WASHINGTON — The first M777 howitzers arrived in Ukraine less than two months after Russia invaded Ukraine.
The howitzer, which can hit targets as far away as 40 kilometers, was quickly embraced by Ukrainian soldiers, who praised it on social media for destroying enemy targets with precision and at critical ranges.
But the M777 also required maintenance and repair, which Ukrainian troops were unsure how to do. From a parking lot in Poland, the U.S. Army started answering the call for help.
The service began offering remote maintenance support, in which Army maintainers demonstrate to Ukrainian maintainers, through a virtual connection, how to take care of the weapon system.
While this remote capability isn’t new, the burgeoning connection between international coalition forces and Ukraine is growing by the day and providing a road map for future battlefield plans, according to Lt. Gen. Christopher Mohan, the deputy chief of Army Materiel Command.
The Army is using this experience to inform its thinking about “distributed sustainment operations on a highly lethal battlefield,” Mohan, who previously led Army theater sustainment in Europe, told Defense News.
“The lessons we are learning in [the European theater] are applicable across every [combatant command],” he said. “We are doing it right now, but with an eye on the future as well.”
Making a connection
When the Army first started transporting equipment to Europe for Ukraine, the service tasked a young warrant officer and a small team of soldiers from one of its Army Materiel Command brigades on the continent to perform final maintenance before handing it over, Mohan said.
The warrant officer developed contacts with the Ukrainians, who had plenty of questions after they started using the platforms.
The American team began using a commercial application to virtually meet with the maintainers in Ukraine and demonstrate how to make repairs, Mohan said. However, he would not identify the specific technology.
When Mohan heard about the effort, he went to check it out. “We went down there and we said: ‘Man, this is the future. We need to reinforce that success.’ ”
The Army increased its communication capability, pulled together a larger network of logistics assistance representatives and warrant officers, and began to build sustainment packages for repair parts to deliver to Ukraine.
“The Ukrainian maintainers are ... very, very resourceful,” Mohan said, “and they are very good at keeping the weapons systems that we provide them in the fight.”
The key, he said, is providing them the necessary repair parts and a way to ask questions. Indeed, the Army started using interpreters to be able to talk to Ukrainian maintainers as well as soldiers on the battlefield.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, and Kyiv has received support in the form of weapons systems and training from international allies.
On a trip to Europe last year, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth observed the remote maintenance capability. She told Defense News last fall that the effort helps keep weapons on the battlefield that might otherwise be unusable.
“These are systems that probably, we in the Army, would declare inoperable. But necessity is the mother of invention,” she said. “So we’re working to do some new things to put them back on the battlefield.”
Over the course of nearly a year, the capability “has exploded,” Mohan said. The Army built a standalone facility in a secure area and a repair parts warehouse, he noted.
Now, Ukrainian soldiers can communicate with staff at the Army’s U.S-based depots, giving maintainers access to expert engineers and original equipment manufacturers. They are all involved daily to help quickly repair battle-damaged systems and return them to the field, according to Mohan.
Experts stateside and in European depots and installations are communicating with Ukrainian maintainers via text message chats, prerecorded video or live stream to work through issues or guide a repair, Mohan added.
Just last week, Mohan said on Jan. 23, he attended a remote repair session. “It was powerful. We have assisted in returning or keeping a significant amount of combat power on the battlefield in support of our allies.”
But the process has become more complex as the Army expands its remote maintenance capability to support higher-end platforms headed to Ukraine, including the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle and the Patriot air defense system.
Remote maintenance in and of itself creates a range of challenges, including ensuring communication is secure. Personnel must also keep up with demand in the midst of a war.
Army Materiel Command has “moved mountains and [is] making, frankly, miracles happen,” Doug Bush, the service’s acquisition chief, said in a press briefing this month.
“I’m encouraged by what we’ve done so far. As we send more additional advanced equipment like Strykers and Bradleys, like tanks,” he said. “that sustainment activity will have to increase in complexity, and plans to do that are underway.”
Taking a page from Ukraine
The Army is now feeding lessons learned through the remote maintenance capability established in Europe into an Army Materiel Command study as well as a plan sought by the Army secretary for how the service would support combat forces in a highly contested environment, Mohan said.
The Army’s Multi-Domain Operations doctrine, released last fall, has a special section on how the service will manage logistics and sustainment in an environment contested all the way to the tactical edge.
The service is considering emerging technology that would contribute to sustainment in this kind of environment, including additive manufacturing at the tactical edge to manufacture parts near the battlefield, and autonomous resupply, demonstrated during the Army’s Project Convergence experimentation event in the fall of 2022, Mohan added.
“If we don’t use [the war in Ukraine] as a window into what future warfare looks like on a very lethal and highly distributed battlefield, we’re foolish,” Mohan said.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.