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US marines firing a M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (Himars) at a firing range in California, April 13, 2022.
Range, precision and lethality: the Himars missile system. ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Ukraine war: the US and UK missile systems which will challenge Russia’s artillery dominance

The US and UK have agreed to send Ukraine several medium-range missile systems, despite continuing threats and warnings from Russia about the consequences of continued western support in general, and supply of these weapons in particular. Russia possesses similar weapons in abundance – and has used them extensively. So why are they so concerned about the delivery of fewer than a dozen rocket launchers?

Since the first world war, when shelling accounted for more than 60% of casualties on the western front, artillery has dominated the battlefield. For decades, the Soviet Union and then Russia based their ground forces doctrine around guns and rocket systems blanketing the combat zone with explosives and shrapnel. Other combat arms acted to support artillery, rather than the other way round.

Artillery remains Russia’s “god of war”. The Russians have used their greater numbers in rocket launchers and guns to blast their way through Ukrainian towns, cities and defences.

The ability to hit a target, or saturate it with explosives when required, not only has an obvious destructive power, it is also deeply damaging to enemy morale. A friend of mine, Steve Weiss, who served as an infantryman in the second world war and endured far too much artillery, said that this scene from the television series Band of Brothers comes closest to capturing its terrifying effect.

Until now, the Russians have not only had a preponderance of guns and rocket systems, they have also been able to out-range their Ukrainian opponents. Range is of huge significance to artillerymen. The greatest threat to artillery is other artillery used in a “counter-battery” role.

So crews are trained to move very quickly (“bug out”) from a firing position as soon as a “fire mission” is completed on a target. They know that enemy radar-ranging equipment (which track shells back to their source) will be calculating a fix on them. If the enemy’s guns have a greater range than yours, the situation is simple – they can hit you, but you can’t hit them.

It is worth looking at this clip showing what the Ukrainians do here to a Russian thermobaric rocket launcher. Notice that the Russian launcher is destroyed with a single, probably drone-guided shell or missile.

A traditional artillery counter-battery fire mission would have involved dozens of rounds which would certainly have killed the Russian journalist in that clip.

As with air power, the use of artillery is changing from a weapon which relied on saturation to be sure of destroying a target, to a precision instrument. To work efficiently, gunners not only need to be able to locate their target using reconnaissance – usually provided nowadays by drones or aircraft – but to hit it with as few rounds as possible. Why use 50 shells when one will do?

The use of artillery is notoriously logistics-heavy. More shells mean more trucks and a great deal more effort and potential logistics problems. For any army – particularly the Russians whose army is not built for operations with any kind of extended supply lines – this is difficult.

Ukraine’s growing armoury

These vital factors of precision and range are why the Ukrainian army is desperate to get hold of as many precise longer-range guns and rocket systems as possible. They were very pleased to get hold of 90 excellent M777 guns from the US, plus a few more from Canada which are already proving effective.

Similarly the French Cesar, Slovak Zuzana and German and Dutch Panzerhaubitzer 2000s self-propelled gun systems are very important. All are impressive in range, accuracy and lethality.

But no system is more formidable than the Himar (High Mobility Rocket Artillery System). This is descended from a previous, similar system called the M 270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (or MLRS) – some of which the UK has announced it will donate to Ukraine.

A view of a US High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) during a landing exercise at Spilva airfield in Riga, Latvia, 25 October 2021.
Deadly: US High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) have a range of 50 miles or more. EPA-EFE/Toms Kalnins

The reason the Ukrainians were so vocal in their efforts to get these systems was to reach positions far further behind Russian lines than the guns they presently have. Some of the many versions of Himars rockets have ranges of up to 300km.

Levelling up

The Americans are very conscious of the messages that any long-range system sends, especially the Himars, and are reluctant to provide very long-range ammunition. Accordingly Ukraine will not be getting the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) with ranges up to 190 miles, which might tempt Ukrainian army commanders to go after supply bases or headquarters in Russia itself.

The degree of Russian displeasure at this possibility was recently indicated by the first cruise missile strikes on Kiev for five weeks, accompanied by threats from Vladimir Putin to the effect that there would be more of the same if such supplies continued.

The M30 and M31 rockets the Ukrainians are likely to be given to fire from the Himars and MLRS have shorter but still considerable ranges – in excess of 40 miles. This makes the Himars a very formidable addition to their armoury. The most recent donations by the US and others of artillery include equally crucial enablers, such as counter-artillery radars, capable of identifying the locations of enemy guns and rocket launchers with speed and accuracy.

It will take several weeks before Ukrainian soldiers are trained to use these complex weapons systems. More time will be required to deploy and gain experience in using them. In the numbers they are being donated (only four Himars and around the same number of UK MLRS are being given for now. It is also not clear how many missiles the UK will supply, although a defence spokesman stated that it would be “at scale”, presumably meaning a lot.

These MLRS and Himars will not win the war on their own. Ukraine’s army will need a great deal more of the same – plus tanks, drones, aircraft and many other less glamorous systems and equipment, such as trucks and tank-transporters, to ensure success for their counteroffensives later in the summer. That said, their new gun and rocket artillery is very good news for Ukrainian army – and very bad news indeed for Russians.

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