WASHINGTON — The most advanced weapons the United States has so far supplied to Ukraine are making an impact in their first days on the battlefield, destroying Russian ammunition depots and command centers, according to US and Ukrainian officials.
The Ukrainian military was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first batch of truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers, whose satellite-guided rockets have a range of more than 40 miles, greater than anything Ukraine possessed. The weapons have even earned grudging respect from some Russians for their precision 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 combat, though four more are expected this month. Ukrainian officials say they need 300 multiple rocket launchers to fight Russia, which is firing several times more rounds than Ukrainian forces in the artillery-led attrition war in the east of the country.
Ukrainian soldiers are using their new weapon wisely, firing one or two guided rockets at munitions dumps or command posts, often at night, and steering them away from front lines to protect them, Pentagon officials and analysts said. military.
“So far they seem like a very useful addition,” Rob Lee, a Russian military specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a former US Navy officer, said of the systems. “They will help hinder further Russian advances, but they will not necessarily mean that Ukraine will be able to regain territory.”
HIMARS are the centerpiece of a series of new Western long-range weapons that the outgunned Ukrainian army is turning to as its arsenal of Soviet-era howitzers and rocket ammunition dwindles.
Western weapons are more precise and highly mobile, but take weeks to deploy from the United States and Europe and train soldiers to use them. Meanwhile, the Russian army is making slow but methodical gains in the eastern region of Donbass, where both sides have suffered heavy casualties.
The Biden administration has said all eight HIMARS should be in Ukraine by mid-July. The first group of 60 Ukrainian soldiers trained to use them are now firing the combat-guided rockets, and a second group is undergoing training in Germany. Britain and Germany have each pledged three similar multiple rocket launchers.
A senior Pentagon official said this week that the Ukrainians appeared to be using HIMARS with deadly efficiency and that the four additional systems would be deployed in “the near future”.
At a NATO summit in Madrid on Thursday, President Biden pledged an additional $800 million in security aid to Ukraine, including more ammunition for the HIMARS. The United States has committed nearly $7 billion in military aid since the war began in February.
Since Russia focused its campaign on the east after failing to capture 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, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov announced the arrival of the first American HIMARS, promising in a Twitter post, “The summer will be hot for the Russian occupiers. And the last for some of them.
Two days later, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the Commander-in-Chief of Ukrainian Forces, posted a video on the HIMARS social media site Telegram in use. “The gunners of the Armed Forces of Ukraine skilfully hit certain targets – the enemy’s military installations on our Ukrainian territory,” he said.
U.S. officials said the Ukrainian statements were accurate, and Mr. Lee added that even the Russian accounts acknowledged the HIMARS were early successes.
“In general, it seems they respect them and realize that they are quite capable,” 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, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said in June that Ukraine needed 300 multiple rocket launchers and 500 tanks, among other things, to achieve battlefield parity – several times as many weapons heavier than promised.
Michael G. Vickers, former senior civilian Pentagon official for counterinsurgency strategy, said the Ukrainians needed at least 60, and possibly as many as 100, HIMARS or other rocket systems to multiple launch to win the artillery battle.
“There are many that could be provided with minimal strategic risk,” said Vickers, who was the CIA’s chief arming strategist for anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s.
Mr. Lee noted that the future success of the HIMARS and other multiple rocket launchers depended not only on the number sent, but also on the amount and type of ammunition provided by the United States and other allies.
The transition to American-made rockets was forced in part by the supply problems the Ukrainian military faced.
Ukraine has three types of Russian-made mobile rocket launchers, but only the ammunition for the one with the shortest range is produced by its allies. Ammunition for Ukrainian long-range artillery rockets is produced only by Russia and Belarus.
For HIMARS, Ukrainian forces rely on a guided rocket that is aided by GPS signals and accurate to about 30 feet from its target. Before launch, a crew of three enters the coordinates of each strike.
After a NATO meeting in Brussels on June 15, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said that guided rockets, fired both from new launchers supplied by the United States that can carry a pack of six rockets, and the launchers from Britain and Germany that can carry twice as much, were far more capable than the Russian-made artillery rockets that were used on the battlefield.
“These are precision munitions, and with a properly trained crew, they will hit what they aim for,” Austin said. “Over time, we believe the combination of what allies and partners can bring to the table will make a difference.”
In addition to firing long-range guided munitions, wheeled HIMARS trucks have the advantage of speed. Not only can they get to a firing point quickly, but they can program targets along the way, launch their rockets one at a time or in a ripple of sixes in a minute, and reload much faster than anything used by the Russians.
With 200 pounds of high explosives in each rocket, a HIMARS salvo can rival the devastating effect of an airstrike from a jet loaded with precision-guided bombs.
Following Austin’s remarks to NATO, Gen. Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hinted at the effect HIMARS could have in the hands of the Ukrainians.
“If they use the weapon correctly,” General Milley said, “they should be able to take out a significant number of targets.”