September 29, 2022
Artillery leading the fight in Ukraine

Artillery has long been known as the “King of Battle” for its crucial role in warfare, though its fundamentals have changed very little since the Chinese discovered gunpowder technology in the ninth century: Propel a heavy object at the enemy through a tube using explosive force. But military strategists say the surprising course of the three-month Russian invasion of Ukraine has added a new, potentially game-changing aspect to the power of artillery in modern warfare.

As Russian forces struggle to gain any traction in the fighting so far, the Pentagon has provided Kyiv with 90 top-of-the-line 155mm M777 howitzers to aid in the fight and is running hundreds of Ukrainian troops through special training classes to get them up to speed on the systems. Meanwhile, other NATO members have also provided Ukraine with howitzers for the next phase of the conflict there.

“They know what they’re up against,” a senior Defense Department official said Thursday. “We’re pulling artillerymen out of the fight to learn these howitzers and then we’re putting them back in.”

Weapons in the military can generally be divided into two categories: direct and indirect fire. An infantryman’s rifle or a tank gun is a direct-fire weapon, employed to hit things the operator can see. Artillery, by contrast, is an indirect-fire weapon. With a little bit of math and a forward observer who can read a map, the operators of an M777 howitzer can strike a target about 20 miles away. 

Just before leaving on an extended Asian diplomatic tour, President Biden on Thursday formally authorized a $100 million security assistance package for Ukraine that will mean 18 additional 155mm howitzers heading to Kyiv, along with enough tactical vehicles to tow them. A separate, $40 billion package of U.S. economic, security and humanitarian aid was approved by the Senate Thursday and is expected to be signed by the president in the coming days. 

Ukraine Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that the U.S.-provided artillery cannons are “forward in the fight” and providing long-range indirect fire capability to the country’s forces as they battle Russian and separatist forces in the country’s eastern Donbas region, the focus of current fighting after Russian forces were blocked from advances on Kyiv and other major cities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has committed an estimated 80% of his total battalion tactical groups (BTGs) to Ukraine. While his losses have been high, Russia still has about 140 BTGs available and at least 106 operational in Ukraine, Pentagon officials said.

Shifting the focus

In the early stages of the conflict, Russia’s armored advantage proved of little value as the Kremlin’s hoped-for lightning victory was blocked by fierce Ukrainian resistance. Local forces could step out from behind a corner and knock out a Russian tank or armored personnel carrier before blending back into the community.

As the focus of the fighting has shifted back to the east, the flat open terrain there has only magnified the role of artillery in the fighting. As Russia’s supplies have been drained in the fighting, NATO nations are stepping up to fill the gaps in Ukraine’s arsenal.

The commanding role artillery can take on today’s battlefields was never so obvious as on May 13, 2022, when the Russian military repeatedly attempted to cross the Severodonetsk River near Luhansk. Ukraine launched a barrage of artillery on the Russian positions, knocking out dozens of tanks, armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles.

Artillery “has been the largest casualty inflictor in Ukraine up to this point,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, a board member of the Army’s Field Artillery Association. “When you send 90 howitzers, that’s a significant impact on the battlefield.”

The Pentagon says the 155mm howitzers it sent to Ukraine are ideal for the military and the terrain on which they are fighting. Unlike a self-propelled gun such as the M-109, there is no need to train their soldiers on basic automotive maintenance. If necessary, a farmer’s tractor can tow an M777 howitzer to a desirable firing position.

 “The type of conflict we’re looking at in Ukraine has changed,” said Brad Bowman, a former Army officer and currently the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “There’s now a different topography with more open areas. It seems more like Kansas than what we saw north of Kyiv.”

Artillery will become increasingly important as the conflict in Ukraine bogs down into more “positional warfare,” said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“In war, the artillery does most of the killing and the infantry does most of the dying. There’s no reason to think this war would be any different,” he said. “Its contribution to modern warfare is underestimated because it is not as exciting.”

In addition, artillery units can operate during the day or night and in all types of weather, an advantage they have over air support missions.

The weapons flow could have a political dimension as well, in light of Ukraine’s long-expressed hopes to one day join the NATO Western military alliance. Russia’s Mr. Putin has said that would be a red line for the Kremlin, but his invasion has only boosted Kyiv’s familiarity with NATO weaponry, training regimens and military doctrine. The recent influx of U.S.-supplied artillery, for example, means Ukraine’s military — long thought to be far short of the professionalism needed to be a NATO candidate — is steadily moving to the NATO standard caliber system and away from the Soviet standard. 

“That opens up a whole range of projectiles that they didn’t have access to before. That includes precision-guided missiles,” Mr. Cancian said. “It would make no sense to give them a 155mm howitzer and not give them the precision ammunition that goes with it.”

Overloaded?

The U.S. has sent Ukraine billions of dollars worth of security assistance — everything from artillery to radar systems used to locate enemy guns. Despite the widely admired way Ukraine’s military has held at bay its larger and better-armed neighbor, some say there is a danger that too much is coming in too quickly.

Mr. Cancian said he’s concerned about whether the military hardware bonanza will simply overwhelm the Ukrainians.

“The Ukrainians weren’t very good at maintaining equipment before the war began. Now, they’re even more stretched,” he said. “A new piece of gear takes some time to master and understand.”

The Pentagon has been bullish on its training program for the M777 howitzers. But Mr. Cancian questioned whether such an improvised operation will bear much fruit.

“The whole ‘train the trainer’ idea barely works in the best of times and this is not the best of times,’” he said. “I think we’re going to end up having to provide operational contractors in Ukraine to maintain this equipment. It’s just going to overwhelm them.”

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