hinted at in online videos posted, mostly anonymously, by soldiers. On Sunday, the military provided The New York Times with a tour of a gun line in eastern Ukraine, the first independent confirmation by international media that the weapons are being used.

Ukrainian soldiers on patrol in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Sunday, May 22, 2022. The country’s military hopes US M777 howitzers will make a crucial difference. Ivor Prickett/The New York Times

Military analysts say the full effect won’t be felt for at least two weeks, as Ukraine has yet to train enough soldiers to fire the 90 such howitzers promised by the US and others allies. Only a dozen guns are now at the front.

Arming Ukraine with more powerful weapons is a politically sensitive issue. The United States, France, Slovakia and other Western countries rushed in artillery and support systems – such as drones, counter-battery radars and armored vehicles to tow guns – so even as Russia accuses the West of waging a proxy war in Ukraine, and threatens unspecified consequences if arms shipments continue.

Disagreements over how aggressively to confront Russia have arisen within the Western coalition. France, Italy and Germany have suggested that Ukraine use the leverage of more powerful weapons to push for a ceasefire that could lead to a negotiated withdrawal of Russian forces.

Ukrainian officials pushed back. They insist that the momentum is on their side and that talks should only come after battlefield victories and the recapture of territory – a once almost inconceivable idea that has become more tenable after the Ukrainian army inflicted multiple setbacks on Russia even before the arrival of Western heavy weapons.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an interview with Ukrainian television over the weekend, said a diplomatic solution would only come after additional military victories for the country, as well as an influx of weapons. The Ukrainian army has pushed Russian troops back from the capital kyiv and positions near the country’s second largest city, Kharkiv, but is currently under intense pressure in a more limited battle for control of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.

“It’s like an automobile, not gasoline or electric but hybrid,” he said of the end of the war with a mixture of military gains and talks. “And that’s how war is: complicated.”

“Victory will be bloody,” Zelensky said.

Either way, diplomatic talks broke down about a week ago, the two sides said, sending the outcome back to the battlefield. And all did not go Ukraine’s way. Russian forces are now on the verge of encircling the town of Sievierodonetsk, threatening an encirclement of Ukrainian troops.

“I’m surprised people think Ukrainian forces can absorb this level of casualties and be ready to go on the offensive right after,” said Kofman, the analyst.

Yet the new longer-range Western artillery is the most powerful and destructive of the many types currently supplied by NATO countries. They fire 3 miles farther than the most common artillery system used by the Russian army during the Ukrainian war, the Msta-S self-propelled howitzer – and 10 miles farther if it fires a precision guided projectile by GPS.

In the open plains of the east, a long drive over rutted roads and dirt tracks ends with jeeps swerving rapidly into a row of trees.

Secrecy is paramount in the cat-and-mouse artillery duels that have defined the war in recent weeks. Soldiers waste no time stacking freshly cut branches on vehicles, as camouflage against enemy drones.

In artillery duels, soldiers value not only range, but also the ability to hide and quickly move guns and support vehicles.

Since their deployment two weeks ago, the dozen howitzers operating in two artillery batteries had fired 1,876 rounds on Sunday, according to Ukrainian officers.

With a mixture of airbursts, anti-personnel fragmentation shells and other types of projectiles, Ukrainian gunners destroyed at least three Russian armored vehicles and, according to Kachur’s estimate, killed at least several dozen Russian soldiers .

Artillery soldiers perform maintenance on an M777 howitzer in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Sunday, May 22, 2022. The deadliest weapons the West has supplied to Ukraine so far are now deployed in combat, and they supported the hopes of the Ukrainian army for victory.  Ivor Prickett/The New York

Artillery soldiers perform maintenance on an M777 howitzer in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Sunday, May 22, 2022. The deadliest weapons the West has supplied to Ukraine so far are now deployed in combat, and they supported the hopes of the Ukrainian army for victory. Ivor Prickett/The New York

On the line of fire in the trees, empty ammunition boxes and spent cartridges were strewn amidst the foxholes. Kalashnikov rifles were leaning against tree trunks.

The officers did not say what they were aiming for.

The purpose of the guns will be to crush Russian military positions and infrastructure, such as ammunition depots and command posts, he said. Ukrainian soldiers say the howitzers will also save civilian lives by hitting Russian artillery firing into their towns.

Western artillery types pouring into Ukraine now have several advantages over older Soviet systems, Ukrainian artillery officers said. Among the most important is their compatibility with NATO-caliber shells, allaying fears that Ukraine will soon run out of Soviet-standard ammunition, now made mostly in Russia.

In addition to the weapons the United States is sending, the French have promised Caesar truck-mounted howitzers, which are capable of moving away quickly after firing in a maneuver known as “shoot and scoot”. Slovakia has also promised howitzers.

But the US M777, known as the triple seven, is likely to have the biggest effect on the amount of weapons supplied, providing accurate, long-range fire when enough crews are trained to use them, according to military analysts.

The bottleneck is training. The United States has so far trained about 200 Ukrainian soldiers in six-day courses at bases in Germany. The Ukrainian army divided this group roughly in half, sending some to the front and others to train more Ukrainians. Training soldiers for the 90 guns – the number expected to arrive – could take several more weeks, said Mykhailo Zhirokhov, author of a book on artillery in Ukraine’s war against Russian-backed separatists, “Gods of Hybrid War”.

Smaller numbers of computer-controlled self-propelled Caesar guns from France will also help, Zhirokhov said, but learning how to use them takes months. “Even the French think they are too complicated,” he said.

After the soldiers fired the M777, the gun was level again, its barrel covered in camouflaged branches. “Go faster!” shouted an officer. The crew then ran, in case the Russians had secured their position.

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