by J. Kasper Oestergaard, European Correspondent, Forecast International.
More than six months have passed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced on February 24. With no end to the war in sight, Ukrainian forces do appear to be slowly gaining the upper hand in the conflict. On August 29, the Ukrainian military announced the beginning of its much-anticipated counteroffensive with the aim of recapturing territory in the country’s south. The Ukrainian progress is the result of a strong will to fight and repel the Russian invaders, combined with a steady supply of increasingly more advanced weapon systems from the United States and other nations. One of these weapon systems is the Lockheed Martin-built M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which has received ample news coverage lately and scored many battlefield successes. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has even stated that HIMARS is changing the course of the war. A Ukrainian soldier who previously penned a musical tribute to the Turkish-supplied Bayraktar drone recently released a new song about HIMARS. This begs the question, is the hype real and is HIMARS a true game-changer in the ongoing conflict? We seek to answer this question below.
Produced at a Lockheed Martin plant in Camden, Arkansas, HIMARS is a full-spectrum, combat-proven, all-weather, lethal and responsive precision strike weapon system. It consists of a fire control system, a truck (FMTV 5-ton XM1140A1 automotive chassis), and a launcher-loader module that performs all operations necessary to complete a fire mission. The HIMARS launcher can be transported by C-130 or larger aircraft and is capable of engaging a variety of targets while firing all rockets in the Lockheed Martin Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) family of munitions. The HIMARS battery can fire six 227mm MLRS rockets in quick succession out to ranges of 43+ miles (70+ km). This compares to the 15-mile (24-km) range provided by the M777 howitzer (unguided rounds). MLRS rockets are equipped with a 200-pound-class warhead. The HIMARS truck has a top road speed of 55 mph.
HIMARS was initially fielded in May 2005 and was deployed to both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom by U.S. Army and Marine Corps units. In operation, the crew picks a “hide site” to conceal the truck from enemy surveillance. Once it leaves for its firing position, HIMARS is liable to be spotted and targeted, so time is of the essence. Once HIMARS is out in the open, it has about 5-7 minutes to find its firing position, train its rockets on the target, and fire. When HIMARS fires, the rocket exhaust gives away its position, and the truck has to leave quickly before the enemy can strike back. One of HIMARS’ greatest advantages is that it is simple to operate and a new crew can be trained rapidly .
According to Lockheed Martin, more than 540 systems have been fielded worldwide, and HIMARS has accumulated 2 million operating hours to date. The U.S. is said to have supplied Ukraine with 16 HIMARS units and thousands of rockets since June of this year. It is also worth mentioning that the United Kingdom and Germany have supplied the Ukrainians with a number of Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. The GMLRS is also built by Lockheed Martin and is similar to HIMARS, but the M270 MLRS launcher is larger and can hold up to 12 MLRS rockets. The M270 MLRS launcher is installed on a tracked vehicle instead of a truck chassis.
HIMARS has proven its worth and has helped Ukraine’s military forces strike high-value targets well behind the frontlines as part of a strategy to degrade Russia’s ability to hold the territory it has seized. The system has been used to hit hundreds of Russian targets such as command posts and ammunition depots. Also, it has been used to target bridges, including those leading to Russian-occupied Kherson, which Ukraine is now trying to reclaim. Russian forces also appear to be prioritizing the destruction of HIMARS launchers, a clear indication that the system is causing much damage.
To mitigate Russian attempts to search for and destroy the launchers, Ukraine has constructed a fleet of decoys that resemble HIMARS weapons, something that has reportedly tricked Russian forces into wasting expensive long-range cruise missiles on dummy targets. However, the highly successful August 9 attack on Saky air base in Crimea could clearly not have been carried out by HIMARS due to insufficient range. This attack damaged or destroyed roughly half the combat aircraft of the Black Sea Fleet’s 43rd Independent Naval Attack Aviation Regiment and demonstrated the potential for deep strikes against Russian forces and facilities. Being limited to 43+ miles (70 km), HIMARS can only strike perhaps a third of the Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia. So it can be argued that HIMARS provides the Ukrainians with a key precision-strike capability but that it may not be a true game-changing, war-winning weapon system. However, if HIMARS had considerably greater range, it would be hard to argue that it would not be capable of changing the course of the war. Where it gets really interesting is that HIMARS could, in fact, reach ranges of up to 186 miles (300 km) if equipped with missiles instead of rockets. We investigate the potential for this in the following.
While MLRS-equipped HIMARS weapons are capable of wreaking havoc behind enemy lines, it would be a true game-changer if Ukraine were supplied with the more advanced MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) family of munitions. The 610mm ATACMS missile can be fired from both the HIMARS launcher (holds one ATACMS) and GMLRS launcher (holds two ATACMS), and the Block IA variant has a range of as much as 186 miles (300 km), whereas the MLRS rockets have a range of only 43+ miles (70+ km). ATACMS is GPS-guided and carries a 500-pound-class warhead. ATACMS would give Ukraine the ability to launch precision strikes against Russian targets practically anywhere inside Ukraine, including nearly all of Crimea. More specifically, ATACMS could help degrade Russia’s long-range strike capabilities that have been used to target Ukrainian cities. Also, Ukrainian forces could use ATACMS to hold Russian warships in port at the naval base in Sevastopol, weakening Russia’s ability to conduct missile strikes from the sea as well as its ability to enforce its blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports. ATACMS strikes against S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems would lead to more effective Ukrainian Air Force operations. Also, attacking higher-echelon Russian command and control nodes located beyond HIMARS/GMLRS range could help disorganize Russian forces. Perhaps most important, the Ukrainian military could destroy railheads and bridges deeper behind enemy lines, thus hampering Russia’s ability to supply its forces.
So why is the U.S. government not sending ATACMS missiles off to Ukraine? On August 25, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Colin Kahl, said that ATACMS missiles are not currently needed. “It’s our assessment that they don’t currently require ATACMS to service targets that are directly relevant to the current fight,” Kahl stated. “We’ll obviously continue to have conversations with the Ukrainians about their needs, but it’s our judgment at the moment that we should be focusing on GMLRS, not ATACMS.” In a recent article in DefenseNews titled “Why Washington should provide ATACMS weapons to Ukraine,” it is argued that a perceived lack of military utility is not the reason why the Biden administration has declined to provide ATACMS to Ukraine. Rather, the White House fears Russian escalation in response to the provision of ATACMS. On August 19, a senior Defense Department official told reporters during a background meeting that the U.S. will not be supplying ATACMS even if Ukraine pledges not to fire onto Russian territory. While speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in July, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the U.S. will not supply ATACMS to Ukraine due to fears the missiles will be used to target Russian territory and escalate the conflict. ATACMS is no longer in production and was last procured by the Army in FY07 at a cost of $817,000 each. This compares to approximately $150,000 per MLRS rocket in FY23. ATACMS is not even the most modern precision strike missile in the Army’s inventory. In FY21, the Army began procuring the next-generation Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), which has a range of 310+ miles (499+ km) and a unit cost of $1.6 million. Deliveries are expected to commence in the summer of 2023. In that light, it would seem reasonable for Ukraine to receive a supply of ATACMS from U.S. Army inventories along with an additional 30-40 HIMARS weapons.
ATACMS would likely be a true game-changer in Ukraine if the U.S. government would reverse course and begin supplying the missile to Ukrainian armed forces. It would seem to be an obvious decision to field a weapon that could potentially shorten the war and perhaps save thousands of lives. It seems far-fetched to think that Ukraine would attack targets on Russian soil with ATACMS when pledging not to do so, and even more far-fetched that Russia would attack the U.S. or its NATO allies because an ATACMS struck a target in Russia on purpose or by mistake. Russia is in a weak position and has no interest in doing something that would risk starting a war with the might of NATO. The U.S. government seems to be playing things much too safe. Dangerous escalation would be to move U.S. troops into Ukraine. Supplying fighter jets, ATACMS and other weapon systems would greatly upset Russia, but anything beyond that seems unlikely. HIMARS units already delivered to the Ukrainian Army could, in fact, also be used against targets in Russia proper if deployed to northeastern Ukraine.
While the U.S. Army will receive its first PrSMs next year, yet another precision strike weapon is being developed here at home and procurement could commence as early as FY23. This new weapon is the GMLRS Extended Range (ER) rocket, which is able to reach targets at ranges out to 93 miles (150 km), thus doubling the range of the current M30/M31 MLRS variants. Both GMLRS ER and PrSM will be compatible with the M270 MLRS and HIMARS family of launchers.
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