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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

U.S. ATACMS Missiles Could Make Russia Pay Dearly in Ukraine

ATACMS like Ukraine wants firing back in 2006. Image Credit: U.S. Army.
ATACMS firing back in 2006. Image Credit: U.S. Army.

With a long-range missile system called ATACMS, Ukraine would be able to fire munitions inside Russian borders and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has wanted the weapon since the war started. But shooting inside Russian territory is likely the reason the United States does not want ATACMS to proliferate in Ukraine. 

Attacks on Russian soil from an American missile system would be a provocative act that would escalate the war to another level, the Biden administration believes. Putin has said as much. So ATACMS may have to wait and remain on the Ukrainian wish list until further notice.

This Missile Would Be the Longest-Range Weapon In Ukraine

ATACMS stands for Army Tactical Missile System. The munitions can hit a target 186 miles away. The ATACMS can fire from a HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) launcher or other types of road mobile multiple-launch rocket systems. Ukraine currently has 16 HIMARS launchers that can fire GPS-guided rockets at a range of 50 miles. More of these systems are on the way as part of the latest U.S. aid package, but they will not be available for at least one year as they have to be manufactured first – not taken from existing U.S. stocks. 

Packs a Heavy-Duty Punch

The ATACMS is guided by GPS with a 500 pound fragmentary blast warhead. This is a solid-fueled missile that is 13 feet long and two feet in diameter. The missile weighs 3,681 pounds. ATACMS is nothing new. It made its first appearance in 1986 and was used to great effect during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. ATACMS maneuvers in flight, making it difficult for enemy air defense systems to track or shoot down. The missile is accurate with a Circular Error Probable of only 32 to 164 feet.

Better Than HIMARS Rockets?

Ukraine wants ATACMS so its army can destroy the targets that are farther away than what HIMARS can hit. ATACMS can devastate rear echelon targets such as airfields, supply depots, command and control centers, surface-to-air missiles, artillery, rocket launchers. ATACMS could also be configured to target railways that Russia uses to transport heavy equipment. This would be a considerable advantage to punishing the invading forces. The warhead can also be configured with an anti-personnel warhead with submunitions to engage troops in the open.

Delicate Situation Associated With Their Use 

The Kremlin is aware that Ukraine wants ATACMS and a Russian spokeswoman has stated their introduction into the war would constitute the crossing of a “red line.”

If Ukraine were to receive the ATACMS, the United States could restrict that it only be used inside Ukrainian territory and not to engage targets in Russia.

Republicans In Congress Support ATACMS Use 

In early September, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called for the Biden administration to use its drawdown authority to take existing stocks of ATACMS and send them to Ukraine. 

“Ukraine needs more tanks, fighting vehicles, longer-range rockets, artillery and air defense systems, more HIMARS, more drones and preparatory training in western fighter aircraft,” McConnell said during a speech on the Senate floor. “Now is not the time for hesitating, hand-wringing or self-deterring from the administration.”

The White House could change its mind about ATACMS. It earlier avoided sending HIMARS to Ukraine but reversed course and decided to send the rocket system to the Zelenskyy’s forces after all. ATACMS does have the risk of increasing Vladimir Putin’s odds of launching strikes at NATO countries or even using weapons of mass destruction. ATACMS would surely get his attention and would be a way to call Putin’s bluff, although he has said he is “not bluffing” about using nuclear weapons. ATACMS deployment is a risk, and the United States may just decide that HIMARS is sufficient for now.

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.