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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

NATO Sends the ‘Big Guns’ and Rocket Artillery to Help Ukraine Fight Russia

Soldiers assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, fire a M777 towed 155 mm Howitzer on Qayyarah West Airfield, Iraq, Aug. 10, 2019. The Soldiers conducted a fire mission to disrupt known enemy positions. As long as Daesh presents a threat, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve remains committed to enabling its defeat. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Spc. DeAndre Pierce)

Ukraine will soon get a lot of firepower to use against Russia: In the first month of Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine, Russian armored columns barreled headlong into lethally effective ambushes by Ukrainian infantry armed with portable anti-tank weapons in the woods and suburbs around Kyiv, only to suffer massive losses and rapidly bog down.

With Putin’s ambition to decapitate Ukraine’s government thwarted, Moscow is now redirecting troops towards seemingly lower-hanging fruit: seizing the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, which has in truth been a war-torn battlefield since 2014.

On this relatively open terrain, Ukrainian infantry with portable missiles can’t by themselves defeat Russia’s mechanized battalions and the thousands of separatist auxiliaries used as expendable cannon fodder by Moscow. To prevent the elite mechanized units stationed there from being encircled in a Russian pincer, Kyiv needs more tanks and mobile artillery with which it can strike targets without exposing personnel on foot to Russia’s own considerable firepower.

That’s why Ukrainian president Volodymir Zelensky has been pleading with increasing urgency that NATO and other allies send weapons heavier than portable missiles.

NATO states were initially reluctant, fearing such heavy weapons would prove too provocative for Russia. But by mid-April, it’s clear Zelensky’s pleas were being heard. Now the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, United Kingdom and United States are sending tanks and heavy artillery to Ukraine.

While a companion article looks at armored vehicle transfers to Ukraine, this piece will describe artillery systems that have been or maybe, transferred.

Artillery is likely accounting for the majority of casualties in Putin’s horrible war. In fact, it’s proven even more lethal than in prior conflicts thanks to use of drone spotters by both sides.

While Ukraine has a lot of towed and short range mobile artillery, it has a significant deficit in mobile long-range artillery compared to Russia as described in an earlier article. Furthermore, Ukrainian troops must rely more on artillery for deep strikes due to limited available airpower.

DANA and ZUZANA from Czech and Slovakia

While Ukraine’s longer-standing order for 26 new DANA-M2 self-propelled howitzers remains frozen due to pricing disputes, Prague has given older 152-millimeter DANA vz.77 systems instead—possibly early in or even before the war, around which time Prague openly delivered 4,000 152-millimeter shells. DANAs have already been recorded lobbing shells in Ukraine.

The 32-ton DANA is an unconventional 8×8 wheeled armored howitzer that debuted in 1980 boasting a first-of-its-kind autoloading system drawing from a 60-round magazine. Unfortunately, it lacks digital fire control systems.

Allegedly over 20 DANAs were delivered. The Czech Republic had 86 DANA on inventory, of which only 48 were operationally deployed in the 132st and 132nd artillery battalions.

Meanwhile, on April 10, Slovakian defense minister Jaroslav Nad confirmed Bratislava was negotiating a sale of 16 Zuzana self-propelled artillery systems to Kyiv. The 155-millimeter (ie. NATO-compatible) ZUZANA system is a modern Slovakian evolution of DANA.

Its longer gun can strike targets up to 25 miles (40km) away using rocket-assisted projectile, outranging most of the tube artillery used by both sides in the war. Operated by a crew of four, it can sustainably spit 5 rounds per minute, drawing from a magazine of 40 shell fed into an autoloader.

A fire-control computer performs gun laying, and the system can also execute deadly MRSI salvos wherein three rounds are rapidly launched with variable strength charges so as to land simultaneously.

The two Slovakian batteries would likely be sold with complementary 6×6 Tatrapan fire control vehicle and 8×8 Tatra trucks carrying reloads of 40 rounds. Allegedly, Ukrainian crews could familiarize themselves with Zuzana given a week of training.

As the Slovak Ground Forces has only 16 Zuzanas serving in its 2nd Mechanized Brigade, a Ukrainian buy would mean retiring the type from Slovakian service. That’s acceptable to Bratislava, as it’s receiving 25 new Zuzana 2 systems with longer 52-caliber guns, smaller crew of three and redesigned cab.

Rocket artillery from Czech Republic…and Poland?

The Czech Republic has reportedly delivered “at least 20” RM-70 multiple rocket launcher systems (MRLSs) to UkraineThese are derived from the ubiquitous BM-21 Grad system, of which Ukraine had over 200 at the commencement of hostilities. Ukraine’s confirmed to have lost at least 12 BM-21s in combat.

A BM-21 consists of a 6×6 flatbed truck hefting an array of forty 122-millimeter rockets that can be ripple-fired in 20 seconds. The typical 9M22 rocket used has a range of 12.6 miles, but special variants can boost range to twice that. A BM-21 battalion can saturate a broad area with 720 rockets in a matter of seconds.

The RM-70 delivered by Prague mates BM-21-style launchers to an 8×8 Tatra truck. Unlike the original, the RM-70 carries a full reload of 40 rockets and features an armored crew cab. The Czech Republic retired its last 60 RM-70s in 2011, without seeking replacements. Slovakia also has around 25 RM-70/85s. Greece also reportedly has delivered 122-millimeter rocket munitions to Ukraine.

It’s also alleged Poland has delivered BM-21s to Ukraine, but delivery has yet to be verified. In 2020 Poland was registered as having 93 BM-21s, 29 RM-70s, and 75 WR-40s (indigenously modernized BM-21s). Un-updated BM-21s are being replaced with HIMARS rocket systems from the U.S. (see below), and thus their donation wouldn’t constitute a big loss.

122-millimeter howitzers?

There are rumors that 122-millimeter 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers from Poland may wind their way into Ukrainian service, though no confirmation so far.

Poland’s inventory counts 362 Gvozdikas in 2020, 198 of which were operational. These shorter-range (9-13 miles) systems are being replaced by South Korean/British hybrid Krab howitzers. Hundreds more 2S1s can be found in the stocks of other NATO countries, particularly Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia.

Ukraine entered the war with roughly 540 2S1s, and has lost at least eleven in combat so far, including two knocked out by Russian Orion combat drones.

Just prior to the war, Ukraine received nine towed 122-millimeter D-30 howitzers from Estonia. It may have received additional towed Soviet-style howitzers from the Czech Republic.

155s from the Anglosphere

On April 13, it was revealed the United States is sending 18 155-millimeter towed howitzers to Ukraine, along with 40,000 155-millimeter shells and additional AN/TPQ-36 Firefinder radars make it easy to track enemy shelling back to its point of origin.

The howitzers are likely M777A2s, which have a range of 15-25 miles depending on shell type. Weighing a relatively light 4.65-ton due to titanium construction, the old-school howitzers incorporate hi-tech digital fire control computers, GPS systems and controls to target smart munitions, all powered by a built-in electrical generator.

Setting up or decamping the howitzer takes six minutes each for the crew of five. Ukrainian crews will likely be trained out-of-country to operate the M777s.

A particular advantage of the M777 may be its compatibility wwith advanced shells like the laser-guided M712 Copperhead, and GPS-guided M982 Excalibur and cheaper PGK kits. That would bring Ukraine effective artillery-fired precision-strike capabilities it mostly lacks. But integrating smart munitions would come with added cost and complexity.

The United Kingdom’s defense secretary has has stated London will delivering unspecified “long-range artillery” to Ukraine.

Due to the logistical challenges entailed in delivering and integrating huge armored self-propelled howitzers, it’s probably not the UK’s 45-ton AS-90 self-propelled howitzer, but rather FH70 155-millimeter gun with a maximum range of 15-18 miles. These weigh up to 10.5 tons and require a crew of eight; on the upside they have rapid-fire three-round burst capability and an engine to power the gun’s hydraulics and even move the entire carriage.

Towed artillery are far easier to deliver and integrate, though their lack of mobility would make them more vulnerable to counter-battery fires.

The U.S. may also consider transferring relatively light-weight 17.9-ton M142 HIMARS mobile rocket artillery, which Zelensky has specifically requested.

Each truck-borne HIMARS can unleash six 227-millimeter rockets, which at first blush seems modest compared to the 40 smaller rockets in a BM-21. But HIMARS can launch GPS-guided M31 GMLRS rockets for precision strikes out to 43.5 miles, or more provocatively, ATACMS missiles with a greatly extended range of 186 miles for deep strikes.

Whether such an unfamiliar system could be operationally deployed by Ukraine in timely fashion is unclear, though. Furthermore, ATACMS particularly may be considered too provocative due to its applicability to attacking targets in Russian soil.

Ultimately, one should hope Putin’s vicious campaign against Ukraine will come to an ignominious conclusion before many of these Western-donated systems make it to the frontline.

But if Putin insists more must die and the war drags on many weeks or months, the influx of artillery from Europe and America may expand Ukraine’s artillery arsenal both in volume and possibly also quality, improving its chances of repelling Russia’s assault on an already battle-scarred Eastern Ukraine.

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National InterestNBC, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor.  He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  You can follow his articles on Twitter.

Written By

Sebastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News,, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.