HIMARS rocket launcher may change the game in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine may be turning in Kyiv's favor thanks to the deployment of American M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) precision multiple rocket launchers, which are reported to be wreaking havoc on Russian supply depots and command centers.
When Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russia and many Western powers expected Ukraine to fall in as little as four days. However, Ukrainian resistance was much stronger than originally thought and the Ukrainian people didn't rally to the Russian cause as Moscow expected. As a result, the Russian advance floundered and the invading forces abandoned their blitzkrieg to fall back on a familiar Russian strategy: massed artillery fire.
Joseph Stalin once said, “artillery is the god of war" and since the days of Peter the Great, the Russian Army has relied on massed guns as a way to destroy defending enemy forces before moving in with armor and troops. Though such a doctrine has proven time and again to be extremely destructive, indiscriminately devastating property and civilian populations, it has also shown itself effective and reduces the need for often poorly trained Russian soldiers to be put at risk.
In the present conflict, the Ukrainian forces responded with their own counter artillery barrages, but the Ukraine Army had only limited ammunition for its Soviet-era guns and the NATO-supplied artillery lacked the needed range. The result was the prospect of the battle collapsing into a bloody war of attrition with each side trying to destroy as much of the other's troops, material, and supply lines as possible.
However, that may be changing thanks to the introduction of advanced Western technology in the theater. The NATO forces have been supplying Ukraine with state-of-the-art anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, night vision goggles, communications equipment, precision guided artillery rounds, and armored vehicles along with medical supplies and field rations.
Then, on May 31, the US government announced that it would be sending four HIMARS units to Ukraine. There are currently eight launchers in the country with another four on the way and the Biden administration has indicated that it would shortly be providing four more.
The results have been dramatic, with reports of Ukraine using HIMARS to successfully destroy over 20 high-value Russian targets, including supply and ammunition depots, command centers, and several high-ranking Russian officers.
Since this is a conflict that is notorious for the fog of war and propaganda flooding from both sides, such claims must be received with a large grain of salt, but infrared satellite images taken before and after HIMARS went into action show a dramatic drop in the kind of fire outbreaks that mark Russian artillery attacks, suggesting that the new weapon system may indeed be a game changer.
Presently built by Lockheed Martin, HIMARS was developed in the 1990s for the US Army and is a lighter version of the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS). Where the MLRS rides on a tracked platform, HIMARS consists of a single pod with up to six missiles that sits on a standard US Army M1140 truck frame. This makes the system very light and very fast as rocket artillery goes, making it ideal for "shoot and scoot" missions.
The configuration sent to Ukraine is armed with pods carrying six GPS-guided missiles with a range of up to 84 km (52 miles) and armed with a 200-lb (90-kg) warhead. HIMARS can carry a missile capable of ranges of up to 300 km (190 mi), but these have been withheld from the Ukrainians because the US has imposed strict conditions that forbid Ukraine from firing on targets inside Russia.
Despite this limitation, the HIMARS still has a greater range than most Russian artillery and twice the range of the NATO howitzers used by Ukraine. In addition, the rockets are extremely precise and quick to go into action. The fire control system can lock on a target in only 16 seconds. Single or multiple rounds can then be launched and the launcher can be on the move before they even land. This makes HIMARS very hard to kill, very frugal with its munitions, and minimizes collateral damage.
The recent results have been promising and the Ukraine government and military analysts believe that HIMARS has dramatically changed the nature of the conflict, which looked to be in danger of devolving into a war of attrition that could go on for years, but it is still early days. Some analysts believe that only 16 HIMARS is insufficient to make a real impact and Kyiv has asked for a hundred more.
Also, what the final result of deploying HIMARS will be is difficult to predict. The Russian forces could crack under heavy casualties and lost material, but Moscow is sure to adapt to the new weapon by pulling back depots and command centers out of range, disguising targets, or dispersing ammunition dumps to reduce losses.
In addition, Russia may respond by changing its war aims. There are already indications that instead of pressing its advance, it may consider annexing the eastern Ukrainian territories it has conquered in the same way it did the Crimea.
"The Russians will have HIMARS at the top of their targeting lists for their long-range missiles and air force," said Mick Ryan, military analyst and retired major general in the Australian Army. "Despite this, we must not cast the HIMARS as the wonder weapon that will change the tide of the war. There has been a tendency since the first Industrial Revolution to look for the single technological wonder that will win wars. This is a mirage."
"HIMARS is having an important impact and will continue to do so, but it alone will not win this war," Ryan continues. "While it has provided the Ukrainian Armed Forces with a new 'Long Hand' to attack the Russian invaders, there is no such thing as a silver bullet solution in war. Military forces are complex entities that need many different capabilities layered in function, range, time, and impact, integrated by humans. HIMARS is just one layer – albeit a vital one – in the overall national and military capacity that Ukraine needs to win this war."