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To hear Ukrainian military officials tell it in recent days, the indispensable weapon in month five of their defensive war against Russian invaders is the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, an armored-vehicle-mounted long-range artillery launcher.
“HIMARS have already made a HUUUGE difference on the battlefield,” tweeted Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov on July 9. “More of them as well as [U.S.] ammo & equipment will increase our strength and help to demilitarize the terrorist state,” he wrote, referring to Russia.
So it no doubt came as gratifying news in Kyiv that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed Wednesday that Washington would send another four HIMARS platforms, which, he added, Ukraine has been “using so effectively and which have made such a difference on the battlefield.”
HIMARS strikes have indeed been devastating, and the Russian military simply has no counter for their range, accuracy and mobility; the M31 series rockets that have been supplied with the HIMARS have the ability to hit a target within a 16-foot radius at a range of 52 miles. Because it’s on wheels, the launcher can be on the move seconds after firing, making it incredibly well protected against Russian counterbatteries.
Since the U.S. began supplying HIMARS in late June, the Ukrainians have managed three things simultaneously. First, according to Valery Zaluzhny, commander in chief of the Ukraine Armed Forces, their use has been an “important contributing factor” in “stabiliz[ing]” the front in the Donbas region, where Russia had been making slow but unmistakable gains, including capturing the sister cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. The situation there, Zaluzhny said, is “complex, tense, but completely controllable.” (Contrast that sanguine tone with the catastrophic losses in manpower that Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, were citing just weeks ago, when 100 to 200 Ukrainian soldiers were being killed per day.)
Scores of Russian ammunition depots deep inside occupied parts of the Donbas have now gone up in smoke on a near daily basis in the last few weeks, prompting a host of new memes on Twitter and war watchers to routinely refer to the arrival of “HIMARS o’clock.” These strikes have been so punishing to the Russians' efforts to resupply their own artillery systems, which far outnumber the Ukrainians’, that Moscow announced an operational “pause” in its campaign in the Donbas on July 7.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered generals to prioritize destroying the HIMARS and other long-range artillery during a visit to the front in Ukraine on July 18, a tacit acknowledgment of how significant their impact has been.
Second, HIMARS helped Ukraine recapture the strategically vital Snake Island, in the Black Sea, scene of the famous retort to a Russian battleship from a besieged Ukrainian soldier, “Russian warship, go f*** yourself.” Even though not directly used against Russian positions on the island, the very presence of HIMARS weapons on the battlefield, in conjunction with Western-supplied anti-ship missiles such as Harpoons, has weighed heavily in Russia’s strategic calculation that holding the island would prove impossible in the long term.
A high-ranking Ukrainian military intelligence official told Yahoo News that Russia’s withdrawal from Snake Island, which the Kremlin tried to spin as a “goodwill gesture,” demonstrated a “real fear of our new long-range artillery capability.”
“We’ve hugely expanded our range of operational control over the Black Sea coast, and we’ve stopped the Russians from conducting amphibious operations in this area,” the official, who requested anonymity, said.
The official added that Russia’s hasty pullback has yielded a bonanza of actionable intelligence and matériel for Ukrainians. “Our team was able to find ammunition, different types of weapons, combat and personnel documents and even packed-up-and-ready-to-use aerial reconnaissance systems that the Russians absolutely need,” the official said.
Third, HIMARS has allowed Kyiv to prepare for an upcoming counteroffensive in the southern region of Kherson, the first major population center to fall to Vladimir Putin’s forces since the Russian invasion was launched on Feb. 24.
On July 11, HIMARS destroyed a Russian command center at the serially pummeled Chornobaivka Airport, killing 12 senior Russian officers, including Maj. Gen. Artem Nasbulin, chief of staff of the 22nd Army Corps, according to Serhiy Bratchuk, a Ukrainian official in the Odesa regional military administration.
This is an impressive troika of accomplishments for any weapons platform in just under a month of operations, especially given how few HIMARS launchers there are in Ukraine.
The United States supplied an initial four systems on June 23. In what is now a familiar “proof of concept” pattern of American security assistance, more were approved once the Ukrainians demonstrated their effectiveness on the battlefield.
As of July 20, a total of 16 U.S.-supplied HIMARS systems are either in the country or on their way, in addition to European equivalents: The Ukrainians have been purposefully ambiguous on how many systems are active for reasons of operational security. The U.K. has pledged six of the M270B1, an even more powerful version of the HIMARS, of which three have already arrived, and the Germans have committed three MARS II MLRS, another HIMARS cousin, that are due to arrive at the end of July. In total, Ukraine will soon take possession of 25 long-range Western artillery systems.
Reznikov, the Ukrainian defense minister, said at a July 19 event hosted by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Atlantic Council that Ukraine needs double that number to deter Russia, and quadruple it to wage any successful counteroffensive.
For Ukrainian troops who have long complained about Russian artillery supremacy in the Donbas, the arrival of HIMARS and its European equivalents would prove a much-needed shot in the arm, Ukrainian military officials say. For Ukrainian civilians, the weaponry delivered to date has meant a respite from unremitting carnage. The United Nations assesses that 4,731 civilians have been killed and 5,900 have been injured.
Originally designed to monitor forest fires, NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) satellite network has been used throughout the war by professionals and amateurs alike to chart the blazes that have resulted from artillery fire. All the recent FIRMS data points to a large reduction in Russia's activity along the line of contact as its heavy guns and multiple rocket launchers well beyond that line are destroyed in nightly HIMARS attacks by Ukrainian forces.
One of the key features of the HIMARS system is its modular nature, giving it the ability to fire a range of different rockets. In addition to being capable of firing M31 rockets, the system can fire one of the larger and more destructive Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) ballistic missiles.
With a range of up to 186 miles and the same pinpoint accuracy of M31, the United States had held off supplying ATACMS to the Ukrainians for fear they would be used to strike targets within Russia itself and set off an escalatory spiral that could drag NATO countries and Russia into a direct conflict.
President Biden appeared to rule out sending ATACMS to Ukraine in a May 31 New York Times op-ed in which he emphasized the limits to American military support.
“We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders,” he wrote.
Of late, however, fears that Ukraine would use long-range artillery to attack targets inside Russia seem to have subsided. Kyiv has stuck to its agreement with Washington not to use HIMARS to hit inside Russia. And Reznikov recently told the Financial Times that he was confident Ukraine would eventually receive the ATACMS tactical ballistic missile.
If the U.S. does decide to send ATACMS, that too could fundamentally change the course of the war, putting the Kerch Bridge — Russia’s only direct connection to the occupied Crimean Peninsula — and the Sevastopol Naval Base, home to what remains of its Black Sea Fleet, well within striking distance.
Kaimo Kuusk, the Estonian ambassador to Ukraine, told Yahoo News that the Russians have already grown skittish over Ukraine's long-range fire capability, as evidenced by the relocation of a “significant number” of ships in the Black Sea Fleet from its home port of Sevastopol in Crimea to Novorossiysk in southern Russia. “As the Ukrainians advance, Sevastopol will be within reach, and Moscow cannot afford another humiliation like the sinking of the Moskva,” Kuusk said, referring to Ukraine’s sinking of the flagship Russian cruiser on April 14 with domestically manufactured anti-ship missiles.
Maj. Gen. Volodymyr Havrylov, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, told Yahoo News that the relocation could well be Moscow’s way of hedging its bets against heavier-duty artillery being sent to Ukraine. Asked if the Black Sea Fleet was quitting Crimean ports in anticipation of ATACMS, Havrylov responded, “I think so.”
According to Thomas Theiner, a former artillery specialist in the Italian army, ATACMS would dramatically worsen Russia’s growing strategic nightmare. “These missiles are 100% accurate up to a range of 186 miles,” he said, adding that the two most recent ATACMS versions, the M48 and M57 with the WAU-23/B warhead, carry 216 pounds of high explosives, “making them ideal to take out things like bridges.” The Russians, moreover, can’t intercept these rockets, which travel at more than three times the speed of sound, because their guidance software varies their flight patterns to confuse enemy air defenses.
ATACMS can eliminate even Russia’s best air-defense platform — the S-400 — and apart from destroying ammunition depots and command centers, they could also wipe out stocks of Kalibr cruise missiles stored in Crimea, which the Russians have fired on Ukrainian cities, often in retaliation for military losses.
“Even if the U.S. forbids the Ukrainians from targeting the Kerch Bridge,” Theiner said, noting that it could be interpreted as an attack on infrastructure that extends into Russian territory, “a few kilometers from it is a rail tunnel, which ATACMS can easily destroy by hitting it from either end. It would spell the end of all Russian logistics in the peninsula.”
The Ukrainians appear to be preparing the battlefield for a counteroffensive just north of Crimea. They struck the Antonovskiy Bridge in Kherson Oblast twice, on July 20 and 21, the second time forcing the Russians to close the bridge for repairs. The bridge is the main road link across the Dnieper River and a key artery for the logistics and reinforcements flowing to Russian occupiers in Kherson.
These preliminary strikes are believed to be largely symbolic, and the Antonovskiy Bridge was not heavily damaged. A former Western intelligence official told Yahoo News that hitting it twice was “an attempt to put psychological pressure on the Russians, to make them afraid that at a certain point they won’t be able to evacuate their troops from the west bank of the [Dnieper].”
“If we take for granted that in the event the Russians leave Kherson, they’ll destroy the two bridges crossing the river anyway,” the ex-official said, and added, “The Ukrainians may think it’s better not to give them a chance of a more or less controlled withdrawal.”
Pro-Russian military commentators on social media have grudgingly admitted that Ukrainian artillery strikes run the risk of making the bridge unusable for heavy military traffic, assuming it isn’t collapsed completely. The highly trafficked “Starshe Eddy” channel on Telegram was downright envious of Ukraine’s new capability and determination.
“The Armed Forces of Ukraine are doing what we should have done a long time ago, namely, they are destroying the bridge across the Dnieper in Kherson. The goal is obvious, to interrupt military logistics between the left bank and our foothold on the right bank,” a recent message read. “It is difficult to physically destroy the bridge itself, but to make its work impossible or extremely difficult is quite a feasible task. To do this, they will strike every day, preventing repair teams from restoring what was destroyed. Why we don’t do the same with the Ukrainian bridges across the Dnieper, I don’t understand.”
For the Ukrainians, the upcoming push in the south, which Reznikov has claimed will be made up of “a million-strong army,” has been given new impetus by Russian designs, according to U.S. intelligence, to hold sham “referendums” and then annex occupied Donbas territories à la Crimea. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to confirm those plans in an interview with Russian state media on July 20. “Now the geography is different,” he said. “And it is not only [Russian-occupied areas in Donbas] but also the Kherson region, the Zaporizhzhia region, and a number of other territories, and the process continues, and it continues consequently and persistently.”
Tellingly, Lavrov specified that “if the West delivers long-range weapons to Kyiv, the geographic goals of the special operation in Ukraine will expand even more,” in a further indication of just how seriously Moscow views these weapons systems.
With additional reporting by James Rushton in Kyiv