ATACMS for Ukraine? As Ukraine prepares for its highly anticipated springtime counter-offensive, some analysts wonder if the country has the weaponry needed to succeed. For fourteen-plus months, Ukrainian forces have struggled to resist Moscow’s brutal offensive efforts. The U.S., along with other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, has provided Kyiv with extensive military aid, ranging from main battle tanks (MBT) to High munitions to Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems.
While America has largely acquiesced to Kyiv’s aid requests over the last year, the White House remains resistant to providing the country with a handful of platforms, including the F-16 fighter jet and MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS).
The U.S. remains resistant to sending ATACMS to Ukraine
Initially, U.S. officials were wary that providing Ukraine with 190-mile long-range missiles would escalate the conflict. With this capability, Kyiv could launch cross-border barrages into Russian territory, a situation that the Biden team does not want to unfold.
In February, the White House provided an alternate reason that it would not approve the delivery of ATAMCS to Kyiv. U.S. officials told Kyiv representatives that it did not possess enough ATACMS to spare. America’s already dwindling arsenal of these long-range missiles would threaten its military readiness if reduced even more.
The Pentagon’s top policy official for Eastern Europe explained that “with every single capability that we provide, whether you’re talking, you know, HIMARS or you’re talking a particular kind of missile or ammunition, we’re always looking at the availability of our stocks, we’re looking at production considerations, and so that’s true of every capability, and we make decisions accordingly.”
Thursday’s alleged drone attack highlights the White House’s concerns
While both reasons not to send over ATACMS to Kyiv appear reasonable, a recent incident emphasizes the former. On Thursday night, Moscow claimed that a Ukrainian-launched drone struck the Kremlin. Russian-state media outlets and social media channels circulated alleged videos and photographs of the scene and its aftermath, however, no independent source has verified the content.
The Kremlin insists that it will “retaliate” for this “act of terrorism,” indicating that an imminent assault on Kyiv is likely and would be justified by the purported drone attack. Although U.S. officials are not convinced this incident did actually play out like Moscow claims, the situation clearly depicts why sending Kyiv a long-range missile system like ATACMS could inflame the already volatile conflict.
Specs and capabilities
ATACMS is a series of solid-propellant fueled, surface-to-surface, road-mobile ballistic missiles developed during the Cold War. This weapon system is packaged in a MLRS launch pod and fired from the MLRS Family of Launchers. Since its introduction to service, ATACMS has undergone several facelifts over the years to improve its software, guidance systems and command and control. Today, the system weighs under 4,000 pounds and fires missiles with a flight ceiling of 160,00 feet and a top speed of Mach 3.0.
As explained by Military Today, ATACMS is a “quasi-ballistic” maneuvering missile that can perform rapid turns and course corrections as it travels to its targets. Munition-wise, ATACMS can fire a variety of warheads, including anti-personnel submunitions which can widen mid-flight to potentially hit a moving target of a larger area with explosives.
As noted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “the system released the Brilliant Anti-Tank (BAT) submunitions over an area and the munitions found and homed in on vehicles. It was intended to attack and destroy moving armored units or stationary missile/rocket vehicles. The missile had a range of 140 km (87 miles) and was to be deployed with a single 268 kg warhead.”
As the summer months approach, an uptick in violence in Ukraine is expected. The ongoing battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is already considered the bloodiest conflict to unfold since last February. The addition of advanced Western MBTs in conjunction with other equipment shipments will certainly aid Kyiv’s counter-offensive, but will it be enough to thwart Russia’s advancements in the country? Regardless, the U.S. appears committed to not providing its long-range ATACMS munitions to Kyiv.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.