Russian forces are targeting the M-777 howitzers the United States has given to the Ukrainian army. The Russians have knocked out at least three of the 155-millimeter towed howitzers, 126 of which the United States has pledged to the Ukrainian war effort.
These losses belie Ukrainian artillery’s impressive performance against tough odds. According to the best outside analysis, the Russian army has lost more artillery than the Ukrainian army as Russia’s wider war in Ukraine grinds into its fourth month.
Ukrainian gunners excel at “counterbattery” fire—that is, quickly shooting back at Russian guns. “The M-777s have been absolutely lethal,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters last week.
The Ukrainian army went to war with 1,800 artillery pieces—almost all of them ex-Soviet models that the army inherited following the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse. The ex-Soviet cannons mostly are 122-millimeter and 152-millimeter calibers.
It was with these guns that the Ukrainian army beat back the Russian army’s attempt to seize Kyiv in the first six weeks of the wider war starting in late February. “Anti-tank missiles slowed the Russians down, but what killed them was our artillery,” a senior adviser to Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, told Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds from the Royal Services Institute in London.
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But old Soviet guns lack range and explosive power compared to their Western equivalents. More critically, the Ukrainians never had enough shells for their 122s and 152s. Transitioning to NATO’s 155-millimeter artillery, with its extensive production base for ammunition, quickly became a top priority for the Ukrainian army.
“Relying solely on Soviet weapons was definitely a losing strategy,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov explained.
To date, Ukraine’s foreign supporters have pledged no fewer than 267 155s—both self-propelled and tracked, half of which are M-777s. A 4.5-ton M-777 can fire an unguided shell out to a distance of up to 19 miles. That’s several miles farther than a 152-millimeter 2S3 can fire.
Those extra miles help Ukrainian gunners to target Russian gunners while staying beyond the range of Russian counterbattery fire. The statistics tell the story. In just over a hundred days of fighting, the Ukrainians have destroyed or captured at least 283 Russian heavy mortars, cannons and rocket-launchers. The Russians meanwhile have knocked out or seized 95 Ukrainian heavy guns and launchers.
But war is dangerous. And Ukraine’s new M-777 batteries have suffered losses. In May, a Russian KUB kamikaze drone targeted and damaged an M-777 battery. Yesterday video circulated online depicting Russian artillery striking another M-777 battery, destroying one of the guns.
The United States could make good those losses. The M-777s it’s donated so far mostly are ex-U.S. Marine Corps guns that were rendered redundant by the Corps’ accelerating switchover to rocket launchers. The Marines and the U.S. Army still have a thousand M-777s between them. It’s possible some—or many—of them will be making their way to Ukraine.
“We, in collaboration with allies and partners, are pushing artillery long-range fires to the front as quickly as we can,” an unnamed U.S. defense official told reporters last week.