A 2S7 howitzer.
Russian defense ministry photo
More than three weeks into the wider war in Ukraine, the biggest guns on both sides of the conflict apparently are still blasting away. 2S7 howitzers belonging to Russia and Ukraine have been active in eastern Ukraine, lobbing their 203-millimeter-diameter shells at enemy troops—and, in Russia’s case, Ukrainian civilians.
The huge, unwieldy 2S7 has advantages and disadvantages over smaller-caliber guns. The howitzer’s 225-pound shell can travel 30 miles, allowing the 2S7 to out-range other artillery types and thus complicate the enemy’s effort to organize a fast “counterbattery” attack, whereby artillery shoots at artillery in order to suppress a barrage.
But the 2S7 is big, slow and hungry. Maintaining and supplying a 2S7 battery is no easy feat, especially for an army on the move.
For all their liabilities, the 2S7s appear to be faring well in the current war. Analysts have confirmed the destruction of 76 Russian artillery pieces in the fighting in Ukraine. The same analysts confirmed Kyiv’s army has written off 31 of its own cannons. Neither army has lost a 2S7—or at least no outsider has confirmed a loss of one of the giant cannons.
The 2S7’s unique characteristics help to explain where the Ukrainians and Russians have staged the guns.
Videos and other evidence seem to confirm the Ukrainian army is using some of the 2S7s it inherited from the Soviet Union to pummel Russian and separatists troops struggling to advance west from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
Analysts geolocated one recently posted video of Ukrainian 2S7s to an area near Donetsk. Russian and allied troops have advanced toward that position, strongly implying one of two things. Either the video was shot in the early days of the war in late February, or Ukrainian commanders are confident enough in the stability of the front line west of Donetsk that they’re willing to deploy 2S7s nearby.
The Russian army, meanwhile, appears to have positioned some of its own 2S7s near the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, just 25 miles from Russia’s Belgorod Oblast. Russian troops for weeks have besieged Kharkiv but so far have failed to break the city’s defenders.
Clearly incapable of capturing Kharkiv and other major cities amid evidence it’s suffered more than 10,000 killed in the first three weeks of fighting, the Russian army now is settling in for a sustained punitive bombardment of those same cities. In Kharkiv, the 2S7 probably is killing more civilians than combatants.
That might not be atypical of the type. The tracked, open-hull 2S7 and its accompanying support vehicle entered service with the Soviet army in 1976. The howitzer saw combat in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the Chechen wars in the ‘90s. Two wars where civilians did most of the dying.
The Russians eventually put a lot of their roughly 300 2S7s in storage. The Ukrainians did the same with the 100 or so 2S7s they inherited from the Soviet Union. While a 203-millimeter gun packs a wallop, it’s also heavy, slow-to-fire, hard to support and painfully loud for the 14-person crew.
It’s not for no reason that the U.S. Army in the 1990s fully retired its own 203-millimeter howitzers.
The fighting in Donbas starting in 2014 compelled the Ukrainian army to reactivate a lot of older equipment. The army pulled at least 13 2S7s out of storage and sent them to the Shepetivka Repair Plant in Rivne for overhaul. It’s a safe bet more 2S7s later joined the initial consignment in front-line service.
The Russians for their part have upgraded at least 60 2S7s with new digital electronics, helping to integrate the old guns into the army’s sophisticated fire-control system. That system combines drones and ground-based radars and electronic eavesdroppers to spot targets and sturdy radio links to relay coordinates to the guns.
That in theory enables Russia’s artillery to fire faster at new targets than Ukraine’s own guns can do. In brutal fighting over the town of Debaltseve in early 2015, Russian 2S7s hammered Ukrainian troops. “Ukrainians claimed that for every salvo they fired, they received 10 to 15 salvos in return,” Small Wars Journal noted.
Russia’s fire-control system doesn’t appear to have fully deployed in Ukraine, however. Kyiv’s troops undoubtedly have destroyed many of the specialist vehicles and sensors that support the system.
More broadly, the Russian campaign has been disorganized, poorly led and badly supplied. You can’t expect an army to maintain an elaborate sensor-shooter network when it can’t even keep trucks running or reliably feed front-line troops.
The Ukrainians meanwhile have duplicated parts of the Russian fire-control apparatus, equipping artillery units with an array of inexpensive drones whose operators can relay coordinates to the gun batteries. Where drones are absent, gunners sometimes get tips from everyday Ukrainians on the ground, phoning in sightings of passing Russian forces.
All that is to say, the Ukrainian 2S7s probably are contributing more to the defense of Ukraine than their age and lack of major upgrades seem to imply. The Russian 2S7s at the same time apparently are more useful as siege weapons than they are as fire-support for front-line battalions.
It’s worth noting, with extensive caveats, that Ukraine’s 2S7s in recent days may have played a role in a humanitarian tragedy. On March 20, a Russian rocket struck a mall in Kyiv, destroying the building and reportedly killing at least eight people.
The Russian defense ministry, an organization hardly known for its truthfulness, claimed the Ukrainian army was using the mall to store munitions. As “evidence,” pro-Russian social-media users circulated a photo—allegedly taken in the mall’s wreckage—of a 203-millimeter shell reportedly for 2S7s.
Be skeptical of that claim. It should come as no surprise that the Ukrainian army is dispersing its weapons and supplies in and around the communities it’s fighting to protect. All the same, the Kremlin has every reason falsely to portray Ukraine’s defenders as somehow recklessly endangering civilians.
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