M-109 Self-Propelled Guns Will Help Ukraine Shift To Offense

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Ahead of a presumed Ukraine visit by both the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense, a trickle of Western-standard field artillery has turned into a flood, helping Ukraine’s heavy artillery units transition from a crippling dependence upon Soviet-standard 152mm artillery to western-standard 155mm weapons almost overnight. Barring immediate and substantial Russian concessions at the negotiating table, the next “transformational” Western aid package may well include an enormous number of M-109 155mm self-propelled guns, continuing the irrevocable conversion of Ukraine’s Army into a NATO-oriented force that is ready for offensive operations.

Russia should worry. Ukraine’s transition to NATO-standard field artillery is moving forward with incredible speed. In a matter of days, the U.S. upped their initial offering of 18 155mm howitzers to pledge a total of 90 artillery pieces, while Canada shipped in four modern M-777 howitzers, and the UK pledged to provide long-range artillery.

The same thing will happen to Ukraine’s fleet of large-caliber self-propelled guns. Self-propelled guns are, basically, artillery pieces matched to a tank or truck chassis, built to “shoot-and-scoot” before they can be targeted by an opposing force. Outside of the limelight, smaller and less heralded donations are setting the stage for a wholesale refresh Ukraine’s fleet of Soviet-era large-caliber self-propelled guns. And it’s not just for defense anymore; getting a big fleet of NATO-standard 155mm self-propelled guns into Ukraine makes a strong foundation for future offensive operations.

To supplement Ukraine’s 152mm self-propelled guns, France is sending an unspecified number of useful wheeled CAESAR 155mm self-propelled artillery systems (reports vary between “less than 10” and twelve), the Netherlands is providing an as-yet-unknown number of excellent German-built Panzerhaubitze 2000 (Pzh-2000) 155mm self-propelled guns, and Belgium seems set to offer an unspecified number of M-109A4BE 155mm self-propelled guns as well. As this essay was set to go to press, news reports suggest Italy is set to outdo everyone by offering Ukraine both Pzh-2000s and M-109s.

The U.S. has been conspicuously quiet on their potential contributions, but the U.S. has a lot of surplus M-109s available, including the relatively modern and still formidable M-109A6 Paladin.

The stage is set for the NATO-standard self-propelled guns. Along with the new field guns, enormous amounts of 155mm ammunition are already flowing into the country, and those supplies will soon offer Ukraine’s long-range artillerists access to an exciting new menu of specialized shells and fuses. The massive munitions transfer reportedly even includes a pallet or two of 155mm Excalibur guided munitions, capable of precision strikes.

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NATO-standard artillery-finding radars and coordinating “command-and-control” elements are also entering the fight. If properly understood and exploited, these new assets will give Ukrainian forces an edge in the fast-moving battles and running counter-battery engagements to come.

New Gear Builds A Foundation For Offensive Operations:

In a matter of days, the donated towed howitzers will supplement Ukraine’s set of Soviet-era 152mm artillery systems, a sprawling arsenal of 2A65 MSTA-B, 2A36 Giatsint-B, and ancient D-20 152mm howitzers. While the new NATO-standard 155mm howitzers are not a 1:1 replacement for Ukraine’s many heavy field guns, the new artillery goes a long way in relieving Ukraine’s supply concerns given the dwindling amount of 152mm ammunition available on the global market.

The real trick will be to see how quickly and how effectively Ukraine leverages their array of new radars, fire control systems, and enhanced munitions capabilities. Once the NATO sensors and command-and-control systems are mastered, and Ukrainian commanders really start to understand their new munitions capabilities (for example, some 155mm munitions can even be used to spread anti-tank mines), Ukraine’s new 155mm towed guns will punch far harder than their more numerous legacy fleet of Soviet-era 152mm field artillery pieces. The same will be true once 155mm self-propelled guns arrive in Ukraine.

While the new 155mm field artillery will quickly enter the battlefield, donations of NATO-standard self-propelled artillery will likely be a bit slower to start filling in for Ukraine’s large contingent of Soviet-era 152mm-firing self-propelled guns. But new platforms are coming, and once things get going, the transfer from Soviet self-propelled gun systems to NATO systems will be rapid.

As long as Ukraine’s self-propelled guns have sufficient ammunition, there is no need to hurry; a deliberate pace towards full employment of the new NATO self-propelled guns is fine. Ukraine currently fields a good-sized set of 2S19 MSTA-S, 2S5 Giatsint-S, 2S3 Akatsiya and other systems like the newly arriving 152mm self-propelled guns from the Czech Republic. But the three NATO-standard 155mm-based mobile systems trickling into Ukraine are more complex. They are, in essence, new armored vehicles, and, until they are available in numbers, and the supporting logistics in place, the first few precious platforms are probably best conserved for training, special missions, and high-priority set-piece strikes.

While European countries are handing over some top-flight modern self-propelled guns, those systems are still unlikely to be available in big numbers anytime soon. While Ukraine covets the capabilities of the German-produced heavy Pzh-2000 self-propelled gun, donor countries will be loathe to hand over the front-line platform in large numbers. But hundreds of retired, old-school M-109s are still serviceable and are likely still available in both U.S. and European warehouses. If those older but still formidable self-propelled guns can be refreshed quickly, supported, and integrated into Ukraine’s command-and-control networks, they may offer Ukraine the best near-term option—particularly if more modern systems like the Pzh-2000 and CEASAR continue to trickle into Ukraine, ready to rebuff any troublesome high-end Russian artillery threats. But large numbers of M-109s are likely to be one of the next big “gifts” the West will offer as Ukraine shifts to the offensive.

The arrival of a whole bunch of M-109s onto the Ukrainian battlefield seems inevitable. The logistical framework for wider Ukraine support for M-109s are already coming into place. Many scoffed at America’s donation of 200 old M113 armored personnel carriers, but they didn’t realize that the M-109 is basically a 155mm gun aboard an M113 chassis. Getting lots of M113s into service in Ukraine jump-starts the development of a new Ukrainian-based logistical support network required to ultimately support a big fleet of hard-hitting 155mm M-109s.

For the bedraggled Russians, it will be a repeat of the 155mm towed howitzers all over again—another hard-to-beat war-fighting innovation they will struggle to contend with. And with lots and lots of M-109s pouring in to support Ukraine’s existing fleet of Soviet-era 152mm self-propelled guns, Ukraine can start shifting over to offense, using their new artillery, “the king of battle,” to take Russia on and win in the steppes.

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