Ukraine plunders howitzer graveyard to keep big guns firing

A Ukrainian serviceman of the 92nd repairs a self-propelled howitzer, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine. (Photo: Reuters)
A Ukrainian serviceman of the 92nd repairs a self-propelled howitzer, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine. (Photo: Reuters)

Summary

Concerns rise over Kyiv’s ability to maintain weapons that are crucial for the fight against Russia amid uncertainty over future military aid.

At a repair base in Ukraine, mechanics patched together Western artillery guns using parts scavenged from the battered carcasses of some 20 damaged howitzers scattered outside.

The need to create such “Frankenguns" comes after two years of war that have meant many of the weapons donated by the West are now destroyed, damaged or in need of new components. Ukraine is on the defensive after Russian forces recently took the eastern city of Avdiivka.

The U.S. and its allies are increasingly concerned about Ukraine’s ability to sustain its stocks of Western weaponry on the battlefield. Maintaining weapons is crucial for Kyiv’s fight amid uncertainty over future U.S. military aid, and as Russia increases its arms production.

The task isn’t easy. Ukraine operates a variety of different Western weapons systems whose components aren’t always interchangeable, and engineers said they haven’t received a steady flow of parts from the West. Spares from the U.S. are provided via aid packages, meaning if new funding agreements aren’t reached, the flow of American parts could dry up.

In response, Ukraine is making its own spares for Western equipment and cannibalizing other weapons to source vital components. To help, some foreign arms companies plan to start conducting repairs in Ukraine to reduce time-consuming travel.

“I am always worried about spares, but I have to find solutions," said Serhiy, chief engineer at the repair base, the location of which is secret.

“Here weapons come back alive," he said of the field of wrecked M777 artillery guns that the base’s engineers call this howitzer’s graveyard.

On a recent visit, engineers were putting back together an M777 howitzer that had been hit by a Russian exploding drone outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The 35-foot-long gun arrived in boxes.

Parts from eight different M777s, plucked mainly from the damaged guns outside, have been used to refurbish it. Around 20% of the resurrected gun’s parts had been made in Ukraine, including hoses, some gauges and the hydraulics that reduce recoil when artillery fires.

Mechanics have to be careful because the M777s lightweight titanium frame means new additions can influence the positioning of the barrel. New parts are tested with chemicals for brittleness and then given a road test on the battlefield, engineers say. They said they hoped to return the howitzer to its original crew within two weeks of receiving it.

A further 11 howitzers and other weapons, including Soviet-era artillery, were being fixed at the repair base. Some parts that can’t be made locally are running out. Mechanics have only a few barrel temperature gauges left while stocks of supporting gear boxes, which help position the barrel, have run dry. Engineers said they didn’t receive parts from the U.S. for several months in late 2023, though they have started to arrive again since the turn of the year.

The need for spare parts is such that Ukrainian soldiers sometimes pay for them themselves, said Pavlo Narozhny at Reactive Post, a local nonprofit that helps supply equipment. Reactive has worked to source hard-to-find specialist oils, tires and a type of helmet used in a fleet of Italian-donated self-propelled artillery guns, Narozhny said.

When equipment breaks down or is damaged near the front line, mechanics or soldiers in the field initially try to fix it there. If they can’t, then engineers from front-line hubs are sent to make the repair or bring it back to their workshops.

Mechanic Alex Tarasuk dons a bulletproof vest, helmet and assault rifle before heading out. That can be three times a day or once a week. More comprehensive repairs are undertaken further back at bases like the one fixing the M777, or the weapon is taken out of the country.

As the war stretches on, one big problem is the barrels on artillery guns.

“With two years of shooting, they are getting worn out," said Mykhailo Zabara, 57, a mechanic at a repair hub near the front-line city of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine. One Soviet-produced armored car at Zabara’s workshop has had four barrel changes over the course of the war.

Ukraine is firing artillery guns far more than their manufacturers intended. Serhiy, the chief engineer, said that a barrel should typically shoot 2,500 times before being replaced. Ukraine is firing its 5,000 times and more, he said. With such overuse, barrels typically lose their accuracy and range.

Western officials are concerned about weapons maintenance in Ukraine.

“It is one thing to donate, it is another thing to keep things in the fight," said Doug Bush, the U.S. Army’s assistant secretary for acquisitions, logistics and technology. “Making sure that Ukraine has replacement parts to repair, that is going to be a huge focus area as they accumulate more and more American systems."

The U.S. has said it aims to provide three months of spares for equipment sent to Ukraine. The Pentagon, though, doesn’t have a plan for sustaining the Bradley, Stryker and Abrams armored vehicles it has provided to Ukraine, including training for Ukrainian mechanics, according to a report published this month by the Defense Department inspector general.

Maintenance issues mean about half of the German Leopard 2 tanks sent to Ukraine by Berlin are currently out of action, according to Sebastian Schäfer, a German lawmaker.

Schäfer said he was told on a recent visit to a facility that repairs the tanks that some of the vehicles had been off the battlefield for three months. One issue is the time it takes to get a damaged tank from the front line to the repair facility in Lithuania.

To speed up repairs, some European arms makers are looking to move their repair hubs closer to the battlefield. Britain’s BAE Systems, which makes the M777, has said it is in talks to repair its weapons in Ukraine. Germany’s Rheinmetall, which makes parts of the Leopard tank, has also said it plans to start repairing its vehicles in Ukraine.

Another challenge Ukrainian mechanics face is the variety of different Western and Soviet-era weapons in use. There are currently 14 different artillery systems alone in Ukraine’s arsenal.

“It is a problem," said Zabara, at the repair hub outside Avdiivka. Zabara was working on vehicles from four different countries, including the U.S. Occasionally, he tries to take a part from one piece of western equipment and use it in another. “Sometimes I take out a part and it fits, but sometimes they don’t," he said.

This do-it-yourself style of repair may not always be best for the equipment. Ukrainian repairs to German tanks have sometimes made matters worse, said Schäfer, the German lawmaker.

Components for weapons systems are typically designed and produced precisely to a particular weight and size, then tested multiple times by their manufacturers. As such, replacing them with uncertified components could lead to problems on the battlefield.

Some Ukrainian engineers say that is a risk they have to take.

“On the front line, people don’t have time to wait, so I don’t have time to wait for spares," Serhiy said.

Oksana Pyrozhok and Ievgeniia Sivorka contributed to this article.

Write to Alistair MacDonald at Alistair.Macdonald@wsj.com

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