Answering Ukrainian calls for more long-range precision weapons, the US last week said it will send more High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to Kyiv as part of a new $400 million weapons package. Can the new HIMARS turn the battle in the Donbas in Ukraine’s favour?
On Monday, July 11, a massive explosion rocked the Ukrainian town of Nova Kakhovka in the southern Kherson region in what Ukrainian military officials said was a strike on a Russian ammunition depot. Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak attributed the success of the attack to the use of the US-supplied HIMARS system. The Russian-installed administration in the region however said the strike destroyed chemical warehouses.
But as the war in the Donbas grinds on, the Ukrainian military has been using long-range precision artillery with considerable effect, underscoring the role the HIMARS have been playing in the battlefield.
The HIMARS, a light rocket launcher mounted on a truck frame, is known for its range and accuracy and can potentially be the solution to Russia’s unrelenting shelling campaign.
“This system will allow the Ukrainians to fire at comfortable distances, accurately and take down identified objectives as was the case in Kherson, where they attacked several weapons depot from afar,” said General Dominique Trinquand, a former head of the French military mission to the UN.
Faster, quicker, lighter
Lighter and easier to deploy than the older M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System or MLRS, the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) can fire the same munitions as the M270 MLRS. On the battlefield, the HIMARS can therefore supplement the MLRS.
In terms of range, the HIMARS can fire guided rockets (GMLRS) with a range of 15 to 84 kilometres.
The system can also launch other long-range munitions such as the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) that has a range of 165 kilometres and 300 kilometres for some versions.
According to the Financial Times, the Ukrainians asked Washington to provide longer range ATACMS that can be used with HIMARS. But the request was denied by the Americans.
“We don’t want to take steps that widen the conflict and so some of the assurances that we’ve asked for in context of these particular systems are mindful of that, of not wanting these systems to be used to attack Russian territory,” Colin Kahl, US undersecretary of defence, told reporters.
He added that the US discussed the types of munitions that would be provided with Ukrainian officials, but it was determined that the 70km GMLRS “could service any target that they needed, precisely”. The US, he said, would provide more munitions and HIMRAS systems as the fighting went on if the need arose.
“I think the Americans are concerned with the correct use of these weapons as they do not want them to be used in attacking targets deep in Russian territory, like Belgorod,” said Frank Ledwidge, a former British military intelligence officer and current lecturer at Portsmouth University. “They are also concerned with these systems falling in Russian hands due to the their sensitivity.”
HIMARS were developed for fast deployment. The system contains one pod to decrease its weight and is mounted on a truck instead of an armoured, tracked vehicle to increase its speed. This renders the system capable of shoot and scoot attacks.
They can therefore be deployed in a short period of time, fire precise munitions at its target, and leave the area quickly to avoid being hit by enemy fire. The HIMARS is designed to carry a small crew of three and to be reloaded in three to five minutes. Logistically, this makes them easy to transport.
‘God of war’
Moscow has long depended on mechanised artillery in conflict. During World War II, Joseph Stalin once famously said, “Artillery is the god of war”.
Mechanised artillery is fast, cheap, relatively low-tech and manoeuvrable to avoid counter artillery fire.
But apart from guided munitions, artillery is not an accurate weapon. Weather conditions, target movement, bad calculations by the crew can affect accuracy, which makes the use of artillery a numbers game. The key to the game is a high rate of fire. Unguided munitions must be launched in massive amounts to cover an entire area.
“The Russians are firing massively to destroy as much as possible while the Ukrainians need to strike precisely to avoid destroying their country,” said Trinquand.
Artillery is the lifeline of the Russian army in this war as their air forces lack of precision guided munitions and their stock of cruise missiles have dwindled after excessive use in the beginning of the war.
The Russian army has consistently used its firepower to hammer every town into submission before entering it. Experts believe the Russian army possesses a healthy stock of artillery shells and Moscow is capable of producing low-tech, unguided ammunition as all its components are available domestically, thus negating sanctions’ effects.
Logistics, the Russian Achilles heel
Russia’s Achilles heel however is its logistics chain. The country’s extensive railways are used to transport the equipment the army needs to the Ukrainian border. After arriving at the border however, the Russians did not possess enough trucks to transport their military equipment to the front lines.
Given the transportation challenges, the security of the arms already transported and stored in depots behind the frontline in Ukraine are critical for the Russians.
HIMARS are critical because they can target Russian munition depots and logistics, preventing Russian artillery from supporting the Russian advance in the east.
“The HIMARS is considered as an interdiction weaponry, it’s meant to stop supplies from reaching the front,” said Ledwidge. “Twelve ammunition dumps have already been destroyed, any sensible commander would transport the ammo depots 80 kilometres away from the front lines, which would put constraints on the artillery, but the Russians’ lack of trucks, as well as slowness and inefficiency has stopped them from doing that,” he noted. “In fact, these dumps are very easy to detect via drones or satellite because of their massive size,” he explained.
“These systems are very relevant in attacking behind Russian lines, pushing back ammunitions’ depots and the Russian architecture for their artillery and air defence networks, they already took down several Russian command and control posts, thus disrupting the Russian chain of command,” said Niklas Masuhr, a senior researcher at the Zurich-based Centre for Security Studies (CSS). “The Russians will have to be cautious about what to put close to the front,” he added. “These systems came in a perfect moment for the Ukrainians as the Russians are regrouping to launch more attacks in the Donbas.”
An ace up a sleeve or a gimmick
The incapacity of Russian air defences to detect and intercept HIMARS fire, as well as the shortage of Russian intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, namely drones, has been notable in the Ukraine conflict.
“The Russian S400 air defence system was advertised as an anti-missile system as well, but it hasn’t been able to detect or stop the HIMARS,” said Ledwidge.
The Russians are working on a solution, however. Iran is preparing to send drones to Russia, according to US officials, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to visit Iran next week in a bid to boost bilateral relations.
If Russia gains back its situational awareness due to a sudden influx of drones, it will be able to destroy the limited number of systems sent by the US and its allies to Ukraine.
“The shortage of HIMARS systems will mean that Ukrainians will have to choose wisely where to deploy them as there is not enough to go around,” explained Trinquand.
The HIMARS' effectiveness in the coming battle for the Donbas will be determined by the choices made by the Ukrainians in its use, and their ability to prevent the Russians from finding it. At this point, the HIMARS is a massive threat to the Russian advance in the East, but only time will tell if it will stay that way.