Ukrainian army brigades have begun shooting their new American howitzers at Russian invaders. And not just any brigades.
Ukrainian commanders and their American allies have taken pains to get the 155-millimeter M777 howitzers into the hands of the units that need the guns the most: the ones blunting the Russian offensive west of Izium, in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, as well as the ones maneuvering into a position to cut across the Russian advance. An operation that could prove decisive.
The United States has donated to Ukraine 90 of the M777 howitzers plus 150,000 shells. Canada and Australia also have given Ukraine additional handfuls of the big guns plus ammo. American and allied advisors have spent the last few weeks training hundreds of Ukrainian gunners to use their new howitzers.
The first photos and videos of Ukraine’s M777s in combat began circulating this weekend.
An eight-person M777 crew rides in a truck or armored tractor that might also tow the gun and haul its 100-pound shells. It takes the crew around five minutes to set up their gun. They can fire as many as five rounds a minute at targets 20 or 25 miles away, depending on the type of shell.
That’s far enough to out-range all but the most powerful Russian guns, allowing the Ukrainians to lay in a barrage without worrying too much about retaliatory “counterbattery” fire. “A high-precision and very effective weapon,” is how the Ukrainian defense ministry described the M777.
Ukrainian artillery batteries work closely with drone operators to spot targets—and sometimes even aim their guns at coordinates that Ukrainian civilians call in by phone after catching a glimpse of nearby Russian forces.
The combination of long-range fires and drone reconnaissance is a powerful one. Observe what the Ukrainian 17th Tank Brigade did last week to a Russian brigade attempting to cross a pontoon bridge across the Siverskyi Donets River, hoping to strike at the town Lyman, 17 miles west of Russian lines in Donbas.
The 17th’s shelling destroyed more than 70 T-72 and T-80 tanks, BMPs, MT-LB armored tractors and much of the bridging unit itself, including a tugboat and the pontoon span. That’s enough equipment for two battalions. Two-thirds of a brigade.
It’s unclear how many Russians died or were wounded. Perhaps hundreds. It’s worth noting that no brigade can lose most of its vehicles and remain capable of operations. In one artillery strike, the Ukrainians removed from the battlefield one of the roughly 30 Russian brigades in Ukraine.
It’s not clear the 17th Tank Brigade has M777s or used them to bombard the bridgehead. But that fire mission—timely, accurate and devastating—is exactly the kind of mission the Ukrainians could assign to their new howitzers.
And that’s why the M777s, along with Javelin anti-tank missiles and spare parts for fighter jets, might be among the most significant items that allies have donated to Ukraine since Russia widened its war on the country starting on Feb. 23.
“We do believe that these howitzers will be … very, very effective in helping [the Ukrainians] in the Donbas fight, which we’ve already seen, is deeply reliant on long-range fires, specifically artillery by both sides,” an unnamed U.S. Defense Department official told reporters in late April.
So it stands to reason that the Ukrainian brigades fighting in Donbas are first in line for new guns. A hundred M777s should be enough to equip the artillery battalions in four or five brigades. The 17th Tank Brigade might be one of them, but no one has confirmed it.
According to The New York Times, the 93rd Mechanized Brigade is one of the units getting M777s. There are rumors the 81st Air Mobile Brigade also is in the queue for the new guns.
Those consignments are significant. The 81st for weeks has been fighting a slow tactical retreat from Izium, the current locus of Russia’s slow, costly offensive west across Donbas. The 81st’s troopers, riding in BTR wheeled vehicles and firing Stugna anti-tank missiles, have drawn Russian blood for every mile they’ve withdrawn along the P79 highway.
The 81st is leading the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army slowly westward. And that’s exposing the Russian salient’s northern flank to Ukrainian counterattack.
That counterattack clearly is coming. The Ukrainian armed forces’ general staff isn’t exactly shy about it. After helping to clear out Russian troops around Kharkiv, 60 miles north of Izium, the 93rd Mechanized Brigade appears to be reorienting toward the south.
The brigade, along with the 92nd Mechanized Brigade, is in a position to cut across the Russian army’s offensive—perhaps by rolling south along the M03 highway. The 93rd is the hammer to the 81st’s anvil.
Artillery is critical. In both Russian and Ukrainian doctrine, most army forces—tanks, infantry—support the artillery, isolating and pinning down enemy troops so the big guns can destroy them. If and when the Ukrainians move against the Russians’ Izium salient, the far-firing M777s with their huge stockpiles of ammo could do most of the killing.