Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February of 2022, the United States has provided the embattled nation with some 126 lightweight M777 Howitzers, along with more than 226,000 rounds of ammunition for these 155mm cannons.
These weapon systems may look an awful lot like artillery found throughout history and all over the world, including the big guns leveraged by Russia’s invading forces. The truth, however, is that the M777, or “Triple 7,” has as much in common with technological marvels like the Mach 3+ SR-71 Blackbird as it does with 93,000-pound behemoths like Russia’s 2S7 Pion self-propelled cannons.
Artillery warfare isn’t just about putting rounds on target. To do it effectively, teams must be able to quickly reposition after firing to avoid being located and engaged by counter-artillery batteries. And as any warfighter will tell you, weight dictates a great deal of mobility.
And that’s why the M777, which weighs in at a tenth of the weight of the 2S7 at just 9,300 pounds, may be the best pound-for-pound artillery system on the planet. To put this gun in 1990’s movie terms, it’s the Noisy Cricket from “Men in Black.”
Ukraine’s King of Battle
Throughout both World Wars, artillery proved so devastating to enemy troops that it earned the moniker, the “King of Battle,” and the past seven months of fighting in Ukraine have proven the high-caliber monarch’s reign is far from over. Russia, long aware that its military would struggle to gain or maintain air superiority against a NATO-level opponent, has built its warfighting doctrine around the concept of overwhelming fire from artillery and heavy armor. In fact, one could argue that Russia even sees its Air Force as little more than airborne artillery.
“Operationally, Russia has historically emphasized mass fire offensive strategies. The concentrated use of artillery and rocket artillery, along with large tank units, remains at the core of Russian military doctrine.”“Russian Armed Forces: Military Doctrine and Strategy” by the Congressional Research Service, August 20, 2020
For its part, Ukraine has done an incredible job of not only staving off the Russian offensive in the face of overwhelming numbers, technology, and firepower, but early reports indicate its ongoing counter-offensive in the nation’s south is making rapid progress. The heroism of Ukrainian troops, volunteers, and foreign fighters can’t be discounted, but their ability to stand and swing with Russian forces has been significantly bolstered by large shipments of weapons and munitions from friendly nations like the United States and its European allies.
Among the earliest and most effective weapons delivered to Ukraine by America’s military were artillery systems like the 155mm M777 Howitzer. Almost immediately after their arrival in Ukraine in May, reports of M777 systems destroying Russian targets began emerging on social media.
The M777 packs a 16,000-pound gun into a 40 percent smaller package
In 1979, the M198 155mm medium-towed howitzer entered service for the United States. At just over 36 feet long and weighing in at approximately 16,000 pounds, the M198 could rain high-explosive hell down on targets from 14 miles out, cycling and firing 95-pound M107 shells with a 9 or 10-person crew.
As effective as the M198 was, however, Army and Marine Corps leadership were concerned about the battlefield mobility of the heavyweight cannon almost immediately. By the 1990s, the U.S. was once again shopping for a new artillery platform — one that could offer the heavy-hitting power of the M198 in a lighter, and more mobile, package.
The answer came in the form of an artillery system that had been in development in the UK since the 1980s, initially under the banner of Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering (later purchased by BAE systems). At 35 feet long, with a 16.7-foot barrel, this new artillery platform was just slightly shorter than the M198 and fired the same 155mm rounds… But thanks to the widespread use of titanium and aluminum alloys in its construction, weighed 40% less than the M198, at just 9,300 pounds.
The new M777 was so light, in fact, that it could be slung beneath helicopters or delivered via all sorts of cargo aircraft. While it would take two C-130s to deliver an M198 artillery system to the battlefield, the entire M777 setup could arrive in just one.
The M777 floats like a butterfly, but stings like 14 pounds of TNT
But the M777’s lightweight construction isn’t just valuable for air transport. In combat, where artillery crews regularly “shoot and scoot” (fire off a number of rounds and then relocate before you can be targetted), the M777’s light weight makes it easier to quickly break down and move. In fact, well-trained crews can break the M777 down for transport in just about three minutes and set it back up again in about the same. While traveling, its light weight means M777s can be towed through muddy roads and across wet fields that would hinder the progress (or completely stop) heavier weapon systems.
The M777 also received improved high explosive shells — the 103-pound M795, which carries 24 pounds of TNT and offers a kill radius of a whopping 70 meters. Each M795 carries the destructive firepower of a Hellfire missile, but delivered at just a fraction of the cost.
Crews can fire five of these massive rounds per minute, reaching targets 19 miles away. Newer (and more expensive) GPS-guided rounds with deployable stabilizing fins known as the M982 Excalibur can reach even further — as far as 25 miles out.
The M777 may have been made out of some of the same materials as the SR-71, but Uncle Sam continued to trick its new howitzer out even after it entered service in 2005. Throughout the 2010s, America’s M777s all received full-bore chrome-plated barrel tubes said to extend their service lifespans by as much as 300%.
In 2017, the efficacy of this upgrade was proven in battle, when a single Marine M777 battery fired more than 35,000 rounds at ISIS targets in Syria over just five months. That’s more than all of the 155mm artillery rounds fired by the entire U.S. military in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But despite this incredible volume of fire, the Marines only burned through two of these new chrome-plated barrels in the process.
Other upgrades include the addition of precision-guided fuse kits in 2016 that reduced the margin for error in targeting high-explosive rounds by a whopping 85%, bringing accuracy from a 200-meter margin to under 30 meters. With a 70-meter blast radius, that jump in accuracy effectively ensures a direct hit when M777 crews have good targeting data.
The M777 in American hands
While Ukraine’s forces have demonstrated how effective this lightweight howitzer can be in modern combat, most of the ones seeing use in Ukraine seem to be leveraging a manual targeting system. These systems require that the crews themselves calculate the distance to the target and then adjust the weapon sights. As retired Marine Corps colonel Chris Tavuchis told Sandboxx News’ own Hope Seck in a feature for Popular Mechanics, this system may be crude, but it’s highly effective. Because the M777’s manual targeting apparatus leverages a larger number of smaller units of measurement (milliradians or “mils”), it offers a higher degree of accuracy than its Russian counterparts.
But in American hands, the M777 turns from a blunt instrument into a 155mm scalpal. American’s M777 crews now use a digital fire-control system operated via a tablet computer that allows them to rapidly identify targets and engage them without having to do any of the math. This not only speeds up the firing process, but also eliminates user error caused by battlefield stress or exhaustion.
For situations that call for even greater accuracy, however, the M777 can rely on target data relayed to it by the Army’s Joint Effects Targeting System, or JETS. These one-person-portable targeting systems are carried into the field by forward observers and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers who identify targets at ranges as far from the user as 2.5 kilometers.
Using target data from the JETS system, the M777 becomes so accurate that Lt. Col. Michael Frank, product manager for Soldier Precision Targeting Devices, referred to it as a “giant sniper rifle.”
It would seem that Ukraine is proving that artillery is still the King of Battle, and in that regard, the M777 has good reason to lay claim to the throne.
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