How Ukraine’s soldiers are mastering NATO weapons in UK
Training of Ukrainian soldiers in Great Britain (Photo:Sgt Jimmy Wise / UK MOD)
The United Kingdom’s military training facilities are full of Ukrainian soldiers. NV travelled across the English Channel to see what is being taught here and how the Ukrainians are being trained.
Great Britain. Early morning. Engines roar at a military training ground in the forest. Four heavy military vehicles rush down a country road at full speed. They are AS-90 self-propelled howitzers – British artillery systems which first began serial production in the 1990s. Each weighs 45 tons, armed with a 155 mm gun with a 25 km range. The British military has been the main user of this system, but now Ukrainians are learning how to operate it.
In mid-February, at the Munich Security Conference, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that his country would supply Ukraine with long-range ammunition and air defense systems. In addition, Great Britain, one of the leading donors of military equipment to Ukraine, was the first to promise the transfer of modern Western tanks, pledging a company of Challenger 2s. This is in addition to many other types of much-needed weapons that the UK has provided to Ukraine. The other side of the coin of this military support is the training of the Ukrainian military.
According to current plans, 20,000 soldiers and officers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces will undergo various kinds of training in the UK over the course of 2023.
NV’s correspondent visited the training grounds of Ukrainian tankers, artillerymen, and infantry at UK training grounds, which were green even in February.
Every Ukrainian defender who arrives for training in the UK undergoes combined arms training – an analogue of the course for a young fighter in Ukraine, but according to NATO standards. In the process of training, the British, together with Ukrainian officers, do a reselection of the troops who have arrived, determining who will be an artilleryman, tanker, infantry soldier, sapper, and recon scout.
Part of the combined arms training is preparing for the de-occupation of Ukrainian cities. In Britain, there is a special center with low-rise urban buildings, where soldiers practice the skills of storming and clearing the enemy in street battles.
According to the scenario of the exercises, several advanced units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces enter Russian-occupied Melitopol and carry out a cleansing of the area. They need to neutralize the enemy firing from the windows of neighboring houses.
Visibility is limited due to smoke grenades and the air thick with the smoke of burning. One unit takes up positions along the wall of a two-story building. The second is near another building, on the flank. The soldiers move in small columns back to back.
The British instructor orders them to open fire on the windows. Here, on the second floor, the enemy appears. He confidently shoots back, then disappears. To neutralize him, the group needs to go up to the second floor.
The Ukrainian soldier feels the perimeter of the door frame for stretch marks. Then he taps his neighbor on the shoulder, upon which he breaks into the building. The most difficult moment of street fighting is entering a building occupied by the enemy.
These urban conditions, the instructor continues, are the most difficult to fight in, since the enemy has many places to hide.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainians hesitated before entering the first house.
“Look out the windows,” they say to each other along their chain from the beginning to the end of the squad.
A series of blank shots – and the enemy is still neutralized.
“Plus one,” someone shouts.
“Plus two,” is heard after a while.
“I immediately saw his head!” — the soldier excitedly tells his comrade.
“Gentlemen, boys, come on,” the translator translates the words of the British instructor.
The intensity of communication between Ukrainians and the British is ensured by at least 300 civilian interpreters in all centers and bases of the United Kingdom where training is being held.
Now the Ukrainians are waiting for their debriefing: at the end of each training session, their British instructors lay out their students’ mistakes.
20-year-old serviceman Andriy (he, like all other Ukrainians undergoing military training in the UK, did not give his last name to NV for security reasons) came to these exercises with combat experience from the liberation of Kyiv Oblast. He had volunteered for the Ukrainian Armed Forces at the age of 18.
Andriy explains to NV the mistake his group made: when one soldier enеers the building, the other two are supposed to remain outside, with the first aiming at the door, and the second acting as a shield towards the enemy. His troika all tumbled through the door together.
“The main problem of urban fighting is that you never know where the enemy is hiding and whether there is someone behind the wall,” says Andriy.
“You have to be always ready to meet him around the corner.”
In Andrei's group, there is a serviceman with the call sign Guf. He was abroad when the full-scale invasion began.
“I tried to get into the French Foreign Legion, but I couldn’t gain a foothold there,” says Guf.
“As soon as I learned that a war had begun in Ukraine, I returned and signed a contract with the Ukrainian Armed Forces.”
Another part of the exercises concerns military operations in open areas. 25 soldiers attack positions, while another 25 fight back.
An “enemy” drone hovers over the Ukrainian trenches. A series of rolling booms is heard, imitating artillery. And now a group of enemy troops descends from the hill like a thin ribbon. The British instructor rushes to the left flank at full speed and gives the command to the Ukrainians to suppress the enemy with fire.
The turmoil, the screams, and the clatter of blank rounds firing. The Ukrainians need to arrange evacuation under these conditions – leaving the battle and bringing their wounded to the other side of the hill. Due to the chaos, several soldiers do not hear the order to retreat and remain in the trenches.
Some hundred meters from what is happening, a couple of British civilians are taking a horseback ride. They ride on white and black horses, and neither they nor their horses can understand what is happening here.
A lanky young instructor with an appearance straight out of central casting explains to NV: in the chaos of battle, soldiers do not hear each other, and they even sometimes don’t receive orders. Therefore, he recommends shouting louder for better communication.
According to him, Ukrainian soldiers do not receive such assessments during the exercises, but nevertheless, the coherence of actions during the exercises must meet a certain standard.
In addition to British instructors, there are Canadians working here with the Ukrainians. They are considered the tougher trainers, one of the interpreters explains to NV, since they are more involved in training sappers, whose mistakes are more costly than those of infantry.
Under the vigilant monitoring of their British instructors, the Ukrainians are in a hurry to drive their self-propelled guns to pre-planted flags and quickly deploy their guns into combat positions. The crew consists of five people. There is also an instructor and an interpreter. After several repetitions, the crew of one of the self-propelled guns is running far behind the rest. However, they will still have time to polish their skills.
“This is the first course that the British Army has started to run for the Ukrainians in artillery,” Colonel Ed Cotterill, chief self-propelled gun (SPG) instructor, tells NV.
He, along with 70 other Britons, are helping Ukrainians to master this system. The entire course will last several weeks, and some of the Ukrainian soldiers have already completed a related course on spotting targets for artillery.
A Ukrainian artillery battalion commander named Serhiy will soon be given British self-propelled guns into his command in Ukraine. He does not hold back his emotions, because he used to command 1960s-vintage Soviet artillery models like the MT-12 (Rapier) and D-30.
According to him, the instructors respond to any requests that arise during the training. Serhiy is also confident that self-propelled guns will not gather dust in Ukraine due to a lack of shells.
“If the British provide equipment, then they supply shells,” says Serhiy.
“The British have a pretty tight fix on personnel security. We [in the Ukrainian Armed Forces] are a bit simpler.”
Overall, Ukrainians are full of praise for their opportunity to study in the UK: not only is the infrastructure better here than in Ukraine, but they can fully focus on the training itself and not waste time taking cover during air raids.
A native of the Sumy Oblast, Oleksander diligently loads the self-propelled guns. He spent a month under occupation, and came into the army in December when a conscription summons was placed in his mailbox. There was a medical examination, and a week later Oleksander was sent to a training center where he underwent basic training. Great Britain is the first country he has been to outside Ukraine.
Oleksander says that in his village, six neighbors were mobilized before him.
“When you go outside or to work, you somehow feel uncomfortable,” he says.
“People are already serving, and you seem to be inferior. This is the rural psychology. Perhaps in cities people live in their buildings and do not see each other for years. We all know each other very well."
He gives the British food an A++, while giving the Ukrainian food which he tried in training a C, though he understands that this is the best he can expect in a country at war.
The training on self-propelled guns is structured like this: there is a theoretical component in the classroom, a driver's component on the training ground where the skill of maneuvers is worked out, and a shooting component on special simulators. There is a similar training program for the Challenger 2 tanks. Target engagement is perfected in a huge hangar with several simulators that precisely replicate the cabin of an SPG or a tank.
It's as noisy as a bowling alley on the weekend. The Ukrainians load shells into the barrel, and then, after their simulated shot, they do not hit the target, but fall onto a special conveyor to be used again.
Live firing takes place only in the last days of the artillery and tank course.
Training goes on six days a week for eight to nine hours a day. Combat crews alternate with each other throughout the day – from the training ground to the simulator. They also work through scenarios for manually operating the SPG’s guidance and loading in case of a complete or partial failure of the electronics. There is also time for troubleshooting.
"It's first-class!" one Ukrainian says of his training in Britain.
In his hands is a 45-kilogram 155-mm training projectile, which he must hoist into one of the 40 launch cells. However, as soon as this correspondent approached his comrade for an interview, a stout British instructor shouts with displeasure from the training cabin, saying that press must not interfere with the training process.
Training on tanks follows a similar pattern as on the SPGs. The only difference is that Challenger 2 drivers practice their skills on a training tank with a transparent turret so that several people can fit in there at once, including an instructor. After working out the basic elements of tank control on an asphalt section of the road, the next stage begins - practicing skills on a tank training ground, reminiscent of a rally track with a corresponding level of dirt.
“I was able to handle the Challenger 2 on the very first day of training, because I had previously driven a T-80,” tanker Oleksander says with a smile.
His combat record includes participation in the counter-offensive operation to liberate Izyum and Lyman.
Although in dry numbers the Soviet car is lighter and faster than its British counterpart, Oleksander argues, the Challenger 2 has a far superior suspension, ride, and handling.
He is not yet accustomed to some features of the British tank. For example, the driver is in a prone position in the Challenger while in combat.
“The tank is too comfortable – you can fall asleep, and there is also a handbrake,” says Oleksander.
He is satisfied with the training: the British provide information about combat vehicles simply and in detail, which allows a warrior of any level of training to master new equipment.
“If they cannot immediately answer some tricky question from us, then they raise the literature and come with an answer the next day,” says Oleksander.
His colleague is no less impressed by the capabilities of the British tank.
“The rifled gun shows much better accuracy of fire,” he says, comparing the Challenger with the T-80.
“90% of the time, the projectile hits the target and can fire from 6 km, while Soviet tanks hit objects the first time only 40% of the time, while having half the effective range or lower.
”The Ukrainian soldier does not hide his delight at the reception provided by the British. Everything is excellent here: the attitude of the instructors, the living conditions, and the well-organized educational process.
One of the commanders of the unit, which is returning to Ukraine after the end of the training course, says that the British are too loyal to the Ukrainians and don’t particularly “drive” the exercises. However, he is nearly the only person that NV spoke to who expressed dissatisfaction with the training.
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