Artillery has long been known as the “King of Battle” for its crucial role in warfare, though its fundamentals have changed little since the Chinese discovered gunpowder technology in the ninth century: Propel a heavy object at the enemy through a tube using explosive force.
Still, military strategists say the surprising course of the 3-month-old Russian invasion of Ukraine has added a potentially game-changing aspect to the power of artillery in modern warfare.
As Russian forces struggle to gain traction in the fighting, the Pentagon has provided Kyiv with 90 top-of-the-line 155 mm M777 howitzers and is running hundreds of Ukrainian troops through special training on the systems. Other NATO members have also provided howitzers for Ukraine’s latest phase of the conflict.
“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 generally can 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 targets 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. The package includes 18 additional 155 mm howitzers and enough tactical vehicles to tow them. Meanwhile, the Senate approved a $40 billion package of U.S. economic, security and humanitarian aid.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that the U.S.-provided artillery cannons are “forward in the fight” and provide long-range indirect fire capability to Ukrainians as they battle Russian and separatist forces in the country’s eastern Donbas region. The Donbas became the focus of 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 to Ukraine. Although 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 fierce Ukrainian resistance blocked the Kremlin’s anticipated lightning victory. 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 shifts back to the east, the flat, open terrain has magnified the role of artillery. Russia’s supplies have been drained, and 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, when the Russian military repeatedly attempted to cross the Severodonetsk River near Luhansk. Ukraine’s barrage of artillery on the Russian positions knocked 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 U.S. Field Artillery Association. “When you send 90 howitzers, that’s a significant impact on the battlefield.”
The Pentagon says the 155 mm howitzers are ideal for Ukrainian forces and the terrain where they are fighting. Unlike a self-propelled gun such as the M-109, basic automotive maintenance requires no U.S. training. 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 Bradley Bowman, a former Army officer and current 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 settles 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 systems.
The weapons flow could have a political dimension as well, in light of Ukraine’s long-expressed hopes to one day join the NATO military alliance. Mr. Putin has said that would be a red line for Russia, but his invasion has only resulted in Kyiv’s familiarity with NATO weaponry, training regimens and military doctrine. The influx of U.S.-supplied artillery means Ukraine’s military — long thought to be far short of the professionalism needed to become a NATO candidate — is moving steadily toward NATO’s 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 155 mm howitzer and not give them the precision ammunition that goes with it.”
The U.S. has sent Ukraine billions of dollars in security assistance, including artillery and radar systems to locate enemy guns. Although Ukraine has been widely admired for the way it has held a larger and better-armed military at bay, some fear it is acquiring too much too quickly.
Mr. Cancian said he is concerned that the military hardware bonanza will 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.”