A third of the roughly 350 Western-made howitzers donated to Kyiv are out of action at any given time, according to U.S. defense officials and others familiar with Ukraine’s defense needs, The New York Times reported.
Swapping out a howitzer’s barrel, which can be 20 feet long and weigh thousands of pounds, is beyond the capability of soldiers in the field and has become a priority for the Pentagon’s European Command, which has set up a repair facility in Poland.
The effort to repair the weapons in Poland, which has not previously been reported, began in recent months. The condition of Ukraine’s weapons is a closely held matter among U.S. military officials, who declined to discuss details of the program.
When the ammunition for Ukraine’s Soviet-era guns, which fire shells 152 millimeters in diameter, grew scarce shortly after the invasion, NATO-standard howitzers that fire 155-millimeter shells became some of Ukraine’s most important weapons.
The Pentagon has sent 142 M777 howitzers to Ukraine, enough to outfit about eight battalions, the most recent tally of U.S. military aid to Ukraine shows.
The United States has shipped hundreds of thousands of rounds of 155-millimeter ammunition for Ukraine to fire in the largest barrages on the European continent since World War II, and has committed to providing nearly a million of the shells in all from its own inventory and private industry.
Ukrainian forces have also received 155-millimeter shells from countries besides the United States. Some of those shells and propellant charges had not been tested for use in certain howitzers, and the Ukrainian soldiers have found out in combat that some of them can wear out barrels more quickly, according to U.S. military officials.
After the damaged howitzers arrive in Poland, maintenance crews can change out the barrels and make other repairs. Ukrainian officials have said they would like to bring those maintenance sites closer to the front lines, so that the guns can be returned to combat sooner, the U.S. officials and other people said.
“It’s not altogether surprising that there are maintenance issues with these weapons,” said Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “They didn’t get a full training package for them and then were thrown into the fight, so you are going to get a lot of wear and tear.”
The Western artillery weapons provided to Ukraine, in the form of rocket launchers and howitzers, have sharply different maintenance needs. Of the former, HIMARS vehicles need little work to keep firing their ammunition, which is contained in pods of pre-loaded tubes. But howitzers are essentially large firearms that are reloaded with ammunition—shells weighing about 90 pounds each—and fired many hundreds or thousands of times, which eventually takes a toll on the cannon’s internal parts.
The nature of the artillery duels, in which Ukrainian crews often fire from extremely long distances to make Russian counterattacks more difficult, places additional strain on the howitzers.
Currently, Ukrainian forces are firing 2,000 to 4,000 artillery shells a day. Over time, that pace has caused problems for Ukrainian soldiers using M777 howitzers, such as shells not traveling as far or as accurately.