HIMARS in Ukraine: Can the new U.S. rocket launchers win the war?

ADVERTISEMENT

HIMARS: The new U.S. rocket launchers in Ukraine are making the Russians furious. But can they win the war?

The Ukrainians have a new weapon to sing about. Taras Borovok, the Ukrainian soldier who previously penned a viral musical tribute to the Turkish-supplied Bayraktar drone, recently released a new song paying tribute to the American supplied High-Mobility Advanced Rocket System — better known by its now-famous acronym.

“HIMARS! Our trusted ally from America is here. Do you want to meet him?” goes the catchy jingle shared last week on the Facebook page of the Ukrainian armed forces’ general staff.


Hear more from Joshua Keating about this story:




Even by the standards of this social-media saturated war, the HIMARS is getting a lot of hype. A month ago, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted, “HIMARS have arrived to Ukraine. Thank you to my colleague and friend @SecDef [Defense Secretary 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 have struck more than 30 Russian targets behind enemy lines in Ukraine, including ammunition depots and command and control posts. By all accounts, they’ve thrown Russian logistics into disarray and are slowing the Russian military’s advance in eastern Ukraine. The governor of war-torn Luhansk province has described the Russians as in “panic mode” over the HIMARS’ capabilities. One sign that the hype may be true: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has ordered his forces to prioritize destroying them.

ADVERTISEMENT

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

The U.S. has already sent 12 HIMARS to Ukraine, and Austin announced on Wednesday that four more are on the way. The U.K. has also sent three M270 artillery launchers — an older but compatible model — and Germany has committed several as well. The system has emerged as something of a litmus test for Western support for Ukraine. In a recent Washington Post column, defense columnist Max Boot argued that if the Biden administration were serious about shortening the war, it would “send 60 HIMARS to Ukraine.”

Part of the reason for all the HIMARS enthusiasm is that they’ve provided the first reasons for battlefield optimism for Ukraine and its allies in quite some time. Since early April, when Russian forces abandoned their ill-fated attempt to take Kyiv in order to focus on the eastern Donbas region, they’ve been making slow but steady progress, in large part because of their overwhelming advantage in heavy artillery. The arrival of the HIMARS is the first sign the balance in artillery may be shifting in Ukraine’s favor.

How much of a wonder weapon is the HIMARS? And might it really the turn the tide of the war?

What is a HIMARS?

The High Mobility Artillery Rocket System is more or less what it sounds like: A platform loaded with multiple rockets that can be fired in short succession. The HIMARS is a particularly sophisticated version, each carrying either one-half dozen guided rockets with a range of around 40 miles, or a single Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which has a range of almost 200 miles. By contrast, the M777 howitzer cannon, one of the most advanced U.S. artillery pieces on the battlefield in Ukraine, has a range of less than 20 miles.

ADVERTISEMENT

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

There’s some historical irony to the fact these weapons are now making the Russian military’s life miserable as it attempts to “denazify” Ukraine. The Soviets were pioneers in the use of multiple rocket launchers dating back to World War II, when Katyusha rocket launchers — also known as “Stalin’s Organs” were used with devastating effect against the actual Nazis. (Ukraine also has a number of Soviet-era multiple launch rocket systems in its arsenal, both from its prewar stocks and via donations from Poland and the Czech Republic.)

The U.S. caught up with the Soviets with the development in the 1980s of the M270, which was used during the 1991 Gulf War. The lighter and easier-to-maintain M142 HIMARS was developed in the 1990s and is produced today by Lockheed Martin. Essentially a rocket launcher mounted on the back of a truck, the M142 HIMARS is light enough to be transported by cargo plane and its mobility makes it hard for the enemy to take out.

HIMARS have been used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Iraq and even in Jordan, where they were used to fire on Islamic State targets over the border in Syria. But they’re ultimately better suited for the current war in Ukraine, where there is no shortage of large and immobile fixed infrastructure to target. “We have used them before but not in this kind of role, which is what they were really designed for,” Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel who is now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Grid.

Previous rocket launcher systems were known for being destructive but also crude and inaccurate. The biggest technical leap in recent years has been the development of the precision-guided rockets, which use GPS tracking to hit specific targets at great distances.

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

What’s the catch?

HIMARS is not the first “game changer” to reach the battlefield in Ukraine. Those Bayraktar drones as well as the anti-tank missiles that became known as ”St. Javelin” have had their moment in the sun as well. Eventually, Russian tactics adapted and the weapons became less effective.

That could happen for HIMARS as well, even if it hasn’t quite happened yet. While Russia says it has destroyed HIMARS in Ukraine, the U.S. and Ukrainians have rejected those claims. “To date, those systems have not been eliminated 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 in a press briefing on Wednesday.

Nonetheless, HIMARS and other mobile rocket systems will now be a major priority for Russian artillery, airstrikes and drones. The Russian military does not yet appear able to use its electronic warfare capability to jam the HIMARS’ GPS systems, as they have with great effectiveness against Ukrainian drones, but that could change.

Maintenance is also likely to be an issue. The Ukrainian military has gotten its troops trained on using the HIMARS remarkably quickly; they were deployed on the battlefield within weeks of their arrival. But the bigger challenge will be the upkeep. Under normal conditions, training to maintain a system as advanced as the HIMARS can take months, and that’s not taking into account the difficulty of sourcing spare parts from the battlefield. And to state the obvious: These aren’t normal conditions.


ADVERTISEMENT

And while Ukraine asks for dozens more of the HIMARS themselves, there’s also the question of just how many individual rockets the U.S. will send Ukraine. The U.S. has thus far shipped “hundreds” of compatible rockets to the war zone, but this drawn-out artillery duel is likely to last a long time. At a certain point it may start to put a strain on U.S. stocks. This happened with supplies of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles in the early days of the war.

“The issue will become ammunition and the consumption rates,” Milley said on Wednesday. “We are looking at all of that very, very carefully on a day-to-day basis. … We think we’re OK right now.”

On a tactical level, the HIMARS munitions are very effective for hitting fixed targets at long range — say, a Russian ammunitions dump — but are less suited for broad strikes against infantry or artillery. That means they’ll be less effective as part of an eventual Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south or east of the country. “HIMARS will help produce a stalemate, but it’s not going to be decisive in reconquering the lost territory,” said Cancian.

Despite their precision, there’s also the higher potential for civilian casualties when longer-range weapons are used. The Russian media has reported a number of civilian casualties from HIMARS strikes, putting the blame on Ukraine’s American allies. While such claims cannot be verified — and they certainly are not comparable to the mass-casualty destruction of Ukrainian cities by the Russian military. Russia can be expected to take full propaganda advantage of any errant strikes.

Rocket politics

One might wonder, given their effectiveness, why it took the U.S. so long to start sending Ukraine HIMARS in the first place. One reason appears to have been concerns about the potential for these long-range rockets to be used to hit targets inside Russia. “We are not going to send to Ukraine rocket systems that can strike into Russia,” President Joe Biden told reporters in May. The Ukrainians have attacked a number of targets within Russia but have been coy about it. Reznikov said the Ukrainians have committed not to use HIMARS against targets on Russian territory, though it’s not clear if that extends to Russian-occupied Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

ADVERTISEMENT

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has softened its stance, but only to a degree: The U.S. is not providing the longer-range ATACMS rockets, which could hit deep within Russia, despite Ukrainian requests. As Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl put it in a press briefing at the beginning of June, “We settled on the HIMARS with the GMLRS round as the appropriate round at this time. We don’t assess that they need systems that range out hundreds and hundreds of kilometers for the current fight.” A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment when asked by Grid whether ATACMS are currently being considered for Ukraine, referring to earlier public statements.

This caution does not appear to have mollified the Russian leadership. In comments this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would be forced to take more territory in Ukraine if the West continued providing it with weapons, such as the HIMARS, that could strike Russian territory. “If the West continues to pump Ukraine full of weaponry out of impotent rage or a desire to exacerbate the situation … then that means our geographical tasks will move even further from the current line,” he said.

Lavrov’s comment should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s not clear that Russia ever abandoned the goals of taking as much Ukrainian territory as it possibly can. When asked about the comments, Austin quipped, “I’m sure that Ukrainian leadership will be pleased to hear Lavrov’s confirmation of the effectiveness” of the HIMARS.

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

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.