MILITARY BASE IN SOUTHEAST OF POLAND
On the front lines in Ukraine, a soldier was having trouble firing his 155mm howitzer, so he called for help from a team of Americans on the other end of the phone line.
“What do I do?” he asked one of the US Army team members, who was miles (kilometers) away at a base in southeastern Poland. “What are my options?”.
Using phones and tablets to communicate in encrypted chat rooms, a growing group of US troops and contractors are providing real-time maintenance advice — usually through interpreters — to Ukrainians on the battlefield.
In a quick response, the Americans told him to remove the breech, at the rear of the howitzer, and activate the firing pin manually so the gun could fire. He did it and it worked.
This exchange is part of an expanding US military helpline that seeks to offer repair advice to Ukrainian forces in the heat of battle. As Washington and other allies send increasingly complex high-tech weaponry to Ukraine, questions are mounting. And since neither the United States nor the NATO countries will send troops to Ukrainian soil to provide live aid — out of concern that they will be drawn into direct conflict with Russia — they have turned to virtual chat rooms.
The US soldier, other members of his team and senior officials at a base in Poland spoke last week with two reporters who were accompanying General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during his visit to the facility. Due to the sensitivity of the operation, the troops spoke on condition of anonymity in compliance with army regulations. The reporters agreed not to reveal the name or location of the base, and not to take pictures.
Fixing a howitzer is, according to the repair team, a frequent request from Ukrainians at the front. The need for help with weapons has increased. Just a few months ago, the so-called remote maintenance team had just 50 troops. In the coming weeks, it will reach 150, and the number of encrypted conversations has more than tripled, from 11 last fall to 38 now.
Currently, the team numbers around 20 soldiers, plus civilians and contractors, but the number of military personnel could be reduced a bit as more civilians are brought on board. And they hope to continue evolving coinciding with the delivery of new sophisticated weapons to the kyiv troops, which will mean the creation of new chats to handle them.
“A lot of times we get calls from the same line of fire, so there’s gunshots going back and forth as you try to help the maintenance guys fix the problems as best they can,” said a US soldier on the team. Sometimes, he added, you have to wait until the troops can get to a safer place.
One of the main problems, according to one official, is that kyiv’s troops are pushing their weapons to their limits, firing them an unprecedented number of times and using them much longer than usual in his department.
With his tablet in hand, the US soldier showed photos of a howitzer barrel, with the interior markings almost erased.
“They’re using these weapons in ways that we hadn’t necessarily anticipated,” he added, pointing to the screen. “We’re actually learning from them by seeing how much abuse these weapons can take and where the line is.”
But Ukrainian troops are often reluctant to send weapons out of the country for repair. They prefer to do it themselves and in the vast majority of cases — in 99% according to the estimates of US officials — they do and continue to use them.
Many of the chats meet regularly with workers at Ukrainian arsenals. Other times it’s with soldiers on the battlefield over weapons that just broke or cars that stalled.
Sometimes video chats are not possible.
“A lot of times, when they’re out front, they can’t make a video because sometimes (mobile coverage) is a little patchy,” said one American handyman. “They take photos and send them to us through chats. , and we diagnose it.”
There are times when they receive a photo of a broken shell and the Ukrainian says: “This Triple 7 just exploded, what do we do?”
And, in what he said was a remarkable new ability, the Ukrainians can now reassemble a split weapon. “Before they couldn’t weld titanium, but now they can,” said the American, adding that “something that had blown up two days ago now works again.”
Associated Press writer Tara Copp in Washington contributed to this report.
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