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HIMARS and MLRS Are Great But Ukraine Needs More M119A3 Artillery Guns

M119A3
M119A3 artillery. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

More M119A3 – What Ukraine Truly Needs: While more modern and long-range weapon systems, especially HIMARS and MLRS, have captured most of the conversation about U.S. military support for Ukraine, the role of cannon artillery cannot be underappreciated. 

Long-Range Weapons on the Field

It’s understandable that these big-ticket items get the most attention because of their range, accuracy, and strategic importance. But, despite the never-ending debate about which missiles the U.S. should or should not send, the DoD has made clear that the U.S. will likely retain the status quo of missile and rocket support, remaining hesitant to provide longer-range weapons. 

Additionally, while Ukraine’s counter-offensive has been extremely successful, the war is far from over as the DoD foresees a fall of tough fighting before a winter stalemate. Undoubtedly, the effects of HIMARS and MLRS in shaping operations proved vital for the counteroffensive to be as successful as it has been. But the war has moved into a new phase, a phase where Ukraine possesses the momentum and initiative in an offensive where its maneuvering forces are fighting to close in on and destroy the enemy. The mission of the artillery is to enable those maneuver forces to do just that, not simply to flex muscle by destroying long-range targets.

Adapt Equipment Supplies Based on Need

As it has throughout the war, U.S. support should adapt to meet the needs of Ukrainians. In this new phase, cannon artillery will be vital in providing these maneuver forces with the fire support they need. It’s important to remember that the Ukrainian Army is largely modeled after NATO armies, namely the U.S., which currently utilizes brigade combat teams (BCTs) to conduct large-scale ground operations as a “joint team” of varying units. Further, while the U.S. Army is looking to move away from the BCT model, in favor of returning to divisions and corps to meet near pear threats, you fight with the army you have, not the army you want. In the U.S. Army, fire support for BCTs is rarely provided by HIMARS or MLRS. Instead, in most cases, it comes from lighter, towed cannon artillery pieces. 

While HIMARS and MLRS may be division- or even corps-level assets, under the discretion of a general, howitzers like the M777A2 and M119A3 are the BCT’s organic assets. This allows the field artillery battalion to be integrated into the larger brigade’s mission and operations, providing fluid and timely fire support to its assigned maneuver battalions and companies. 

In quick and decisive offensive operations, where Ukrainian forces are constantly adapting to Russian defenses, these cannon artillery batteries provide the firepower those maneuver units rely on.

M119A3: Making the Case Artillery

This brings us to the U.S. Army’s primary artillery piece in light infantry brigade combat teams (IBCTs), the M119A3 (119ers in artillery vernacular). The 119ers don’t pack the punch or have the range of the M777A2, but that is for good reason. First, they are light enough to meet the needs of light infantry units, retaining high mobility relative to an IBCT’s speed and tempo. 

Likewise, their relatively short range, 14.5 km or 19.5 km with RAP (rocket assisted projectile), meets most of the needs of light infantry units that rarely outrun their artillery support like armor or mechanized units. Most importantly, what they lack in range and effect radius is made for with an exceptional rate of fire of 6 rounds per minute for two minutes or three rounds per minute of sustained fire. Finally, the 119er has a comparable digital fire control system to the M777A2, which increases capabilities, both in terms of speed and accuracy. These capabilities allow 119er batteries (6 guns when fully fielded) to emplace, fire, and displace efficiently and quickly. This is crucial in providing timely and accurate fires that meet the needs of Ukrainian maneuver forces. For those readers who keep feeling lost when they hear “combined arms operations” all over cable news, this is a key component: integrating effective and mobile fires with maneuver forces. 

Combined Arms Can Be More Effective in the field

Combined arms are especially important when facing an enemy like Russia, which has an entirely different doctrine of warfare, one based around artillery instead of maneuver, and outguns and outranges even most NATO artillery. Those Russian capabilities and doctrine, which treats artillery as “the god of war,” means that Ukrainian artillery needs to shoot quickly and displace quickly before Russian artillery has the chance to counterfire. And, since Ukrainian units can’t take quick and effective Russian counterfire for granted, meaning that they can’t spend too much time firing from the same position, their shots need to count when they fire. The 119er is the ideal weapon system to meet that challenge in terms of mobility, survivability, and capability. 

While the M119 would meet many needs of Ukrainian forces, it would also be less of a cost to the U.S., which has depleted many of its reserves by providing longer-range and more modern weapon systems and ammunition. M119s, and the accompanying 105mm ammunition, on the other hand, do not pose the same threat to America’s own defense needs. Many Army units have already transitioned from the M119, seeking longer-range fires and an armament more centered on rockets and missiles. While this means that the U.S. has more M119s in storage, it also means that providing 105mm ammunition is less valuable than the 155mm ammunition of the M777 and M109, which are still very much in service. As the U.S. Army seeks to shift and expand its artillery capabilities to meet near-peer threats in Asia and Europe, meaning moving away from the M119, it can also meet the needs of a crucial partner in Ukraine. 

So far, the U.S. has committed to providing twenty 1055mm howitzers with 180,000 rounds of ammunition. We can and should do more. And the U.S. is not the only country that has provided 105mm howitzers to Ukraine. British L119 105mm cannons have already proved effective on the battlefield and superior to the soviet-style D-30 that previously served as the light Ukrainian howitzer. Likewise, Lithuania has handed over some of its own 105mm howitzers. The various 105mm pieces of other NATO nations have joined them. 

While providing Ukraine with necessary HIMARS and MLRS is vital, it’s equally important that these big-ticket items don’t distract from other needs. Ukraine needs more than what captures headlines. Warfare is all-encompassing. It is not solely waged in the form of high-level targets and strategic strikes on bridges. At this very moment, Ukrainian soldiers across the front are engaged in direct combat. It is surely a brutal and horrific fight. The average Ukrainian infantryman will likely not have the protection of HIMARS or MLRS. Nor will he or she probably see its impact. That is for the generals and intelligence officials. 

M119A3

Army paratroopers fire M119 105mm Howitzers during gunnery training at Yukon Training Area, Alaska, May 7, 2021.
U.S. Army photo Army Maj. Jason Welch

The infantry and artillery soldiers’ war will be fought where it always has: in the mud and in front of their faces. So, while we ensure strategic needs are met with MLRS and HIMARS, let’s not forget that a Ukrainian infantry platoon is probably in desperate need of fire support right now. The M119A3, and systems like it, are probably the best chance they have.

Cam McMillan served as a field artillery officer in the US Army and is an Iraq combat veteran. Cam works as an assistant director of program administration at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University and is a Masters candidate in global studies & international relations at Northeastern University. The views expressed in this article are solely his own.

Written By

Cam McMillan served as a field artillery officer in the US Army from 2018-2022 and deployed to Iraq as a C-RAM (counter rocket, artillery, mortar) battle captain in 2021, where he was responsible for C-UAS operations. Cam is an assistant director of program administration at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University and a Masters candidate in global studies & international relations at Northeastern University. The views expressed in this article are solely his own.

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. xheavy

    September 22, 2022 at 2:46 pm

    No they do not.

    We disposed of Towed Artillery because setting up takes too long. Shooting and packing up to get out takes too long. And so on.

    I know we sent them a batch that are unwanted for them to play with. Thats fine.

    I prefer my Artillery self propelled. Able to find their own targets and get out after several rounds.

    In the realm of nuclear weapons being considered by RU for war in UKR as I warned weeks ago (Only to be jeered and laughed off the soapbox like a nutter…) there is no place for towed anymore.

  2. Frank Martin

    September 22, 2022 at 3:29 pm

    What’s next? B61’s? Our government is corrupt AF and doesn’t give a damn what we want or don’t want. I say let’s send all the career politicians over to Ukraine so they can fight.

  3. aldol11

    September 22, 2022 at 3:34 pm

    BS!
    Ukraine needs F1’s, M1A’s, ATACMS

  4. Tomcat

    September 22, 2022 at 3:47 pm

    As a European, it’s a shame that Italy, France, Germany, etc are so slow and late with weapons delivery.
    We have decent amounts that could be sent right now and replaced later on.
    But I’m afraid that 70 years of easy peace and prosperity has made everybody soft and stupid around here…

  5. Roger Bacon

    September 22, 2022 at 3:51 pm

    “So far, the U.S. has committed to providing twenty 1055mm howitzers with 180,000 rounds of ammunition.”

    LOL at the typo. Imagine artillery firing shells twice the size of the Yamato’s main guns. Other than that, good article.
    I am curious though about how long it takes one of these M119’s to deploy and undeploy. With radar-guided counter-battery fire so accurate it better be darn quick.

  6. Luis Espinal

    September 22, 2022 at 3:59 pm

    It’s not a mutually exclusive situation. We can send them HIMARs along M771s and M119ers… and javelins, and ammo, and the kitchen sink as needed.

    They are our allies and they need our help. Plus, this war is already involving us.

    Either we give them the weapons they want to fight (and win) this fight… or this fight will be unresolved, for us to get pulled in at a later time in some other theater.

    We need to confront these realities without Chamberlainian penny-pinching.

  7. 403Forbidden

    September 22, 2022 at 4:36 pm

    What ukraine really needs – a big or huge shove to the edge and then to the bottom of the abyss, which biden is doing or performing with gusto.

    Biden is fighting a great delicious proxy war against a nuclear nation, with ukraine on the line or perhaps on the gambling or serving table.

  8. Tamerlane

    September 22, 2022 at 6:55 pm

    Luis Espinal: no, Ukraine is not our ally, it is a client state perhaps, but they are not an ally. Have you been asleep the past 23 years? Or have you merely learned nothing from the disastrous “moral” interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq?

  9. Vladolph Putler (the first)

    September 22, 2022 at 9:19 pm

    They already have it. And have for some time. Ukraine was given the L119 from Britain, and it is already performing the same mission.

    The only practical difference is the navigation hardware of the M119a3.

  10. xheavy

    September 22, 2022 at 10:25 pm

    The 155mm towed needs about 3 minutes to emplace.

    One minute and change to first round, only seconds to load etc but the chant of manual targeting etc is a process, fusing etc.

    When its time to get out it takes 2 minutes to pack it all up. Plus the tow vehicle and the ammo and powder laying about. Fiddly dead trying to get out.

    5 minutes is too damn long. A drone into link 16 can see it, have the GPS lat and long to a few feet sent up the command chain. They assign the weapons quickly to be sent to that particular enemy gun. Takes a few moments to a minute.

    Then the round has to travel to it. Which is generally 40 seconds or less. Some guns can fire burst.

    If you shot one round, auto loaded the next you depressed the barrel a couple of degrees and fired. Both rounds will arrive together at the target. One cutting the chord or corner under the other thats taking the longer original path. Some systems can shoot 6 and all will arrive together to a few feet.

    By the time the enemy survivors pick themselves up and get over the shock of being blasted the next batch is coming.

    A M109 Paladin or Swedish Self Mobile Gun Truck can set up in about a minute from road movement. Shoot a few moments later. And be gone before the enemy can process the detected incoming rounds and triangluate or drone target it visually from gunbloom etc. You can bet the enemy has rounds on the way to that gun. It needs to be gone already.

    At least 1000 meters. Stop, set up. Shoot. Go. 1000 more meters. Set up shoot go. You can do this all day if you have the ammo. Your greatest danger at that point is direct fire infantry anti tank weapons or ballsy enemy battle tanks penetrating to get at you specifically.

    In table games I always go for the enemy Artillery. The enemy is forced to sink resources in providing local mall security for their artillery. That drains from the front and holes appear at that point.

    In UKR I already seen within 24 hours of the first 155mm towed arriving from America via Poland by Air packed 4 or 6 at a time from Dover AFB to southern Poland then driven in east to fight. Some were already destroyed at the front due to getting caught in the open by RU drones or eyeballs.

    American HIMARS trucks were driving around Ukraine with the yellow American Pattern Marker lights on the cab at night. As a trucker I know instantly what they are and would have snipped the wires to them. That sort of thing gets people killed.

  11. xheavy

    September 22, 2022 at 11:51 pm

    Ukraine is considered a Vassal State. A tool.

    We will pay for that foolishness in due time.

  12. L'amateur d'aéroplanes

    September 23, 2022 at 2:59 am

    Even if it’s 105 mm light artillery, they can replace the many 122 mm guns that lack shells.

    Recall that Portugal had proposed the 105 mm M102 received after the Second World War. The Ukrainians had declined this gift, do not exaggerate;)

  13. John Holmes

    September 23, 2022 at 7:45 am

    Nonsense. If they wanted lighter towed artillery that is what they would be asking for. Smaller guns means closer to the front lines where even more Russian guns can fire at them before they can move.

    What Ukraine needs is what they are actually asking for. They need tanks and armored infantry transport. That means M1 Abrams and Leopard 2s. It means Bradleys and Marders.

    At this point, the Ukrainian army has vastly more experience fighting a large scale war against another army than any NATO army does. Believe them when they tell you what they need.

  14. Yrral

    September 23, 2022 at 8:19 am

    Tomcat, European are reaping,what the sowed with Putin,in America we have plenty of food, fuel and American fools, supporting a lost cause in Ukraine

  15. abraham lincoln

    September 23, 2022 at 8:43 am

    It looks like Putin is going to send massive amounts of untrained, unmotivated men to Ukraine in his next mobilization. Time for a weapon that can destroy these men en masse as they fumble their way towards the front. The Ukrainians are going to need area denial weapons.

  16. Geof

    September 23, 2022 at 10:46 am

    Problem with this article is that the Ukrainians are asking for long range/SP artillery and missiles…not towed 105s. Mate the tubes to a soft recoil system, mount them on trucks, and they might be more useful.

    Given that the primary killer of armor in Ukraine is guided artillery rounds, does the USA need to re-think the push to divest tube artillery?

  17. xheavy

    September 23, 2022 at 12:25 pm

    Trucks are not necessarily that mobile. I’ll want a old Deuce and a half 6×6 with a minimum of Series 60 400 horse. No emissions or airride to keep the tube stable. And a set of feet fore and aft plus a spade for firing. And certainly no computer crap in that truck either. Which means anything older than 1990 would be fine.

  18. Brian Foley

    September 23, 2022 at 12:25 pm

    Let’s cut to the chase…let’s send Chuck Norris and get this wrapped up by next week.

  19. danf51

    September 23, 2022 at 6:33 pm

    Thankfully, it’s too late for Ukraine. Perhaps they have spent what reserves they were able to accumulate. We will find out this winter.

    The real question I would like to see answered in the weeks to come: does anyone in Ukraine feel there is any profit in getting winter clothing to their troops, winter boots and sleeping bags and sufficient field kitchens to feed their soldiers hot meals as they sit in soon to be wet and then frozen dugouts.

    Yet another wunderwaffen is not going to save Ukraine. 105’s are fine guns I’m sure but whatever numbers we provide will just be grist for the mill.

    Is Russian counter-battery capability getting better or worse ? Telegram suggests it’s getting better. M777 and HIMARS continue to be destroyed and will continue to be destroyed regardless of how many have really been sent. Send them and they will be destroyed.

    America is the bad buy in this war. It was engineered by confused minds in the foreign Policy establishment. If America ever wakes up, we will be ashamed of what we have been party to.

    If Covid did not wake us up, probably nothing will. Perhaps we will find out as the next recession/depression unfolds over the coming 12 months.

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