On the front lines in Ukraine, a soldier was having trouble firing his 155mm howitzer, so he asked a team of Americans on the other end of the phone line for help.
“What shall I do?” he asked a member of a US military team, which was at a base in south-eastern Poland, miles away. “What are my options?”.
Using phones and tablets to communicate in encrypted chat rooms, a growing group of US troops and contractors is 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 in the rear of the howitzer and manually activate the firing pin so that the gun could fire. Did this and it worked.
The exchange is part of an expanded US military helpline that seeks to provide repair advice to Ukrainian forces in the heat of battle. As Washington and other allies send increasingly complex high-tech weapons to Ukraine, questions are mounting. And since neither the United States nor NATO countries will send troops to Ukrainian soil to provide survival aid—out of concern that they will come into direct conflict with Russia—they have turned to virtual chat rooms.
The US soldier, other members of his team and senior officers at a base in Poland spoke with two reporters last week, who were accompanied by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a tour of the facility. Due to the sensitivity of the operation, the soldiers spoke on condition of anonymity in compliance with Army regulations. The journalists agreed not to reveal the name or location of the base and not to take photographs.
Repairing a howitzer, according to repair crews, is a frequent request from Ukrainians at the front. The need for the help of arms has increased. A few months ago, the so-called remote maintenance team had only 50 soldiers. In the coming weeks, that will jump to 150, and the number of encrypted conversations has more than tripled, from 11 last fall to 38 now.
Currently, the team consists of about 20 soldiers, civilians and contractors, but the number of military personnel may be reduced slightly as more civilians are brought on board. And they expect to continue development, along with the delivery of new sophisticated weapons to Kyiv troops, which will mean building new chats to handle them.
A US soldier on the team said, “Many times we get calls from the same line of fire, so bullets go back and forth while you try to help the maintainers fix problems.” Sometimes, he said, you have to wait until the soldiers get to a safe place.
One of the main problems, according to one official, is that troops in Kyiv are pushing their weapons to their limits, firing them in unprecedented numbers and using them in their apartments for longer than usual.
With his tablet in hand, the American soldier showed pictures of howitzer barrels with internal markings nearly erased.
“They are using these weapons in a way that we didn’t expect,” he said, pointing to the screen. “We’re really learning from them how much abuse these weapons can take and where the line is.”
But Ukrainian soldiers often shy away from sending weapons out of the country for repairs. They prefer to do it themselves and in the vast majority of cases – by an estimate of 99% of US officers – they do and continue to use them.
Many chats meet regularly with workers at Ukrainian arsenals. Other times it is on the battlefield with soldiers up in arms who have just broken down or cars are stopped.
Sometimes video chat is not possible.
“A lot of times when they’re out there, they can’t make video because sometimes (mobile coverage) is a little spotty,” said one US handyman. “They take pictures and send them to us via chat, and we diagnose it.”
Sometimes they get a picture 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 capability, the Ukrainians could now rejoin a split weapon. “Before they couldn’t weld titanium, but now they can,” said the American, “something that blew up two days ago now works again.”
Associated Press writer Tara Copp in Washington contributed to this report.