WASHINGTON — The most advanced weapons the United States has supplied to Ukraine so far impresses in their first few days on the battlefield, destroying Russian ammunition depots and command centers, US and Ukrainian officials say.
The Ukrainian military had eagerly awaited the arrival of the first batch of truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers, whose satellite-guided missiles have a range of more than 40 miles, greater than anything Ukraine possessed. The weapons have even reluctantly gained the respect of some Russians for their accuracy and strength, analysts said.
Still, only four of the launchers, called High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems or HIMARS, and their US-trained crews are in combat, with four more expected this month. Ukrainian officials say they need as many as 300 multiple rocket launchers to fight Russia, which is firing several times as many rounds as Ukrainian forces in the artillery-driven war of attrition in the east of the country.
Ukrainian soldiers use their new weaponry wisely, firing one or two guided missiles at ammunition depots 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. Naval officer, said of the systems. “They will help hinder further Russian advance, but they will not necessarily mean Ukraine will be able to take back territory.”
The HIMARS are the centerpiece of a series of new Western long-range weapons to which the underprivileged Ukrainian military is switching as its arsenal of Soviet-era howitzer and missile ammunition dwindles.
Western weapons are more accurate 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 systematic gains in the eastern region of Donbas, 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 missiles into battle, and a second group is undergoing training in Germany. Britain and Germany have each promised three similar rocket launchers.
A senior Pentagon official this week said the Ukrainians appear to be using the HIMARS with deadly 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 the HIMARS. The United States has pledged nearly $7 billion in military aid since the war started in February.
Since Russia turned its campaign east after failing to capture Ukraine’s capital Kiev and other cities to the north, Ukrainian officials have begged the United States and other allies for more advanced artillery.
On June 23, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov announced that the first US HIMARS had arrived. in a Twitter postSummer is getting hot for the Russian occupier. And the last one for some of them.”
Two days later, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the Supreme Commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, posted a video on the HIMARS social media site Telegram which is in use. “Artillerymen of the armed forces of Ukraine skillfully hit certain targets – the military facilities of the enemy on our Ukrainian territory,” he said.
US officials said the Ukrainian statements were correct, and Mr. Lee added that even Russian accounts acknowledged that the HIMARS were early successes.
“In general, it seems they respect them and realize that they are very capable,” Mr Lee said, referring to a popular Russian Telegram channel whose messages are shared by Russian defense accounts.
There is still an ongoing debate about how many multiple rocket launchers Ukraine needs.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, said in June that Ukraine needed, among other things, 300 multiple missile systems and 500 tanks to achieve equal opportunities on the battlefield — several times as many heavy weapons as promised.
Michael G. Vickers, the Pentagon’s top civilian official for counter-insurgency strategy, said the Ukrainians needed at least 60, if not 100, of HIMARS or other multiple missile systems to win the artillery battle.
“There are plenty that can be delivered with minimal strategic risk,” said Mr Vickers, who was the chief CIA strategist for arming 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 how many shipped, but also on how much and what type of ammunition the United States and other allies supplied.
The transition to US-made missile weapons has been forced in part by the supply problems facing the Ukrainian military.
Ukraine has three types of Russian-made mobile rocket launchers, but ammunition for only the shortest range is produced by its allies. Ammunition for Ukraine’s longer-range artillery missiles is made exclusively by Russia and Belarus.
For the HIMARS, Ukrainian forces rely on a guided missile that is supported by GPS signals and is accurate to within about 10 meters of the intended target. Before launch, a three-person crew enters the coordinates for each attack.
After a NATO meeting in Brussels on June 15, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said the guided missiles fired by both the new US-supplied launchers capable of carrying one pack of six missiles and the launchers from Britain and Germany, 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 well-trained crew they will hit what they’re aiming for,” said Mr Austin. “Over time, we think the combination of what the allies and partners can bring will make all the difference.”
In addition to firing long-range guided ammunition, the HIMARS wheeled trucks have the advantage of speed. Not only can they drive quickly to a firing point, they can program targets along the way, launch their missiles individually or in a ripple of all six in under a minute, and reload much faster than anything used by the Russians.
With 200 pounds of high explosives in each missile, a HIMARS salvo can match the devastating effect of an air strike from a jet loaded with precisely guided bombs.
Following Mr Austin’s comments to NATO, General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, alluded to the effect HIMARS could have in Ukrainian hands.
“If they use the weapon correctly,” General Milley said, “they should be able to take out a significant number of targets.”