On the Front Lines with a Ukrainian Artillery Unit

Men from the Black Birds unit of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces fire their M777 Howitzer
Men from the Black Birds unit of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces fire their M777 Howitzer near Bakhmut, Ukraine. (Military.com/Narciso Contreras)

CHASIV YAR, Ukraine -- The soldiers firing 50 to 60 rounds a day from a howitzer cannon in Ukraine gave up on wearing earplugs long ago: Protection doesn't mean much when you've already lost much of your hearing. The acrid fumes are just another commonplace occurrence, as is the smoke that socks in their position on the outskirts of Bakhmut, masking them from Russian forces trying to identify the source of the projectiles.

"Better for cover," Andrii, the artillery unit's commander with silver-tipped hair and a sharp black goatee, half joked as he looked up to the sky, ever vigilant for enemy drones.

The unit of nine, code named the Black Birds, carefully tends to its M777, artillery that was delivered by Ukraine's benefactors after a lengthy negotiation process. There are only a few hundred in the country, and each cannon is considered a high-value target by the Russians.

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When Ukraine received its first shipment of the deadly weapon last April, it was a godsend for Ukrainian forces. Highly accurate and lightweight, howitzers are beloved by American and British forces alike who relied heavily on the cannon during the war in Afghanistan. While the exact number of howitzers in Ukraine is not publicly available, the U.S. has donated the largest number to Ukraine -- 142, officially -- followed in much smaller quantities by the U.K., Canada and Australia, according to officials.

Andrii, a 44-year-old lighting engineer who joined Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces after the Russian invasion began in February 2022 whose full name is being withheld due to security concerns, stays glued to his radio as targets are called in. The group of men shares a familiarity forged from day after day of fighting and, like troops everywhere, the biggest point of contention stems from food.

Who can make the best borscht -- the ruby red soup made of beets and carrots that is a staple in every Ukrainian kitchen -- serves as a constant source of debate. Their unit is part of Ukraine's militia reserve forces that have been mobilized and incorporated into the broader armed forces after the Russian attack.

When the call comes in to send ammunition down range, there's a rapid scramble to the howitzer embedded a couple of feet into the ground and hidden by trees and camouflage netting.

They have to move fast, as the coordinates they receive often point to moving targets and will no longer be accurate in a matter of moments. Andrii writes the coordinates in a small notebook he keeps with him at all times, reading them out to another soldier, who then manually turns the dials of an analog GPS that adjusts the height of the cannon's 17-foot-long barrel in preparation. They wait to get the go-ahead from the unit on the other side of the radio, then hurriedly load a 95-pound shell into the howitzer before stepping back and turning away, crouching to protect themselves from the blast wave, opening their mouths ever so slightly to prevent their ear drums from exploding due to the intensity of the shot.

Ukrainian soldiers stack artillery shells.
Ukrainian soldiers stack artillery shells. They have a combination of decades old munitions and much more recently produced shells, though global manufacturing is struggling to keep up with the pace of fighting. (Military.com/Narciso Contreras)

On busy days, this unit can fire up to 100 shells, with only brief moments to rest before the radio crackles again, a small fraction of the 4,000 to 7,000 rounds per day U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres recently estimated that Ukraine fires. But that's only a drop in the bucket compared to his estimate of 20,000 for Russia.

The howitzer is capable of firing several different types of shells, lobbing them up to 25 miles away. This team works almost exclusively with 155mm shells that have been donated from countries across the world -- like the U.S., U.K. and Bolivia. Much of the ammunition comes from the stockpiles of nearby former Soviet states, stamped with dates of manufacture from 50-plus years ago.

While this Cold War-era ammunition still works, newer shells are preferred because they are much more reliable, Andrii said. The gunpowder of older shells can fail to ignite properly, he said, causing either a malfunction that completely prevents firing or a loss of accuracy in targeting. But malfunctions like this happen rarely, the unit commander said.

When a shell does not explode, the team must wait a few minutes before replacing it with another, in case the ordnance catches fire and explodes inside the cannon. Luckily, Andrii said, this has never happened to his group.

Soviet-era shells are also more likely to have faulty fuses -- the small metal trigger that sparks the gunpowder, yielding the explosion that launches the shell -- requiring replacement before firing, the commander added. Although changing out a fuse takes less than a minute, any time wasted can cause them to miss their target and waste their ammunition. And the unreliability adds risk to battle plans.

All of the guys are from the same region in western Ukraine and joined up shortly after the full-scale invasion began in early 2022. They have worked together since then, helping to liberate the occupied villages around the eastern capital of Kharkiv and were some of the first troops to enter the town of Izium last autumn, finding its mass graves and torture chambers that are now the subject of war crimes investigations.

At night, the soldiers' faces are illuminated by only the blue light of their cell phone screens as they call their loved ones or stream videos of harrowing moments from the battlefield. But that respite does not last long. Their Starlink internet connection is cut when the generator is shut off about an hour after sunset to preserve energy and avoid detection of their lights from above.

Stationed near Chasiv Yar, along the only open corridor to the besieged city of Bakhmut and its surrounding villages, new civilian evacuees trickle through the area every day but typically only stay long enough to organize transport west, away from the fighting.

Ukrainian soldiers check their phones during a lull in the fighting.
Ukrainian soldiers check their phones during a lull in the fighting. They have to be careful to limit the use of communications devices because they might give away their position to Russian troops. (Military.com/Narciso Contreras)

The sounds of incoming artillery mix with the blasts of outgoing shells day and night, peppered with machine gun and tank fire exchanges in the distance. Local residents don't venture out onto the streets often, and with good reason: Most civilians at nearby hospitals were injured by shrapnel or blast trauma while walking or driving on the empty streets. Soldiers no longer travel here by foot or without armored vehicles, and they never stay in one location very long.

The nine men have been based here for several weeks, with the shelling nearly constant. It's spring time, which means it's also mud season. Colloquially referred to as bezdorizhzhya in Ukrainian or rasputitsa in Russian, this slushy time of year is responsible for slowing down offensive actions from both combatants and making sure that soldiers like the Black Birds are in a constant struggle to stay clean and dry.

The battle is eating through much of the world's stock of artillery shells. The daily usage is equivalent to the entire annual production capability for 155mm shells for many of the small European governments helping Ukraine. Even larger countries, like the U.S., previously produced 13,000 155mm shells per month until last year, when production jumped to 20,000 per month -- a figure that still falls short of what the Ukrainian armed forces says it needs.

At a meeting of NATO defense ministers in March, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the waiting time for large-caliber ammunition like that needed by the howitzer "has increased from 12 to 28 months."

Artillery units like the Black Birds never get close enough to the enemy to gauge whether their shots hit their targets or witness the death and destruction caused by their weapon. When asked if they knew how many enemy combatants they were responsible for taking out of action, they could share only an estimate of the number of their strikes that they were told were successful: several hundred.

Despite the concerns over future munitions shortages, the deadly cannon is still a symbol of the international community's aid to Ukraine for many soldiers and civilians alike. "Anti-tank missiles slowed the Russians down, but what killed them was our artillery," a spokesman for Gen. Valery Zaluzhnyi, commander of Ukrainian forces, told the Economist last year, referring to the M777 and other weapons in its class. New T-shirts and restaurant menus in Kyiv feature howitzers, HIMARS and Javelins, alongside words of thanks to their American and international partners.

The importance of these weapons will likely be put to the test when Ukraine's much anticipated spring counteroffensive campaign kicks off. Since the beginning of 2023, tens of thousands of soldiers have been returning to the country from training abroad on advanced weapons systems and field tactics, while several deliveries of long-promised weapons and ammunition from foreign allies should be in position for battle. More soldiers will be able to operate weapons like the M777, and more deliveries of similar artillery systems are expected.

For now, while they await the looming counteroffensive and any new orders that may arrive at their shadowy base in the desolate town of Chasiv Yar, the members of the Black Birds feel hopeful about their odds of winning the war. Although days run together and they often need to remind each other exactly how long they've been stationed there, they frequently talk about being back home with their families by the end of the year, in the near future. They all know the names of each other's family members by now.

But chat about home lasts only as long as the pauses in-between radio calls for more strikes. "I just hope it will all be over soon," said Andrii, his eyes alternating between his cot in the corner and his radio resting on the table nearby.

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