HIMARS: New US rocket launchers in Ukraine infuriate Russians. But can they win the war?

HIMARS: New US rocket launchers in Ukraine infuriate Russians. But can they win the war?

Ukrainians have a new weapon to sing about. Taras Borovok, a Ukrainian soldier who previously composed a viral musical tribute to the Turkish-supplied Bayraktar drone, recently released a new song dedicated to the American-supplied highly mobile advanced missile system, better known by its now-famous acronym.

"HIMARS! Our reliable ally from America is here. Do you want to meet him? - sounds a catchy tune, published last week on the Facebook page of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Even by the standards of this social media-saturated war, HIMARS is making a lot of noise. A month ago, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov tweeted: “HIMARS have arrived in Ukraine. Thanks to my colleague and friend @SecDef [Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III] for these powerful tools! Summer will be hot for the Russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them.

So far, Reznikov's excitement seems justified. Rockets fired from HIMARS hit more than 30 Russian targets behind enemy lines in Ukraine, including ammunition depots and command posts. By all accounts, they have confused Russian logistics and are slowing down the advance of the Russian military into eastern Ukraine. The governor of the war-torn Luhansk region called the Russians "panicked" about the capabilities of HIMARS. One sign that the hype may be true is that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has ordered his forces to prioritize their destruction.

In recent days, Ukraine has used HIMARS to strike a key bridge used by Russian forces for resupply in the occupied city of Kherson in southern Ukraine. The strike was probably part of the preparations for the upcoming offensive to recapture the city, captured by the Russians in the early days of the war.

The US has already sent 12 HIMARS to Ukraine, and Austin announced on Wednesday that four more are on the way. The UK also sent three M270 gun mounts - an older but compatible model - and Germany also provided a few. This system has become something of a litmus test of Western support for Ukraine. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, defense columnist Max Booth argued that if the Biden administration were serious about reducing the war, it would "send 60 HIMARS to Ukraine."

Part of the reason for all the enthusiasm for HIMARS is that they provided the first reasons for combat optimism for Ukraine and its allies in quite some time. Since early April, when Russian forces abandoned their ill-fated attempt to capture Kyiv to focus on the eastern Donbas, they have been slowly but surely moving forward, due in large part to their overwhelming advantage in heavy artillery. The arrival of HIMARS is the first sign that the balance in artillery may be shifting in favor of Ukraine.

How much is the miracle weapon HIMARS? And can it really turn the tide of the war?

What is HIMARS?

The highly mobile artillery missile system is more or less what it looks like: a platform loaded with multiple missiles that can be fired in short succession. HIMARS is a particularly sophisticated version, each carrying either half a dozen guided missiles with a range of about 40 miles, or a single Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) with a range of nearly 200 miles. By contrast, the M777 howitzer cannon, one of the most advanced US artillery pieces on the Ukrainian battlefield, has a range of less than 20 miles.

The HIMARS payload is powerful enough to inflict damage on par with aerial bombardment.

There is some historical irony that these weapons are now making life miserable for the Russian military as they try to "denazify" Ukraine. The Soviets were pioneers in the use of multiple rocket launchers starting in World War II, when Katyusha rocket launchers, also known as "Stalin's organs", were used to devastating effect against real Nazis. (Ukraine also has several Soviet-era multiple rocket launchers in its arsenal, both from pre-war stocks and donations from Poland and the Czech Republic.)

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The US caught up with the Soviets by developing the M1980 in the 270s, which was used during the 1991 Gulf War. Lighter and easier to maintain, the M142 HIMARS was developed in the 1990s and is manufactured today by Lockheed Martin. Essentially a truck-mounted missile launcher, the M142 HIMARS is light enough to be transported on a cargo plane, and its mobility makes it difficult for an enemy to destroy it.

HIMARS have been used by the US military in Afghanistan, Iraq and even in Jordan, where they have been used to target Islamic State targets abroad in Syria. But ultimately, they are better suited to the current war in Ukraine, where there is no shortage of large and immovable fixed infrastructure. “We've used them before, but not in the role they were really designed for,” Mark Kanchian, a retired Marine Corps colonel who is now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Grid.

Previous missile launcher systems were known for their destructive power, but at the same time being crude and inaccurate. The biggest technological breakthrough in recent years has been the development of precision-guided missiles, which use GPS tracking to hit specific targets at long ranges.

HIMARS has also been tested in the past as a potential anti - ship system that could offer Ukraine some tempting options in the battle for control of the Black Sea .

HIMARS: New US rocket launchers in Ukraine infuriate Russians. But can they win the war?

What's the catch?

HIMARS is not the first "game changer" to appear on the battlefield in Ukraine. Those Bayraktar drones, as well as the anti-tank missiles that became known as the Javelin, were also at the height of their popularity. Eventually, Russian tactics adapted and the weapons became less effective.

This can happen with HIMARS, even if it hasn't happened yet. While Russia claims to have destroyed HIMARS in Ukraine, the US and Ukrainians have denied these claims. “To date, these systems have not been destroyed by the Russians, and I knock on wood every time I say something like that,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a press briefing Wednesday.

However, HIMARS and other mobile missile systems will now be a top priority for Russian artillery, airstrikes and drones. The Russian military does not yet appear to be able to use its electronic warfare capabilities to jam GPS HIMARS systems, as they are very effective against Ukrainian drones, but this may change.

Maintenance is also likely to be a problem. The Ukrainian military was surprisingly quick to train their troops in the use of HIMARS; they were deployed to the battlefield within weeks of their arrival. But the bigger challenge will be the content. Under normal circumstances, training to maintain a system as advanced as HIMARS can take months, and that's without taking into account the difficulty of finding spare parts on the battlefield. And to state the obvious: these are not normal conditions.

And while Ukraine itself is requesting dozens more HIMARS, the question remains how many individual missiles the US will send to Ukraine. So far, the US has sent "hundreds" of compatible missiles into the war zone, but this drawn-out artillery duel is likely to last. At some point, this may begin to put pressure on US stocks. This happened with the supply of anti-aircraft missile systems "Stinger" in the early days of the war.

“The issue will be ammunition and consumption rates,” Milley said on Wednesday. “We look at all of this very, very closely, day in and day out. … We think everything is fine now.”

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On a tactical level, HIMARS ammunition is very effective against fixed targets at long range - say, a Russian ammunition depot - but less suitable for wide strikes against infantry or artillery. This means that they will be less effective in a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south or east of the country. “HIMARS will help break the deadlock, but will not be a decisive factor in the restoration of lost territory,” Kanchian said.

Despite their accuracy, there is also a higher risk of civilian casualties with longer range weapons. Russian media are reporting a number of civilian casualties from HIMARS strikes, blaming Ukraine's American allies. So far, such claims cannot be verified - and certainly not comparable to the massive destruction of Ukrainian cities by the Russian military. Russia can be expected to take full advantage of the propaganda benefits of any erroneous strikes.

Missile policy

One might wonder, given their effectiveness, why it took so long for the US to start shipping HIMARS to Ukraine in the first place. One of the reasons seems to have been the fear that these long-range missiles could be used to hit targets inside Russia. “We are not going to send missile systems to Ukraine that could hit Russia,” President Joe Biden told reporters in May. The Ukrainians attacked a number of targets on Russian territory, but remained silent about it. Reznikov said the Ukrainians have pledged not to use HIMARS against targets inside Russia, though it's not clear if this extends to Russian-occupied Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

In the meantime, the Biden administration has softened its stance, but only to some extent: the US is not providing longer-range ATACMS missiles that can hit Russian territory, despite requests from Ukraine. As Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said at a press briefing in early June, “We settled on the HIMARS round with the GMLRS round as the right round for now. We do not believe that for the current battle they need systems that work hundreds and hundreds of kilometers. A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment when asked by Grid whether an ATACMS for Ukraine is currently being considered, citing earlier public statements.

This caution does not appear to have appeased the Russian leadership. In a commentary this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would be forced to seize more territory in Ukraine if the West continues to supply it with weapons such as HIMARS that could strike Russian territory. “If the West continues to pump weapons into Ukraine out of impotent malice or a desire to aggravate the situation… then our geographic objectives will move even further from the current line,” he said.

Lavrov's comment should be taken with a grain of salt. It is unclear whether Russia has ever given up on the goal of capturing as much Ukrainian territory as possible. Asked for comments, Austin quipped, "I'm sure the Ukrainian leadership would be pleased to hear Lavrov confirm the effectiveness" of HIMARS.

HIMARS is neither a miracle weapon nor a newcomer to the battlefield that will ultimately determine victory in this war. But for now, it's fair to say that it changes both sides' perspective on what's possible on the battlefield. And for many Ukrainians there is something to sing about.

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