KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — Since Russia invaded, NATO nations have upgraded Ukraine’s arsenal with increasingly sophisticated tools, with more promise, such as the advanced multiple launch rocket systems promised by the United States and Britain.
But training Soldiers on how to use the equipment has become a major and growing obstacle, one that Junior Sgt. Dmytro Pysanka and his crew, operating an old anti-tank gun camouflaged in nets and green brush in southern Ukraine.
Looking through the scope attached to the gun, Sergeant Pysanka is greeted with a kaleidoscope of numbers and lines that, if read correctly, should provide him with the calculations needed to fire on Russian forces. However, mistakes are common in the chaos of battle.
More than a month ago, the commanders of his front-line artillery unit secured a much more advanced tool: a high-tech laser rangefinder supplied by the West to help with target selection.
But there is a problem: nobody knows how to use it.
“It’s like getting an iPhone 13 and only being able to make phone calls,” said Sergeant Pysanka, clearly exasperated.
The rangefinder, called JIM LR, It’s like a pair of high-tech binoculars. and likely part of the US-supplied tranche of equipment, Sgt. Pysanka said.
It may seem like a perfect option to help make better use of the anti-tank gun, built in 1985. It can see targets at night and transmit their distance, compass heading, and GPS coordinates. Some soldiers learned enough to operate the tool, but then rotated elsewhere in recent days, leaving the unit with an expensive paperweight.
“I have been trying to learn how to use it by reading the English manual and using Google Translate to understand it,” Sgt. Pysanka said.
On Monday, Britain promised to send Ukraine mobile multiple rocket launchersimproving the range and accuracy of Ukrainian artillery, days after President Biden pledged to send similar weapons.
Ukraine’s most advanced new weapons are concentrated in the eastern Donbas region, where the fiercest fighting is taking place as President Vladimir V. Putin’s forces, approaching from the east, north and south, try to crush a part of the territory controlled by Ukraine. On the eastern edge of that pocket, the two sides have waged a back-and-forth battle over the devastated and mostly abandoned city of Sievierodonetsk.
Over the weekend, Ukrainian troops regained some ground in the city, according to Western analysts and Ukrainian officials. But on Monday, Ukrainians were forced back again as the Russian military stepped up its already heavy artillery attack, according to Serhiy Haidai, Ukraine’s administrator for the region.
A day after a risky visit to troops in Lysychansk, near Sievierodonetsk, President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday gave journalists a blunt assessment of the challenge: “There are more of them. They are more powerful. But we have every chance to fight in this direction.”
Ukraine’s leaders frequently call for high-end Western weapons and equipment, pinning their hopes of victory on requests for new anti-tank guided missiles, howitzers and satellite-guided rockets.
But in addition to the need for tools of war, the Ukrainian troops need to know how to use them. Without proper training, the same dilemma faced by Sergeant Pysanka’s unit and his lone rangefinder will generalize on a much larger scale. Analysts say that could echo the failed US approach of supplying the Afghan military with equipment that could not be sustained without massive logistical support.
“Ukrainians are eager to use Western equipment, but it requires training to maintain it,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “Some things are not easy to rush.”
The United States and other NATO countries provided extensive training to the Ukrainian military in the years leading up to the war, though not in some of the advanced weapons they now ship. From 2015 to the beginning of this year, US military officials say, US instructors trained more than 27,000 Ukrainian soldiers at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center near Lviv. There were more than 150 US military advisers in Ukraine when Russia invaded in February, but they have been withdrawn.
Since the start of the war, the United States has pledged an estimated $54 billion in aid to Ukraine and has supplied a host of weapons and equipment, most recently several HIMARS advanced mobile rocket launchers, a move that was swiftly condemned by the Kremlin.
But to avoid a more direct confrontation with Russia, the Biden administration has so far refused to send military advisers back to Ukraine to help train Ukrainian forces in the use of new weapons systems, and instead has relied on in training programs outside the country.
This has put enormous pressure on Ukrainian soldiers like Sgt. Andriy Mykyta, a member of the country’s border guard who, before the war, received brief training from NATO advisers on Britain’s advanced anti-tank weapons, known as NLAWs.
Now he runs around the frontline positions trying to educate his comrades on how to use them. In many cases, she said, Ukrainian soldiers learned to use some weapons, including NLAWs, on their own, using online videos and practicing.
“But there are types of weapons that cannot be learned by intuition: surface-to-air missiles, artillery and some equipment,” Sgt. Mykyta said in a telephone interview. “So we need formal courses,” he added.
Ukraine’s needs are palpable in the region where Sergeant Pysanka’s unit is entrenched, just northeast of the Russian-occupied city of Kherson. The area was the site of a brief Ukrainian offensive last week that slowed as soon as the retreating Russians destroyed a key bridge; The Ukrainians’ lack of longer-range artillery meant they were unable to attempt to cross a difficult river in pursuit, Ukrainian military officials said.
For Sergeant Pysanka’s weapons team, the only available instructor for the laser rangefinder is a soldier who fell behind from the last unit and took the time to translate most of the 104-page instruction manual. But it’s still trial and error as they figure out which button combination does what, as they search for ad hoc solutions to solve the lack of a tripod mount and video monitor (both are announced in the instruction manual).
“If you work long distances while holding it in your hand, you can sometimes transmit inaccurate figures,” said Sgt. Pysanka. “It’s safer,” he added, “to work when the team is stationed on the tripod facing the enemy and the operator is working with the monitor covered.”
The JIM LR, made by the French company Safran, looks like a cross between a virtual reality headset and traditional binoculars, and can be used in conjunction with a map application on a tablet computer that Ukrainian troops use to help call in attacks. of artillery.
Weighing around six pounds, it is much smaller than the US-supplied four-and-a-half-ton 155mm M777 howitzer that recently reached the front lines in eastern Ukraine. But both teams have complexities reminiscent of the complications that arise when supplying foreign material to an army.
The M777 is highly mobile and capable of long-range fire, but training has been a bottleneck in howitzer deployment, Ukrainian officials say. In week-long courses in Germany, the United States trained soldiers to fire the weapon and others to maintain it.
But an oversight almost delayed all weapons maintenance on hard-to-reach front lines, Ukrainian officials said. The entire M777 machine is assembled in the imperial system used in the United States, which means that using a Ukrainian metric wrench on it would be difficult and risk damaging the equipment.
Only after shipping the weapons did the United States arrange for an urgent shipment of tool boxes containing imperial-caliber wrenches, said Maj. Vadim Baranik, deputy commander of a maintenance unit.
But tools can be misplaced, lost, or destroyed, which could render weapons unusable unless someone searches for a US-supplied wrench.
And the JIM LR, capable of displaying extremely accurate target data, provides the information, known as grid coordinates, in a widely used NATO format that Sergeant Pysanka has to convert to the Soviet-era coordinate system used on maps of the Ukrainians. Such minor speed bumps and chances for error add up, especially when under the stress of a Russian artillery barrage.
For now, Sergeant Pysanka is concentrating on learning the rangefinder. In their small portion of the war, Western-supplied weapons and equipment are limited to a small number of anti-tank rockets and first-aid kits.
“We can’t boast about the same kind of resources that are in the east,” said Maj. Roman Kovalyov, deputy commander of the unit that oversees Sgt. Pysanka’s gun position. “What Ukraine gets, we can only see on television. But we believe that sooner or later it will appear here.”
The report was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer from Kramatorsk, Ukraine, and Eric Schmitt of the state of Washington.