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U.S. HIMARS Rocket Artillery Going to Ukraine Would Be a Game Changer

M142 HIMARS
M142 HIMARS. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

HIMARS: Why Russia will hate this military platform if it is indeed in Ukraine – Ukrainian artillery played a decisive role in repelling Russia’s failed campaign to capture Kyiv in the first weeks of the war—by some assessments, destroying more Russian armored vehicles than anti-tank missiles. It is arguably of even greater importance in Russia’s new campaign in Eastern Ukraine, where a grinding battle of attrition is taking place between heavily entrenched forces.

While the U.S. is delivering 90 towed M777 field howitzers to Ukraine, it apparently also furnishing another potent form of artillery: Multiple Rocket Launcher Systems (MRLSs).

In an interview with Ukrainian Pravda, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland stated that thanks to U.S. military aid, Ukraine “already has multiple launch rocket systems”, though these had not been specifically listed as part of extended aid packages. 

When pressed on the discrepancy, she made it “absolutely clear” that “We already supply MLRS systems. And it wasn’t just us.” 

The implication seemingly is that U.S. MRLS transfers had been kept under the table until this interview. Nuland’s reference to “it wasn’t just us” likely refers to confirmed transfers of at least 20 Czech RM-70 systems and at least 20 similar Polish BM-21 rocket launchers.

Though quantity, type, and even presence in Ukraine remain uninformed, many believe the U.S.-supplied MRLS is the M142 HIMARS, developed as a more deployable lightweight complement to the Army’s 27.5-ton M270 MRLS. Indeed, in an address earlier in April, Pres. Zelensky specifically requested M270s or HIMARS systems. However, it’s also possible Nuland referred to U.S. stocks of Soviet launchers used for training. 

Rocket launcher on a diet

In World War II, multiple rocket launchers, which had existed for centuries prior, matured into a formidable complement to traditional artillery. Compared to howitzers, MRLSs can unleash a huge number of munitions in a short period of time that land across a broader area, though with inferior precision and sustainability. Larger-caliber MRLSs also have better potential to deliver very long-distance fires than gun artillery.

Ukrainian began the war with three types of Soviet-developed MRLSs: around 200 BM-21 Grad which provides frontline artillery support, and about 75 each BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch systems that fire much bigger 220- and 300-millimeter rockets over greater distances. As of April 27, photos confirm Ukraine has lost at a minimum of 12 Grads and three Uragans but has captured at least 22 Grads and 2 Uragans from Russian forces.

In the 1980s, the U.S. Army finally sought to match Soviet enthusiasm for MRLSs by deploying the M270 multiple rocket launcher system based on the armored, tracked hull of a Bradley fighting vehicle. To compensate for the low precision inherent to MRLSs, its 227-millimeter M26 rockets (max range 20 miles) were designed to release 644 dual-purpose (anti-tank/anti-personnel) cluster bomblets over a wide area, rather than a single large warhead. Later M26A1 and A2 rockets had ‘only’ 518 DPICM submunitions, but the range extended to 28 miles.

The M270 carried twelve M26s in two pods, but those pods could alternately carry one powerful ATACMS missile with a range of 80 miles (later extended to 186 miles) to strike deep targets like air defense units, ammo, and fuel depots, headquarters, and airbases.

The M270 proved effective in the 1991 Gulf War, but they were difficult to maintain, supply and transport to the theater. Thus, the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) was developed in the 1990s to serve as a lightweight alternative that was rapid-deployable across the globe. 

HIMRAS

Based on the hull of a 6×6 FMTV truck, the 18-ton M142 uses the same rockets and fire-control system (FCS) as the M270 but mounts only one six-shot pod. Seemingly a downgrade in firepower output, new rocket types (see below) allow rocket strikes with less emphasis on volume. The mostly soft-skinned M142 retains an armored cabin for its crew of three (or two, in a pinch), and uses a more easily serviceable diesel engine.

Vitally, an M142 can fit in a C-130 transport plane, or three on a C-17 cargo jet; and they can roll off the ramp ready to fire within 15 minutes.

Both M142/M270 FCS can receive firing coordinates from higher headquarters and forward observers via a datalink and execute a fire mission within 16 seconds, posing a threat even to fleeting targets of opportunity. They both can rapidly shoot and scoot to evade enemy counterstrikes.

Cheaper precision firepower

Though the M270 was a beastly “map grid square removal system”, its wide-area destructiveness made it difficult to use in counter-insurgency wars fought close to population centers. Moreover, cluster bomblets were politically and materially hazardous, as high dud rates resulted in thousands of dangerous unexploded munitions remaining behind after the fighting, claiming the lives of civilians and U.S. military personnel alike.

Meanwhile, the long-range ATACMS, though potent, was too expensive (around $800,000 per shot) for routine use. By 2015, only 3,700 had been built, of which 650 were fired. 

However, rocket artillery evolved dramatically with the introduction of GPS-guided M30 and M31 GMRLS rockets costing a more practical $110,000 per shot.

Their range of 43 miles still far exceeded that of traditional howitzer artillery, and these could land within 2 meters on average of the target, precise enough to employ individual non-cluster M31 munitions highly effectively.

Starting in 2014, U.S. Army and Marines deployed HIMARS in Iraq and Afghanistan delivered prompt precision attacks against ISIS and Taliban targets, arguably making an important contribution to defeating ISIS forces in the cities of Mosul and Raqqa, as well as repelling a massive attack by Syrian and Russian mercenaries in 2018.

At present, the Army has five HIMARS battalions in the 17th, 18th, and 75th Field Artillery Brigades, several batteries of which are integrated in the Army’s new Multi-Domain Task Force units. There are 12 more HIMARS battalions in eight National Guard brigades, while the Marine Corps maintains two HIMARS battalions in the 11th and 14th Marine Regiments. 

Each battalion has 18 launcher vehicles, each supported by two ammo resupply vehicles with trailers, and a Target-Acquisition Platoon deploying AN/TPQ-47 Firefinder radars on flatbed Humvees to detect the origin point of enemy artillery firing up to 60 kilometers away. Since 2014, Ukraine has received many counterbattery radars and Humvee transporters from the U.S. and used them successfully in combat, so this capacity could be integrated readily into new HIMARS units.

Foreign HIMARS operators already include Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Romania. Future HIMARS operators will include certainly Poland, likely Hungary and Taiwan, and potentially the Philippines and Sweden.

HIMARS has also been tested as an anti-ship weapon with mixed results and has even been modified to fire from a ship’s deck. That’s intriguing as in March Ukraine employed rocket artillery in Odesa to attack the Russian patrol ship Vasily Bykov, though causing limited if any damage. HIMARS therefore may have coastal defense potential, though Russia may keep its vessels out of range after the sinking of its flagship cruiser Moskva to land-based missiles. 

HIMARS has also been tested to launch AIM-120 medium-range anti-air missiles; while that capability hasn’t been operationally deployed, it’s an example of how the launcher could be adapted to new roles. Ukraine would certainly like to shore up its medium-range air defenses, as most aid has been for short-range systems.

However, even using HIMARS in a conventional manner involves challenges for Ukraine, as HIMARS uses different munitions and requires Ukrainian crews to master the operation and maintenance of unfamiliar new systems.

A standard U.S. Marine crew training course for HIMARS takes 13 training days, not counting breaks. But specialists like the gunner and section chief require additional weeks of training. However, some interpret Nuland’s statement as indicating Ukrainians have been training to operate HIMARS (presumably outside Ukraine) for weeks while the delivery was arranged.

To ATACMS or not to ATACMS?

One issue is whether Ukrainian HIMARS come with MGM-168 ATACMS missiles, and if so, whether these will have conditions attached. The ATACMS’s range of 186 miles means it could potentially strike targets deeper in Russian territory than Ukraine’s Tochka ballistic missiles. Already it remains unclear if Ukrainian missiles are responsible for the destruction of oil depots on Russian soil.

This makes ATACMS more potentially escalatory than other heavy armament offered by Ukraine’s allies, not merely in Moscow’s perception, but if Ukraine uses it to strike targets deeper in Russia. Furthermore, the U.S. is developing an ATACMS successor called the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) with a range of 300-500 miles.

Thus, there’s a good chance Washington will stop short of supplying ATACMS to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Poland and Romania, are receiving ATACMS missiles; Washington might restrict those being transferred to Ukraine.

Even without ATACMS, HIMARS systems using the guided GMLRS munitions will greatly enhance Kyiv’s ability to destroy Russian artillery and logistics from a safe distance—a capability it needs given Russia’s dependency on artillery and Ukraine’s lack of penetrating air power. 

Russian forces in turn will attempt to locate and destroy the largely unarmored M142s, particularly using Orion and Forepost-R drones. Ukraine’s ability to relay useful and timely targeting data to HIMARS batteries, promptly shoot-and-scoot to avoid retaliatory fire, and keep them otherwise concealed will determine their success in the field.

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National InterestNBC NewsForbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor.  He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  You can follow his articles on Twitter.

Written By

Sebastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. CK

    April 30, 2022 at 8:44 am

    I can’t wait to start seeing the counter-battery fire videos, and the stabilised guided munitions artillery ones either.

    Alex, I’m gonna go ahead and do you a solid and just paraphrase whatever garbage will come out of your mouth next – “hurDy dUrdY Donbass miliTia mAeK good use of NATO wEapOns, can’t wAit! hUrdY” – how’s that champ, am I in the ballpark?

    Also, have you moved to Russia yet? Don’t let the door hit you on your way out of Poland.

  2. Vladolph Putler

    April 30, 2022 at 3:59 pm

    Counter-battery jamming probably plays in pretty heavily. Doing a little guessing here, but how else could you effectively field towed guns in this environment?

    But here’s the thing: With defense in depth, and artillery in the rear echelons, any forces that advance, have to advance into heavy artillery firing solutions. Ukrainians field more 203mm mobile systems, but Russia almost certainly has volume of 203mm shells. Anyone who advances, needs to have artillery advance as well- but they get bombarded as they advance.

    At a hundred grand per shot, the HIMARS rockets are pricey, but if you can lay out the artillery locations and ripple off the rockets, now you can advance against armor, rather than armor and artillery.

    HIMARS sounds like a game changer, but it’s costly. I would argue that some of the mobile autoloading *rifled* guns are more of a game changer. A few hundred dollars per shell, almost as accurate as PGMs. Limitless magazine depth if supply lines can be maintained. Mobile enough to get into the second lines of defense for shoot and scoot tactics and make *way* more trouble for Russian firing positions. The US could really stand to take some notes on some of these systems.

    As to Alex? That dude’s propaganda is so weak the poor guy might get executed. Or maybe sent to one of Putin’s “sorting” camps be some greasy Chechen’s girlfriend. 🙁

  3. Richard Mc

    April 30, 2022 at 6:56 pm

    The M270 would do the same thing. But it would be better to send Tomahawks. In fact the Navy has surplus Tomahawks they plan to dispose of, a couple of thousand I think.

  4. Alex

    May 1, 2022 at 7:08 am

    And now, not stupid propaganda from pseudo-journalists and squealing Bandera bastards, but real facts. Let’s see how Russia “lost”:

    In total, since the beginning of the special military operation, Russia has destroyed 143 aircraft, 112 helicopters, 660 unmanned aerial vehicles, 279 anti-aircraft missile systems, 2,678 tanks and other armored combat vehicles, 308 multiple rocket launchers, 1,196 field artillery pieces and mortars, as well as 2,503 units of special military vehicles. Destroyed 43.814 Bandera Nazis and soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. 3,540 soldiers surrendered.

    Utilization of US and NATO equipment is proceeding according to plan:
    High-precision missiles “Onyx” in the Odessa region at a military airfield destroyed a hangar with weapons and ammunition received from the United States and European countries, and also destroyed the runway.

    Every day, the flags of the people’s militia of Donbass, Russia and Chechnya are raised over a new liberated settlement. Everything can be seen on the map of hostilities.

    A French journalist released another film about the atrocities of Bandera Nazi bastards. The photo and video evidence is simply amazing – these bastards of Bandera Nazis only need to be exterminated, finally and completely.

    The point is that no matter how hard the pseudo-journalists try to lie, the truth inevitably comes to the surface.

    By the way, Russian special forces seized important documents from one of the American biological laboratories in Ukraine. The announcement is this: the experiments that the Americans conducted on people, on Ukrainians, amaze the imagination with their cruelty.

    I will say this: “Hello, new Third Reich, you will also be destroyed.” History is cyclical. Again the West is trying to defeat Russia and will be defeated again.

    • Abraham Lincoln

      May 13, 2022 at 1:07 pm

      Hey crackhead – Ukraine only had 600 tanks or so. But you say that Russia has destroyed 2600? Maybe you misunderstood. We are not counting Russian tanks destroyed.

      Keep your crackhead comments up. You should really come over here and become the next Yakov Smirnoff.

  5. mcswell

    May 1, 2022 at 9:14 am

    Alex, good to see your humor column back.

    I understand before you went to work for Russia, you were the voice behind Baghdad Bob. True? And after Russia loses this war, what are your plans? I’m sure The Onion would like to have you.

  6. CK

    May 1, 2022 at 9:36 am

    Hey Alex, look at this! You’re in the news!

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/01/troll-factory-spreading-russian-pro-war-lies-online-says-uk

    “Russian internet trolls based in an old arms factory in St Petersburg are targeting world leaders online and spreading support for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the British government has said, citing research.”

    “The headquarters is allegedly located in rented space in St Petersburg’s Arsenal Machine-building Factory, a company that manufactures military equipment and technology.”

    “The study details how the Russian president’s regime is trying to manipulate public opinion on social media, as well as in the comments sections of major media outlets.”

    “The analysis suggests one main activity is “brigading”, to steer attention of discussion on social media and in comments sections of newspapers towards favoured opinions. Manipulation of polls in western media was also observed, including to skew the results of a survey on whether sanctions against Russia were supported.”

    Does this look like anyone we know? Also, sucks that they are making you work on a Saturday man! Is it that bad over there you guys can’t make ends meet?

    Does Sveta not have enough clients? Reach out man, we want to help!

  7. Alex

    May 1, 2022 at 9:41 am

    Representatives of the hacker group “Beregini”: the Ukrainian “troll factory” was trained by Polish instructors.
    The Ukrainian “troll factory” used the services of Polish instructors.

    The United States and Great Britain participated in the work of the center of information and psychological operations, but so far only Polish influence has been documented.

    “It is clear from the documents that we found among them certificates from Polish instructors stating that they trained the employees of the center, and it is also clear from the manner of their work that they are supervised by the West,” said a representative of the group.

    According to her, in Ukraine they invent “atrocities” of the Russian army and fantasize about the number of victims.

    “Some small particle is taken, the truth, which any person can check, and a lie is wound on this particle, a fake in itself. And people check this first clue: yeah, yes, it seems to be true. And then they seemed to believe and checked, why check further, ”she explained.

    The interlocutor added that sometimes old videos are used with additional voice acting or comments: this allows you to give life to a new “interpretation” and put fakes on the news channels.

    On the eve of Beregini, it was reported that as a result of the destruction by the Russian Armed Forces of the Ukrainian 72nd Center for Information and Psychological Operations, the work of its “bot factory” was significantly disrupted, but will soon be restored. Nevertheless, according to them, “for several days in the midst of the Russian military operation, we managed to shut them up and ease the information pressure on the population of Ukraine and Russia.”

    After Russia launched an operation to protect the republics of Donbass, social media users were faced with a huge amount of fake information. According to independent hackers, the 72nd Center for Information and Psychological Special Operations of Ukraine is responsible for the production of most of it.

    On March 2, in order to suppress information attacks against Russia, the technological facilities of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the 72nd main center of psychological operations were hit with precision weapons in the city of Kyiv.
    Therefore, Bandera trolls sit on such sites, where they do not care about the truth, but lies and propaganda. But almost no one here reads them. That is why they squeal and hysteria like patients of the Lviv Regional Psychiatric Hospital. Oh, they write from there.

    But the most interesting thing is not this, but the fact that my information is easy to verify – it is published by independent American, German, French, Chinese journalists and experts, any information of the Bandera Nazi troll is easily refuted.

  8. CK

    May 1, 2022 at 9:46 am

    Hey Alex, look at this! You’re in the news!

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/01/troll-factory-spreading-russian-pro-war-lies-online-says-uk

    “Russian internet trolls based in an old arms factory in St Petersburg are targeting world leaders online and spreading support for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the British government has said, citing research.”

    “The headquarters is allegedly located in rented space in St Petersburg’s Arsenal Machine-building Factory, a company that manufactures military equipment and technology.”

    “The study details how the Russian president’s regime is trying to manipulate public opinion on social media, as well as in the comments sections of major media outlets.”

    “The analysis suggests one main activity is “brigading”, to steer attention of discussion on social media and in comments sections of newspapers towards favoured opinions. Manipulation of polls in western media was also observed, including to skew the results of a survey on whether sanctions against Russia were supported.”

    Does this look like anyone we know? Also, sucks that they are making you work on a Saturday man! Is it that bad over there you guys can’t make ends meet?

    Does Sveta not have enough clients? Reach out man, we want to help!

    Here’s a reminder:

    If someone wanted to know the truth about anything in Ukraine Alex, the last person they would go to is you.

    Paragraphs and paragraphs of bollocks, dubious claims about “independent journalists”, random documentarians, conspiracy theorists, deluded claims that of course, have no backup, lie after lie after lie.

    Classical Kremlin troll approach. Just flood the internet, the comments, the media, with tosh, doesn’t matter what it is, just make sure you write some old nonsense. Make sure to say the claim is supported by some dude in Germany, France, the states. If it’s a “documentary” (usually from youtube) then the better.

    Anything that victimises Russia, always the victim, always the bullied, never the problem. It’s always the Nazis. It’s always some pseudo-historical point.

    Anyone that has had the misfortune to study your “tactics” sees the forest for the trees, the pattern of lies, disinformation, blanketing of random claims, deflection, obfuscation, and other words beyond your vocabulary.

    It’s hopeless Alex. Your lies are as short as your intellect. What a pathetic job, to sit in your government shed, spreading your pathetic, government lies.

    A pathetic job for a truly pathetic man. A better match could not be made in heaven.

  9. mcswell

    May 1, 2022 at 9:02 pm

    CK, you wrote to Alex “Reach out man, we want to help!” I have a thought on how we can help.

    Alex, you could sell copies of sanctions by Putin, with the buyer’s name on it, suitable for framing. Be the first on your block to be sanctioned by Putin!

    Even better, they could come in numbered limited editions. I call dibs on number 1.

    • CK

      May 2, 2022 at 9:09 am

      Hahaha, can you add my name to it too please?

      Fine, I’ll settle for No.2 I want to feel what it’s like to be in Alex’s shoes for once 😀 😀

  10. Arthur Foxache

    May 2, 2022 at 1:57 pm

    This is a lesson in poor reading comprehension. How this passed editorial review is a mystery, but here we are. According to this report,

    ‘…Victoria Nuland stated that thanks to U.S. military aid, Ukraine “already has multiple launch rocket systems”.

    Adding,

    ‘…he made it “absolutely clear” that “We already supply MLRS systems. And it wasn’t just us”.

    From which the reporter surmises,

    “The implication seemingly is that U.S. MRLS transfers had been kept under the table until this interview.”

    Mr. Roblin probably knows what he’s done in order to sensationalise a non-story to date. At no point in the above quotes does Ms Nuland imply, hint, or otherwise allude to the USA providing its own MLRS systems to Ukraine. It does confirm that the US has assisted in supplying former Soviet and Russian MLRS systems from allied nations.

    Kind regards,
    Arthur Foxache

  11. mister mcgoo

    June 1, 2022 at 3:09 pm

    Isis didn’t have mobile GPS jamming trucks, but Russia does. Be sure they will be blasting EM radiation at Navstar day and night. Your M30 and M31’s might then be rendered unreliable.

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