How to Fix a Howitzer: US Offers Hotline to Ukrainian Troops
A MILITARY BASE IN SOUTHEAST POLAND — On the front lines in Ukraine, a soldier struggled to fire his 155mm howitzer gun. So he turned to a team of Americans on the other end of his phone line for help.
“What do I do?” he asked the member of the American military team, miles away, at a base in southeastern Poland. “What are my options? »
Using phones and tablets to communicate in encrypted chat rooms, a rapidly growing group of U.S. and allied troops and contractors provide real-time maintenance guidance — usually through interpreters — to troops Ukrainians on the battlefield.
In a quick response, the American team member told the Ukrainian to remove the barrel breech from the rear of the howitzer and manually prime the firing pin so the barrel could fire. He did and it worked.
The exchange is part of an expanding U.S. military assistance line aimed at providing reparation advice to Ukrainian forces in the heat of battle. As the United States and other allies send increasingly complex and high-tech weapons to Ukraine, the demands are growing. And since no US or NATO country will send troops into the country to provide practical assistance – amid fears of being drawn into a direct conflict with Russia – they have turned to the shows virtual discussions.
The US soldier and other team members and leaders stationed at a base in Poland spoke last week with two reporters who were traveling with Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , during his visit to the establishment. Due to the sensitivity of the operation, the troops spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with guidelines established by the US military. The reporters also agreed not to reveal the name or location of the base or take any photos.
Repairing a howitzer, the repair team said, was a frequent request from Ukrainian troops on the front lines. The need for weapons assistance has increased. Just a few months ago there were just over 50 members of what they call the remote maintenance team. That number will grow to 150 in the coming weeks, and the number of encrypted chat lines has more than tripled, from around 11 last fall to 38 now.
The team now consists of around 20 soldiers, supplemented by civilians and contractors, but the number of military personnel could drop a little, as more civilians come on board. And they expect that to continue to evolve as sophisticated new weapons are delivered to Ukrainians and new discussion forums are set up to manage them.
“A lot of times we get calls from right there on the firing line, so there will be fires out or in at the same time as you try to help the forward maintainers troubleshoot as best they can,” said one. American soldier who is part of the maintenance team. Sometimes, he said, the cat has to wait a bit until the troops can get to a safer place.
A key issue, one officer said, is that Ukrainian troops are pushing the weapons to their limits — firing them at unprecedented rates and using them long after a US serviceman has handed them over for repair or removal.
Holding his tablet, the American soldier showed pictures of the barrel of a howitzer, its inner edges almost completely worn away.
“They’re using these systems in ways that we didn’t necessarily anticipate,” the officer said, pointing to the tablet. “We actually learn from them by seeing how much abuse these weapon systems can take, and where the breaking point is.”
But Ukrainian troops are often reluctant to send weapons out of the country for repair. They prefer to do it themselves and in almost all cases – US officials estimated 99% of the time – the Ukrainians do the repair and move on.
Lots of chats are regularly scheduled with depot workers in Ukraine – like the one they call “Coffee Cup Guy” because his chat has a coffee cup emoji. Other times they involve troops on the battlefield whose weapon has just exploded or whose vehicle has stalled.
Sometimes video chats are not possible.
“A lot of times if they’re on the front line, they won’t video because sometimes (cellular service) is a little spotty,” a US official said. “They’ll take pictures and send them to us via chats and we sit there and diagnose it.”
There were times, he said, when they’d get a picture of a broken howitzer, and the Ukrainian would say, “That Triple 7 just blew up – what do we do?”
And, in what he said is a remarkable new skill, the Ukrainians can now replenish the split weapon. “They couldn’t do titanium welding before, they can do it now,” the American soldier said, adding “something that exploded two days ago is now back.”
Giving advice on cats means American experts have to diagnose the problem when something is wrong, figure out how to fix it, and then translate the steps into Ukrainian.
Looking to the future, they plan to acquire commercial off-the-shelf translation glasses. This way, when talking to each other, they can ignore the interpreters and only see the translation while they talk, making conversations easier and faster.
They also hope to bolster their diagnostic capabilities as weapon systems become more complex and expand the types and amount of spare parts they keep on hand. For example, they said the Patriot missile system the United States is sending to Ukraine will be a challenge requiring more expertise in diagnosing and repairing problems.
The scope of weapons and equipment they wield and the questions they answer were still too complicated for a digital spreadsheet, forcing the team to adopt basic technology. A wall in their maintenance office is lined with a series of old-fashioned, color-coded post-it notes to help them keep track of weapons and maintenance needs.
The team in Poland is part of an ever-expanding logistics network that stretches across Europe. As more countries send their own versions of weapon systems, they are setting up teams to provide repair assistance in various locations.
Nations and manufacturing companies are rapidly writing manuals and technical data that can be translated and sent to Ukrainians. They then stockpile spare parts and transport them to places near the Ukrainian borders, where they can be sent to the battlefield.
Just days before Milley visited the base, the Ukrainians went to the Polish factory to get parts. The visit gave US soldiers the opportunity to meet someone from their face-to-face chat rooms and exchange military patches.
“The next video chat we had, he was wearing our patches in his video,” the US soldier said.
The hub of the growing logistics effort is at Lucius D. Clay Kaserne, the US Army base in Wiesbaden, Germany.
There, in cubicles filling a vast room, the international coalition coordinates the campaign to locate and identify distant equipment, weapons and spare parts in other countries that are needed in Ukraine. They then schedule deliveries – by sea, air and land – to border points where everything is loaded onto trucks or trains and moved to the war zone.
At least 17 countries have representatives in what is called the International Donor Coordination Centre. And as the amount and types of equipment increase, the center is working to better merge donations from the United States and other countries.
“As we send in more additional advanced equipment, like Strykers, Bradleys, tanks, of course that sustainment activity will have to increase,” said Douglas Bush, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition. . “I think the challenge is recognized. I think the Army knows how to do it.”
Associated Press writer Tara Copp in Washington contributed to this report.