Videos released mid-May show American-built 155-millimeter Howitzers delivered to Ukraine are roaring into action. The armaments arrived in time as intense fighting with invading Russian troops rages in Eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s defense ministry conveyed a thank you for the “high-precision and very effective weapon” on Facebook, with photos taken of the Howitzers in combat in the hotly contested Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
Another post depicts two shots made by a Ukrainian M777A2 crew, with nearby terrain censored for operational security. There’s a 21-second pause between the firing of the first shot and the sound of its impact, implying the shell traveled some distance. The second half of the video shows the destruction of a Russian 2S3 Acacia armored self-propelled Howitzer, resulting in a huge explosion and blast wave due to the detonation of its ammunition.
#Ukraine: M777A2 155mm howitzers, donated by the Western countries, are being used more and more often by the Ukrainian army on the front lines- this time, as reported, it destroyed a Russian 2S3 Akatsiya 152mm SPG near Izium, #Kharkiv Oblast.https://t.co/P74mYytpB6 pic.twitter.com/8xpfabadnS
— ?? Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) May 11, 2022
Some Ukrainian sources claim M777s also were used to destroy Russian pontoon-bridge crossings on the Siverskyi Donets river May 8-May 13—a battle in which at least 70 Russian armored and support vehicles and several bridges were destroyed by Ukrainian artillery and aircraft.
Washington has delivered 90 towed M777A2 Howitzers out of the Marine Corps’ inventory—enough for five battalions—along with trucks to tow them into position and 184,000 rounds of 155-millimeter shells. According to journalist Dan Lamouthe, all but one has made it to Ukraine, most are already at the frontline. Australia and Canada contributed an additional six and four more M777 systems respectively.
By May 13, 370 Ukrainian soldiers had been trained to operate the M777s at the U.S. Army’s Grafenwoehr range in Germany. Another 50 specialists were either in training or had completed a two-week course on maintaining the weapon. Ukraine’s 92nd Mechanized and 81st Air Mobile Brigades, both active in northeastern Ukraine, are believed to be among the initial recipients of the Howitzer.
M-777 Howitzers in action. Part of the United States' most recent $800 million care package for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. All but one of the 90 Howitzers sent by the United States are now in Ukraine, many now deployed on the front lines. @GeneralStaffUA pic.twitter.com/B012LeV8uT
— U.S. Embassy Kyiv (@USEmbassyKyiv) May 15, 2022
Besides towing vehicles supplied by the U.S., photos show Ukraine troops using Ukraine’s own Kraz 4×4 trucks for artillery tractor duties too.
Towed artillery: not so obsolete as thought?
The M777 may superficially resemble the towed M1 Howitzers the U.S. Army used in World War II, but it’s actually relatively modern.
By the end of the Cold War the U.S. Army was intent on replacing the last of its towed heavy Howitzers with armored, self-propelled M109 Paladin artillery systems. Self-propelled artillery is more likely to survive ambushes and counter-battery strikes. It can also move more rapidly after shooting to avoid retaliation.
But the sheer weight and logistical burden imposed by M109s made them hard to deploy abroad, and making them self-propelled was overkill when fighting enemies with limited retaliatory capability. In the 1990s the Army and Marine Corps seized on the Ultra-lightweight Field Howitzer project of British company Vickers/BAE.
Refitted with more American-built components, the M777 weighs just 4.65 tons, compared to nearly 8 tons for the proceeding M198 towed Howitzer, thanks to extensive use of titanium. Titanium was light enough for towing by a medium-weight tactical truck or Humvee, with the barrel doubling as a tow bar. Two M777s can fit in a C-130 cargo plane, and one can be lifted on a sling by a Blackhawk medium-weight utility helicopter.
The M777 requires 5-8 personnel, depending on configuration. Setting up the gun, and dismantling it after firing each take six minutes. The design has its critics, who argue the lighter frame is less robust and thus requires more maintenance after sustained use. It also lacks motorization to aid in movement and gun-laying, and requires manual ramming of charges using a long ‘staff’.
In practice, however, the M777 has performed satisfactorily since its combat debut in Afghanistan in 2008. In 2012, an M777 performed the Marine Corps’ longest-range fire mission ever when it struck a Taliban target 22 miles away using an Excalibur round (see below). Marine and Army M777s played a role major role blasting ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria in the battles of Barghuz, Mosul and Raqqa.
The M777 has been adopted by India (which has relatively limited self-propelled artillery); as well as Saudi Arabia, Australia and Canada. The U.S. is also in the process of donating M777s to the Colombian Navy for its naval infantry branch.
What the M777 brings to Ukraine
Ukraine already deploys hundreds of towed artillery pieces, a mix of shorter range 122- and 152-millimeter towed Howitzers operated by National Guard and reserve formations. The embattled country also uses long-distance 2A36 Giatsint-B and 2A65 Msta-B field guns used by district-level artillery brigades.
Superficially, the M777s might seem a welcome but incremental expansion of Ukraine’s existing force, one overshadowed by more mobile, self-propelled alternatives.
However, the M777 does bring notable advantages arising from its 155-millimeter ammunition, which allows it to launch accurate strikes on Russian artillery beyond retaliation range. A recent image shows Ukrainian troops have received rocket-assisted M549A1 shells with a range of 18.7 miles and 15-pounds of TNT for a warhead in addition to the standard M795 shell with 13.6 mile range and 23.8 pounds of TNT.
By contrast, the standard 2S1 and 2S3 self-propelled systems used by Russia and Ukraine have a maximum range of 12-13 miles when using rocket-assisted projectiles. The rarer but more powerful 2S19 system, when firing special 3OF61 base-bleed ammunition, roughly matches the M777’s 18-mile-range.
Canada has confirmed it transferred to Ukraine M982 Excalibur smart ammunition with a maximum range of 25 miles, that lands within a few meters on average of a designated GPS coordinate. This makes it effective for precision strikes on vehicles or material assets, as well as fire support very close to friendly troops. Only Russia’s rarer 2S7M guns and heavy BM-30 rocket systems exceed that.
Photos of Ukraine’s new M777s in the field appear to show the digital GPS- and command-and-control equipment uses for Excalibur rounds was removed, perhaps deemed too sensitive to risk capture. That also implies the U.S. has not transferred Excalibur shells.
That might mean only the four Canadian M777s, which use a different LINAPS fire control system, retain the equipment to employ Excalibur rounds.
However, the U.S. may have transferred other precision 155-millimeter munitions such as the laser-guided M712 Copperhead shell (range 9.9 miles) or enabled Ukraine to convert shells into GPS-guided smart ammunition using the M1156 precision guidance kit, allowing shots to land within a 10-meter target on average.
Long-term artillery logistics
There’s a longer-term investment involved with the M777: it will facilitate Ukraine’s transition from Soviet 152-millimeter to NATO standard 155-millimeter shells, which can be more readily supplied in quantity by friendly neighboring states, and including various extended-range and precision-strike rounds developed by the UK, France, Germany, and the U.S.
Though Ukraine does have indigenous 152-millimeter shell manufacturing, in practice it has struggled to meet voracious wartime demands, and Poland and the Czech Republic have been compelled to deliver additional ammo to prevent Ukrainian guns from falling silent.
The 100 Ukrainian M777s can share ammunition with a host of other 155-millimeter systems delivered by NATO states:
-20x M109A3GN self-propelled Howitzers from Norway
-10-12x CAESAR self-propelled Howitzers from France
-12x beefy Panzerhaubitze 2000 systems from Germany and the Netherlands
-5x M114A1 Howitzers from Portugal (AKA the M1A1 in World War II)
–potentially 16x Zuzana-2 self-propelled Howitzers from Slovakia.
Furthermore, most of the above-listed systems will outrange the standard 2S1 and 2S3 systems used in Russian battalion tactical groups, and in some cases the 2S19 too.
Kyiv’s intent to gradually transition to this ammunition is reflected in Ukraine’s development of a domestic 2S22 Bohdana Howitzer using 155-millimeter ammunition. The sole prototype completed before the war is currently being used in combat not far from the Kramatorsk factory it was built in.
While Ukraine’s Soviet legacy artillery likely won’t be retired soon, crack Ukrainian units will increasingly use systems that qualitatively outrange standard Russian field artillery. Indeed, more accurate Ukrainian fires made from a longer distance are already leaving their unsubtle mark on the battlefield judging by the wrecked pontoon bridges on the Siverskyi-Donets.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, 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.