A MILITARY BASE IN SOUTHEAST POLAND — On the front lines in Ukraine, a soldier was having trouble firing his 155mm howitzer. So he turned to a team of Americans on the other end of his phone line for help.
“What should I do?” he asked the member of the US military team, away at a base in southeastern Poland. “What are my options?”
Using phones and tablets to communicate in encrypted chat rooms, a rapidly growing group of U.S. and allied troops and contractors is providing real-time maintenance advice, usually speaking through interpreters, to Ukrainian troops on the battlefield.
In a quick response, the American team member told the Ukrainian to remove the gun’s breech at the rear of the howitzer and manually prime the firing pin so the gun could fire. He did it and it worked.
The exchange is part of an expanding US military helpline aimed at providing repair advice to Ukrainian forces in the heat of battle. As the US and other allies send increasingly complex and high-tech weapons to Ukraine, demand is skyrocketing. And since no US or other NATO nations will be sending troops into the country to provide practical assistance, due to concerns of being drawn into direct conflict with Russia, they have turned to virtual chat rooms.
The US soldier and other team members and leaders stationed at a base in Poland last week spoke to two reporters who were traveling with Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he visited the facility. Due to the sensitivity of the operation, the troops spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with guidelines established by the US military. The reporters also agreed not to reveal the name or location of the base or take any photographs.
Repairing a howitzer, the repair team said, has been a frequent request for Ukrainian troops on the front lines. The need for help with weapons has been on the rise. Just a few months ago, there were just over 50 members of what they call the remote maintenance team. That will increase to 150 in the coming weeks, and the number of encrypted chat lines has more than tripled, from about 11 last fall to 38 now.
The team now includes around 20 soldiers, supplemented by civilians and contractors, but the military number may dwindle somewhat as more civilians are added. And they expect it to continue to evolve as new sophisticated weapons are delivered to Ukrainians and new chat rooms are established to wield them.
“A lot of times we get calls from right there in the line of fire, so there’s going to be shooting going out or going in as you try to help forward maintainers fix the problems the best they can,” said a US Soldier who is part of the maintenance team. Sometimes, he said, the chat has to wait a bit until the troops can get to a safer place.
A key problem, one official said, is that Ukrainian troops are pushing weapons to their limits, firing them at unprecedented rates and using them long after a US service member turns them in for repair or retirement.
Holding his tablet, the American soldier displayed photos of a howitzer barrel, its inner edges almost completely worn away.
“They are using these systems in ways that we don’t necessarily anticipate,” the officer said, pointing to the tablet. “We’re actually learning from them by seeing how much abuse these weapon systems can take and where the breaking point is.”
Ukrainian troops are often reluctant to send weapons out of the country for repair. They prefer to do it themselves, and in almost all cases (US officials estimated 99% of the time) the Ukrainians do the repair and move on.
Many of the chats are regularly scheduled with warehouse workers in Ukraine, like the one they call “the guy with the coffee cup” because his chat has a coffee cup emoji on it. Other times they involve troops on the battlefield whose weapon has just exploded or whose vehicle has stopped.
Sometimes video chats are not possible.
“A lot of times, if they’re on the front lines, they don’t make a video because sometimes (cell service) is a little spotty,” said a US maintainer. we sat there and diagnosed it.”
He said there were times when they would get a picture of a broken shell and the Ukrainian would say, “This Triple 7 just blew up, what do we do?”
And, in what he said was a notable new ability, the Ukrainians can now reassemble the split weapon. “Before they couldn’t weld titanium, now they can,” the US soldier said, adding that “something that exploded two days ago is now back in play.”
Giving advice through chats means American experts have to diagnose the problem when something goes wrong, figure out how to fix it, and then translate the steps into Ukrainian.
As they look to the future, they plan to get some commercial translation glasses ready to go. That way, when they talk to each other, they can bypass the interpreters and only see the translation as they speak, making conversations easier and faster.
They also hope to develop their diagnostic capabilities as weapon systems become more complex and expand the types and number of spare parts they have on hand. For example, they said the Patriot missile system the United States is sending to Ukraine will be challenging and will require more expertise in diagnosing and repairing problems.
The range of weapons and equipment they are wielding and the questions they are answering were even too complicated for a digital spreadsheet, forcing the team to use little technology. One wall of their maintenance office is lined with a series of color-coded, outdated post-it notes, to help them keep track of weapons and maintenance needs.
The team in Poland is part of an ever-expanding logistics network that spans the whole of Europe. As more nations field their own versions of weapon systems, they are forming teams to provide repair support in a variety of locations.
Nations and manufacturing companies quickly produced manuals and technical data that can be translated and sent to Ukrainians. They then build up stocks of spare parts and bring them to locations near Ukraine’s borders, where they can be shipped to the battlefield.
Just days before Milley visited the base, the Ukrainians traveled to the facility in Poland in search of parts. The visit gave US soldiers a chance to meet someone from their chat rooms face-to-face and exchange military patches.
“In the next video chat we had, he was wearing our patches in his video,” the US soldier said.
The center of the growing logistics effort is at Lucius D. Clay Kaserne, the US Army base in Wiesbaden, Germany.
There, in cubicles that fill a vast room, the international coalition coordinates the campaign to locate and identify equipment, weapons and remote parts in other countries that are needed in Ukraine. Then they plan deliveries, by sea, air, and land routes, to border locations where everything is loaded onto trucks or trains and moved to the war zone.
At least 17 nations have representatives in what is called the International Donor Coordination Center. And as the number and types of equipment grow, the center is working to better match donations from the US and other nations.
“As we send out more advanced equipment, like Strykers, Bradleys, tanks, of course the maintenance activity will have to increase,” said Douglas Bush, the Army’s assistant secretary for acquisition. “I think the challenge is recognized. I think the Army knows how to do it.”
Associated Press writer Tara Copp in Washington contributed to this report.