Expanding Equipment Options for Ukraine: The Case of Artillery
As the United States ships more equipment to Ukraine, concerns arise about whether this level of support is sustainable. Will the United States reach a point where it can no longer equip the Ukrainian resistance? Earlier CSIS commentaries argued that support could continue indefinitely but only by using a wide variety of approaches. One such approach is substitution. As stocks of the most modern systems decline, the United States sends other systems. As an example of such substitution, this commentary explores the case for providing older M198 howitzers now that excess inventories of the currently fielded M-777 howitzer are exhausted.
Q1: Why examine an artillery case first?
A1: The war in Ukraine has become an artillery war. Stable front lines, increasingly effective kill chains, and reduced scope for air power have created an environment where ground firepower trumps maneuver, at least for the moment. While weapons like High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and Javelins have received most media attention, artillery has proven that it is still the “king of battle” by the intensity of its use.
The United States has transferred 142 M-777 155-millimeter (mm) towed howitzers to Ukraine. Other countries have sent small numbers from their own stocks. In total, Ukraine has received approximately 300 pieces of towed and self-propelled 155 mm artillery. (The exact number is likely a bit higher since some countries do not disclose their transfers.)
In addition, Ukraine has received at least 72 105 mm howitzers―36 from the United States, 36 L119 howitzers from the United Kingdom, and a few older M101 howitzers (perhaps around five) from Lithuania.
Ukraine started the war with approximately 1,150 Soviet-era howitzers: 750 152 mm howitzers and 350 122 mm howitzers. Added to the 424-plus howitzers received from allies, Ukraine has a total of approximately 1,600 artillery pieces. While this may seem like a lot, it is inadequate considering the shortage of Soviet-standard ammunition, the length of the front lines, and the size of the Ukrainian forces.
Shortages of Soviet-standard ammunition (122 mm and 152 mm) have progressively reduced the value of Soviet-era artillery. The United States has scoured the globe to buy Soviet-standard ammunition and has sent Ukraine 45,000 152 mm artillery rounds and 20,000 122 mm rounds. However, with Russia and China, the major producers, unavailable, there are severe limits on what can be provided. Those limits will increase over time as accessible inventories become exhausted.
While available ammunition is short, the front is long. The actively contested frontline along the south of Ukraine and extending to the Russian border in the Kharkiv region is approximately 850 kilometers (km). The border with Russia along Kharkiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv Oblasts (not occupied by Russia) is 500 km. Ukraine’s border with Belarus, a potential adversary, is another 1,100 km. While not all these borders have active hostilities, that could change at any time. If Ukraine has 1,600 pieces of artillery, of all kinds, this amount is not enough to cover a combined border of almost 2,500 km.
In comparison, NATO forces in and around West Germany in 1989, at the end of the Cold War, deployed at least 2,400 heavy artillery pieces to defend a border of approximately 2,200 km with East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
As an extreme example of artillery use during a war of attrition, the British Army massed 1,400 guns on a front of 14 miles (100 guns per mile, 62 per km) for the Somme offensive in July 2016.
Finally, the Ukrainian army has likely doubled in size during war, so as new units are created, artillery is needed to equip them.
Q2: What artillery systems can the United States provide? Is it necessary to provide an older system?
A2: The short answer is, yes―the artillery cupboard is bare, and the United States should turn to other approaches.
Previously, the United States provided M-777s, which are the currently fielded towed howitzer. These mostly came from deactivated Marine Corps cannon units, as the Marine Corps shifted to long-range missile and rocket systems. Some came from squeezing maintenance and training equipment pools. However, the Department of Defense (DOD) has indicated that it cannot provide any more M-777s without taking them from operational units. That entails a level of risk that the DOD is not willing to accept.
In theory, more M-777 howitzers could be produced. However, the M-777 is not currently in production. Although the Army may restart M-777 production, delivery of new systems would take many years.
Instead, the United States has started providing a 105 mm howitzer, the M119, and a tracked 155 mm howitzer, the M109. Both are excellent weapons but with severe limitations. The M119 is effective, especially for light units, but the range, explosive power, and types of projectile available are more limited than for the larger 155 mm caliber. Further, M119 howitzer numbers are limited. Although they are being replaced in some units and therefore becoming excess, the U.S. Army only bought 425 in all.
The M109 has long been the backbone of U.S. armored artillery. However, the U.S. Army is increasing the size of its armored force, so few excess systems are available.
The fact that the latest U.S. aid package contains no artillery, despite the clear need, shows that inventories are exhausted.
The next-best option would be for the United States to provide the M198 155 mm towed howitzer. The M198 could be sent quickly, has capabilities similar to the M-777, is available in relatively large numbers, and, most importantly, its loss would not degrade U.S. forces.
The M198 155 mm howitzer was produced starting in the late 1970s and fielded to both the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps. Production continued through 1992. For three decades, it was the U.S. military’s standard towed howitzer. Beginning in 2006, the U.S. military gradually retired the M198 and replaced it with the M-777 155 mm howitzer.
Q3: Is there a risk in providing Ukraine with older equipment?
A3: This table compares Ukraine’s Soviet-era medium caliber towed artillery, the 2A65 MSTA-B, with the comparable U.S. systems, M-777 and M198.
As can be seen from a comparison of the weapon characteristics, the M-777’s main advantage over the M198 is transportability. It weighs much less than the M198 and is shorter in travel configuration. Transportability is valuable, though current circumstances in Ukraine mitigate that value. For example, since the Ukrainian military does not typically transport its artillery by helicopter or cargo aircraft, the higher weight of the M198 is not a major constraint. Indeed, the weight of the M198 is similar to that of the 2A65 MSTA-B 152 mm, which the Ukrainians already use in large numbers. The static nature of the front means that ground mobility, while still important, is less critical. The bottom line is that the M198 has similar firing capabilities to the M-777 and is better than the mass of Ukrainian artillery. Despite its age, it would strengthen, not weaken, Ukrainian capabilities.
A key advantage of providing the M198 howitzer is that the transfer does not increase risk to U.S. forces. Providing the M198 howitzer would not drawdown U.S. active inventories since the system has been retired and, therefore, would not degrade the capability of the U.S. military. Also, if the M-777 goes back into production, the M198 will not be needed as a U.S. wartime reserve and would only be used for transfers to foreign governments through the U.S. Excess Defense Articles program.
Q4: How many M198 howitzers are still available?
A4: There are no publicly available numbers for M198 howitzers in storage. A rough estimate shows a minimum of 330 and possibly as many as 600. At either level, however, there are enough M198s to equip large part of the Ukrainian forces and curtail the current practice of providing small numbers of unique systems.
The minimum estimate comes from Google Earth satellite imagery from October 2020. This imagery shows approximately 330 M198s stored in the open at the Sierra army Depot in California. More might be stored at other Army or Marine Corps depots.
The higher estimate comes from calculations based on production and disposition. According to Ordnance Magazine (August 1991), 1,672 M198 howitzers were produced as of February 1991 with a final total of about 1,800. Of that amount, 933 units were transferred to foreign governments. As shown in the foreign deliveries table, some of these units were new equipment sales during the M198’s production years while other transfers were done through the Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program after the U.S. phased out the M198.
Factoring in an attrition rate of 20 percent due to combat losses, accidents, and excessive wear over the 40 years of the program leaves 600–700 M198 howitzers still available.
Q5: How soon could M198 howitzers be delivered and what would they cost?
A5: The U.S. Army Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois (the original manufacturer) and its partner company, the Mandus Group, have previously handled the reconditioning of M198 howitzers. This process is unavoidable because systems in storage inevitably degrade over time. Imagine trying to start your car after has been parked in the driveway for 20 years. Reconditioning involves the howitzer being disassembled with all parts then examined, reworked or replaced, and painted. Under normal conditions, reconditioning 100 or more M198 howitzers would take a year or more to complete.
However, the process could be done more quickly by carefully selecting which M198 howitzer to recondition. Focusing on newer guns, guns stored indoors, those with the best service and maintenance records, and those that pass a preliminary borescope assessment would shorten the reconditioning time to a few months.
To speed things up, Rock Island has a new tool under its belt―the world’s largest 3D metal printer. Being able to make replacement parts on location would facilitate the acquisition of parts that are not available or are in short supply.
Since the training of Ukrainian operators and maintainers would take several months, the initial batch of howitzers and crews would be ready at about the same time.
Regarding cost, the best information available is for Thailand’s acquisition of 54 M198 pieces in 2011 to 2012. The total amount was 850 million Thai baht, which equates to approximately $570,000 per unit. So, transferring 100 M198 howitzers would cost about $57 million, excluding the original cost of the systems, which Congress and the White House might fund but are not statutorily required to do.
Q6: Are there obstacles to providing the M198 howitzer?
A6: Providing Ukraine with major weapons has become routine, so sending M198s would not constitute a change. The Ukrainians would need to be trained on the operation and maintenance of the system, but that would not be difficult. The United States has well-established mechanisms for introducing new systems into the Ukrainian military.
The major obstacle is the tight supply of 155 mm artillery ammunition. The DOD has been aware of this issue for at least six months and taken steps to increase production. Nevertheless, the increased production will take months to come online and still will not fully cover the current artillery expenditure rates. Encouraging NATO countries and other close allies to provide stocks would help, and the United States has been pursuing this effort aggressively.
Even if the supply of ammunition is constrained, providing more howitzers is worthwhile. Ukraine will need to replace ongoing artillery losses in a war that now looks to last many months, if not years. Better to get ahead of combat losses than always be playing catchup. Additional howitzers would also allow the creation of equipment pools for maintenance and training, so these activities do not reduce the number of systems available to combat units. Finally, by expanding the number of shooters across the front and covering more sectors, more howitzers means that more high-priority targets could be engaged with the same number of projectiles.
Sustainable Support for Ukraine
There is still a strong bipartisan consensus to provide weapons to Ukraine. However, there are also rising concerns that over time this support will weaken U.S. capabilities by reducing the availability of equipment. Providing an effective but retired weapon like the M198 allows US support to continue without risks to U.S. military capability. That makes support sustainable both militarily and politically. It may be a model for the long-term future of military aid to Ukraine.
Mark F. Cancian is a retired Marine colonel and a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. James Anderson is a researcher on current military topics.