The M142 HIMARS, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems supplied to Ukraine by the United States, have become a symbol of Russian vulnerability.
In the occupied southern Kherson oblast, posters appeared in July featuring a picture of a HIMARS system and words threatening retribution on the Russians for “looting, killing, rape, destruction”.
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Now, the Eastern European countries most worried about a future Russian attack are arming themselves.
Poland and the Baltic States have drawn the lesson that they are among the most effective weapons in stopping the Russian advance in Ukraine, and are ordering hundreds of launch systems at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Polish defence minister Mariusz Blaszczak announced on May 26 that he had requested 500 HIMARS launchers plus ammunition – an enormous number which he said would involve extensive co-production.
Estonia would buy six launchers and ammunition worth $500m, the US Department of State said on July 15. Latvia made public its request for $300m in launchers and rockets a week later. And Lithuania is expected to follow suit.
“The agreement to unblock Odesa would have been impossible without HIMARS. It’s now very clear that the war will end earlier if we arm Ukraine faster,” Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said on July 22, referring to Russia’s agreement to allow Ukrainian grain shipments through the Black Sea.
“The Baltics will become a single theatre of war for Russia,” said Estonian defence minister Kusti Salm, explaining the regional coordination on defence procurements.
Latvia and Estonia have talked about acquiring the latest, 300km ATACMs (Army Tactical Missiles) for their launchers. From the Estonian border, these would easily be able to strike St Petersburg. From Latvia, they would be able to hit halfway to Moscow, impeding any invasion force long before it reached the border. From the Polish and Lithuanian borders, they could strike almost anywhere on the territory of Belarus, Moscow’s only regional ally, whose territory was used as a marshalling ground to attack Kiyv.
“We will force our enemy to hike the price of aggression. If they know we can destroy certain kinds of targets, they will have to start looking for alternative solutions. However, those are notably more expensive. Attacking Estonia, Baltic countries and NATO will become a lot more complicated and expensive for the enemy,” said Salm.
The United States’s armed forces are to bring an even more advanced HIMARS-launched rocket, the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), with a 500km (310-mile) range, into the field next year. Should that be supplied to regional allies, they would be able to hit in the vicinity of Moscow.
What makes HIMARS so effective?
Ukraine has reportedly damaged Russian ammunition depots, command posts and air defences using just eight HIMARS launchers, each of which has six launch tubes armed with the ordinary GMLRS (Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems) rockets with 80 to 120km (50- to 75-mile) range.
These went into service in Ukraine on June 25.
By July 16, Ukraine’s defence ministry said Kyiv had destroyed at least 30 logistics hubs deep behind enemy lines. A week later, US Pentagon sources were talking about 100 high-value targets having been hit.
The attacks have thrown a spanner in Russia’s strategy. Moscow’s main territorial gains in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk came thanks to a concentration of overwhelming superiority of firepower. Ukrainian troops who survived tactical retreats on those fronts spoke of an inability to do anything but take cover. Attacking Russian logistics hubs has allowed Ukraine to undermine the source of Russian power.
For their part, Kremlin officials have denied Kyiv’s claims, countering that Russian forces have struck HIMARS ammunition depots in Ukraine.
Australian retired major-general Mick Ryan believed that HIMARS have “changed the battlefield calculus in the fight for Ukraine”, allowing Ukrainians to pursue what he calls the “strategy of corrosion” of Russian capabilities and morale, which brought them victory in the battle for Kyiv.
Retired US army general Mark Hertling has called HIMARS a “game changer”, helping Ukraine gain the advantage.
What makes HIMARS ideal for this job is the system’s precision.
“HIMARS, along with GMLRs, achieve remarkable strike precision,” said Konstantinos Grivas, who teaches advanced weapons systems at the Hellenic Army Academy.
“The Russians have nothing equivalent because these systems were developed by the Americans as a sort of sniper artillery for use in difficult environments like Fallujah [in Iraq], where you had to hit the target exactly because it was surrounded by civilians.
“If there’s a building you’re receiving fire from within the urban environment, you aim at that building from up to 80km (50 miles) away, and within a few minutes of receiving fire you land a rocket on the building in question.”
The secret to the rockets’ precision is an inertial navigation system – a collection of gyroscopes and accelerometers – that tells the rocket its exact location relative to its target, enabling a hit precision of three-to-five metres (10-16 feet) at maximum range.
Equally important, said experts, is the intelligence network that provides coordinates to the gunner, and US military officials have said they have shared such intelligence with Ukraine.
The system is highly cost-effective. Individual GMLRS rockets cost about $100,000. The S300 anti-air batteries and ammunition depots they have destroyed in Ukraine cost millions of dollars, and the psychological effects of Russian soldiers’ knowing that they can be attacked far behind the line of contact are incalculable.
Russia has been reacting to HIMARS by bringing some of its logistics closer to urban centres.
For example, Ukraine’s military intelligence reported that Russian occupying forces delivered truckloads of artillery ammunition for storage in Kherson’s municipal theatre on the night of July 11.
Grivas believes using cities as shields “won’t affect HIMARS because it’s designed for such urban warfare”.
Ryan recently wrote, “Because it is a mobile system, HIMARS is also able to halt, shoot and then move away quickly. This ensures that it is a highly survivable weapon system in an era where the time between detection and destruction can be just a few minutes.”
According to Ukrainian commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny, an important factor that contributed to the retention of defensive lines and positions was “the timely arrival of M142 HIMARS, which deliver targeted strikes on enemy control points, ammunition and fuel storage depots”.
A senior US military official described HIMARS as “a thorn in the Russian side … having a very significant effect on the Russians’ ability to mount offensive operations … the ability for these men and women to shoot, move, and stay alive is just exceptional.”
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley also recently praised the Ukrainian human factor.
“The fact that the Ukrainians were able to quickly deploy these systems speaks highly of their ability, their ingenuity, their artillery ability, their gunner capability, their determination, and their will to fight,” Milley said.
How many systems will victory require?
Military commanders have warned that HIMARS are not a silver bullet given the small number of systems in play. On July 20, the US said it was sending four more, bringing the total up to 16, with an apparent goal of reaching 20.
But Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, recently said Ukraine needs 100 HIMARS launchers to roll back Russia’s territorial gains.
Ukraine’s definition of victory is the complete removal of Russian forces from Crimea and the Donbas region, which broke away in 2014, as well as the territory seized since February 24 this year.
Publicly, the US, NATO and G7 have said the same, but it is clear that within NATO some favour a more cautious approach.
Given the effective use of HIMARS, some have questioned why Ukraine has not received more.
“We’re trying to be responsible,” a senior US military official recently told one reporter. “We also take a look … that we balance our readiness,” because the HIMARS systems being sent to Ukraine are drawn from US reserves.
But there also seems to be a sense that the US is trying not to provoke Russia by providing Ukraine with the means to inflict a humiliating defeat.
The United Kingdom has announced it is sending an unspecified number of M270 multiple launch rocket systems to Ukraine, each of which amounts to a pair of HIMARS.
“We’re not the only ones providing this type of capability,” said the US senior military official. “There will be the synergy of those effects,” he said, referring to other countries’ supplies, and suggesting that there is perhaps an upper limit to what the US wants to achieve.