WASHINGTON – The most advanced weapons the United States has so far supplied to Ukraine are having an impact on its first days on the battlefield, destroying Russian ammunition depots and command centers, U.S. and Ukrainian officials say.
Ukraine’s military had eagerly awaited the arrival of the first batch of truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers, whose satellite-guided rockets have a range of more than 40 miles, longer than anything Ukraine has ever possessed. The weapons have even grudgingly earned respect from some Russians for their accuracy and power, analysts said.
Still, only four of the launchers, called High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, and their US-trained crews are in the fight, though four more are expected this month. Ukrainian officials say they need up to 300 multiple rocket launchers to combat Russia, which is firing several times more than Ukraine’s forces in the artillery-driven war of attrition in the country’s east.
Ukrainian soldiers are using their new weapon wisely, firing one or two guided rockets at ammunition dumps or command posts, often at night, and keeping them well away from the front lines to protect them, Pentagon officials and military analysts say.
“So far, they seem to be a pretty useful addition,” Rob Lee, a Russian military specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a former U.S. Navy officer, said of the systems. Russian advances, but they will not necessarily mean that Ukraine will be able to recover territory.
HIMARS are the centerpiece of a series of new long-range Western weapons that the outgunned Ukrainian military is switching to as its stockpile of Soviet-era howitzer and rocket ammunition dwindles.
Western weapons are more accurate and highly mobile, but they take weeks to deploy from the United States and Europe and to train soldiers to use them. Meanwhile, Russia’s military is making slow but methodical advances in the eastern Donbas region, where both sides have suffered heavy losses.
The Biden administration says all eight HIMARS should be in Ukraine by mid-July. The first group of 60 Ukrainian soldiers trained to use them is now firing the guided rockets into battle, and a second group is undergoing training in Germany. Britain and Germany have each promised three similar multiple rocket launchers.
A senior Pentagon official said this week that the Ukrainians appear to be using HIMARS with lethal effectiveness and that the four additional systems will be deployed in “the near future.”
At a NATO summit in Madrid on Thursday, President Biden pledged $800 million more in security assistance to Ukraine, including more ammunition for HIMARS. The United States has committed nearly $7 billion in military aid since the war began in February.
With Russia focusing its campaign on the east after failing to seize Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and other northern cities, Ukrainian officials have pleaded with the United States and other allies for more advanced artillery.
On June 23, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov announced that the first American HIMARS had arrived, promising in a Twitter message, “Summer will be hot for the Russian occupiers. And the last for some of them.”
Two days later, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the top commander of the Ukrainian forces, posted a video on the Telegram social networking site of HIMARS in use. “The artillerymen of the Armed Forces of Ukraine skillfully hit certain targets – the military installations of the enemy on our Ukrainian territory”, he said.
US officials said the Ukrainian statements were accurate, with Lee adding that even Russian accounts acknowledged HIMARS was an early success.
“In general, they seem to respect them and realize they are quite capable,” Mr. Lee said, citing a popular Russian Telegram channel whose posts are shared by Russian defense accounts.
There is still a debate about how many multiple rocket launchers Ukraine needs.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, said in June that Ukraine needed 300 multiple launch rocket systems and 500 tanks, among other things, to achieve battlefield parity, several times more heavy weaponry than promised. .
Michael G. Vickers, a former senior civilian Pentagon official for counterinsurgency strategy, said the Ukrainians needed at least 60, and perhaps as many as 100, HIMARS or other multiple launch rocket systems to win the artillery battle.
“There are plenty available that could be supplied with minimal strategic risk,” said Vickers, who was the CIA’s chief strategist for arming anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s.
Mr. Lee noted that the future success of HIMARS and other multiple rocket launchers depended not only on the number shipped, but also on the quantity and type of ammunition provided by the United States and other allies.
The transition to US-made rocket weapons was forced in part by supply problems the Ukrainian military has faced.
Ukraine has three types of Russian-made mobile rocket launchers, but its allies only produce ammunition for the one with the shortest range. Ammunition for Ukraine’s longer-range artillery rockets is manufactured solely by Russia and Belarus.
For HIMARS, Ukrainian forces rely on a guided rocket that is aided by GPS signals and is accurate to within about 30 feet of its intended target. Before launch, a crew of three enters the coordinates for each attack.
After a NATO meeting in Brussels on June 15, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said the guided rockets, fired both by new launchers provided by the United States that can carry a six-pack of rockets, and by launchers from Britain and Germany that can carry twice that, were far more capable than Russian-made artillery rocket weapons that have been used on the battlefield.
“These are precision munitions, and with a properly trained crew, they will hit the target they are aiming at,” said Mr. Austin. “Over time, we believe that the combination of what allies and partners can bring to the table will make a difference.”
In addition to firing long-range guided munitions, HIMARS wheeled trucks have the advantage of speed. Not only can they quickly drive to a firing point, but they can also program targets along the way, launch their rockets individually or in a wave of all six in a minute, and reload much faster than anything in use by the Russians.
With 200 pounds of high explosives in each rocket, a HIMARS salvo can rival the devastating effect of a jet airstrike loaded with precision-guided bombs.
Following Mr. Austin’s remarks at NATO, Gen. Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hinted at the effect HIMARS might have on Ukraine’s hands.
“If they use the weapon correctly,” General Milley said, “they should be able to take out a significant number of targets.”