In spite of the more publicized exploits of high-tech antitank missiles providing the infantry with unprecedented firepower, towed artillery remained the foundation of Russian power when President Vladimir Putin launched his “special military operation” in Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
While gathering up all the guns at its disposal, Ukraine has appealed to Western powers for artillery capable of matching or better still, outranging and outgunning the Russian guns. Among the most desired is a British-designed, American-produced ground pounder, the M777A2.
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HISTORY OF THE M777 HOWITZER
Ever since the cannon established itself as a viable weapon, military forces have called artillery the “king of battle.” At least as early as Peter the Great’s 1709 victory at Poltava, in what is now Ukraine, big field guns have been the oft-overlooked element in Russian battlefield success, from Balaclava to Kursk.
The ultralight field howitzer was developed in the early 1980s by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering’s armaments division in Barrow-on-Furness, in the United Kingdom. The successful design was subsequently bought by BAE Systems’ Global Combat Systems Division at Hattiesville, Mississippi, and after testing it entered production in the United States, which has accounted for 70% of the new howitzers at an average cost of $39,500 per unit.
Tested at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona in 1999, with 13 out of 14 rounds landing on or within 10 meters of their targets, the latest variant, the M777A2, entered U.S. military service in 2005. They first saw combat in Afghanistan, where in June 2012 gunners of Golf Battery, B Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment in Helmand Province fired an M982 Excalibur round to score a direct hit at 22 miles — the longest tube artillery shot in Marine history.
During the Battle of Baghuz Fawqani, which ended in the final defeat of the Islamic State in Syria, American M777s at Firebase Saham supported the Syrian Democratic Forces in February and March 2019, even under weather conditions that hindered reconnaissance aircraft from assisting them.
The U.S. Army currently has 518 M777B2 systems, while the Marines have 481. Among the many foreign M777 users, India has 89, with another 120 under licensed construction by Mahindra Defence, to support Indian forces in the intermittent clashes with Chinese forces along their mountainous border region.
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M777 HOWITZER SPECS
With a length of 35 feet but a weight of 9,300 pounds, the M777 is 41% lighter than the M198 it is replacing in U.S. Army and Marine service, largely thanks to the higher amount of titanium and aluminum alloy it uses. That allows it to be transported by C-130 aircraft, MV-22B Osprey rotor craft or helicopters, as well as towed by FMTV and MTVR tractors. So many transport options, combined with its being easier to conceal in fixed positions, give it an advantage over its stablemate, the M109A6 Paladin self-propelled 155 mm howitzer, in combat environments where friendly forces lack air superiority.
Normally operated by eight gunners, the M777 can be handled by as few as five, with its rate of fire varying from a sustained two to as fast as seven 155 mm rounds per minute.
Although the M777 originally used a simple optical sighting system, the M777A1 incorporates a digital fire control system that assures outstanding accuracy at ranges as great at 19 miles for its shells and as far as 25 miles for special ammunition developed for the latest upgrade on the gun, the M777A2 — the XM1113 rocket-assisted extreme range round and the M982 Excalibur global positioning system-assisted round.
THE M777 Howitzer IN UKRAINE
On April 14, 2022, the United States announced that it would donate 18 M777A2s and 40,000 shells to Ukraine. Since then, the U.S. has raised that total to 90 of the Marines’ M777A2 systems and 200,000 rounds of ammunition, including M982 Excalibur precision-guided munitions. In addition, Australia sent six of its 54 guns in late April, and on April 22, Canada sent four from its arsenal of 37 M777s. On May 9, Ukrainian journalist Yurii Butusov released a video purporting to show M777s in action in eastern Ukraine, where the Russians had shifted their principal effort.
Pleased with the initial performance of a howitzer whose qualities promise to offset the greater numbers of its Russian counterparts, the Ukrainians have asked friendly nations for more.
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