Archer.

Wikimedia Commons

In the 11 months since Russia widened its war on Ukraine, Kyiv’s allies have donated a dizzying array of artillery—no fewer than 700 towed and self-propelled howitzers of four main calibers.

A few are Soviet designs. Most are Western types. Some are new, some are old—and some are really old.

But the Archer self-propelled howitzers that Sweden just pledged … are special. They might even turn out to be the best big guns in Ukraine’s diverse inventory.

Fast-moving, far-firing and well-armed for self-defense, the wheeled, 30-ton Archers could play an important role in Ukraine’s widely-anticipated spring counteroffensive, assuming the Russians don’t spoil that operation with an offensive of their own.

Sweden pledged the Archers as part of a larger arms-package, also including CV90 fighting vehicles, that the government announced on Thursday. “Archer is an artillery system that can be moved quickly on wheels, fired quickly and has great accuracy,” the government stated. “It has long been on Ukraine’s wish list.”

“Our warriors will master the artillery and vehicles quickly,” tweeted Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s minister of defense.

The Archer in essence is a turret-mounted Bofors FH77 155-millimeter howitzer fitted to the bed of a modified, armored Volvo heavy-duty dump truck with room for four crew. An Archer system actually includes three wheeled vehicles: the gun plus an ammunition-hauler and a support vehicle. In combat, the guns in an Archer battery would push close to the front line while the ammo and support trucks stayed farther back.

Wheeled howitzers like the Archer are in vogue. The French Cesar, Slovakian Zuzana and one-off Ukrainian 2S22 all are similar. The Ukrainian army operates all three types, so it’s familiar with their strengths—speed and maintainability—and weaknesses, such as poor off-road mobility.

The Archer is unique among wheeled howitzers. While it fires the same NATO-standard 155-millimeter shells as the other guns, it fires them farther. The range in part is a function of the efficient, pre-packaged powder charges that Bofor developed alongside the Archer.

All artillery requires a charge. A gunner loads the shell into the barrel then also packs in bags of powder. More powder means greater range, but too much powder could burst the barrel, wreck the gun and endanger the crew.

Traditionally, gunners measure out their own charges in advance of an operation. The manual method of filling charge bags results in a lot of wasted powder and volleys that don’t travel as far as they might with perfectly-measured charges. That’s why many richer armies are moving toward pre-filled, modular charges. The U.S. Army made the switch around 2007.

An Archer crew can squeeze six and a half charges into one shot, allowing it to lob a shell out to a distance of 25 miles. That’s farther than most other tube artillery systems in the Russia-Ukraine war can fire. The main exceptions are guns of greater caliber, including the 203-millimeter 2S7s that are in use on both sides.

By changing the angle of the gun, tweaking the number of charges and firing fast—three rounds in 15 seconds—an Archer can achieve what Ulf Einefors, then the Archer program manager, in 2005 described as “high momentary effect in target through MRSI.”

MRSI is the acronym for “multiple-round simultaneous impact.” That is, a single gun hitting a single target with several shells at the same time. Because it can set up in 30 seconds, shoot a shell every five seconds for 15 seconds then prepare for movement in another 30 seconds, an Archer crew can send a salvo toward an enemy position as far as 25 miles away and be on the move before all three rounds explode at the same instant.

It’s unclear whether any other artillery system can match that combination of speed, range and simultaneous impact. As a bonus, the Archer is thickly armored for a howitzer and includes a remotely-operated machine gun for self-defense.

The idea is for an Archer battery to shoot and scoot before the enemy can shoot back. But if nearby enemy forces do manage to draw a bead on the Archers, the howitzers can deflect small-arms fire and lay down suppressive fire as they escape. Einefors highlighted the Archer’s ability to depress its 155-millimeter gun parallel to the ground and shoot directly at targets like a tank does—an emergency function that might be useful in an ambush.

The rumor is that Sweden for now is sending Ukraine a dozen Archers. The Swedish army at present has 48 Archers, and has ordered another 24 copies from Bofors. With outstanding orders and a hot production line, Sweden probably could boost its pledge to Ukraine without significantly impacting its own military capability. So those dozen Archers might be just the start.

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