HIMARS Launchers: Ukraine’s Ace

As the Ukrainian war creeps towards the one-year mark, it’s clear Putin’s vision of a quick and easy takeover hasn’t quite gone to plan. And one key factor in Ukraine’s ability to make progress against Russian offensives has been the HIMARS rocket system.

What are HIMARS?

HIMARS is an acronym that stands for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. Essentially, they’re truck-mounted launchers that can fire multiple satellite-guided rockets over long distances, in quick succession.

The US has been supplying Kyiv with the missile launchers since June, with dozens of American HIMARS vehicles used to carry out strikes on hundreds of Russian targets.

The US has supplied Ukraine with at least 20 HIMARS to date.

“HIMARS is one of the world’s most advanced rocket artillery systems,” says Ian Williams, commenting on the key role they have played in the war. “Its range is farther than anything the Ukrainians had, so when that was transferred they did get the ability to strike targets deeper behind the front-lines and much more accurately.” Williams is the deputy director of CSIS’s Missile Defense Project.

Of course, while HIMARS has become a household name, the missiles they fire are just as important.

Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems – GMLRS – are artillery rockets with a range of about 80 kilometres, and the main rockets used on HIMARS in Ukraine. They can reach targets more than double the range of the howitzer guns the US was previously providing Ukraine with.

There are also missiles with an even longer reach than GMLRS: Army Tactile Missile Systems, which have a whopping 300-kilometre range.

However, the US has not given Ukraine any ATACMS, and in fact quietly modified their HIMARS launchers to prevent the use of ATACMS before sending them to Ukraine. This was in order to prevent Kyiv from using long-range missiles to hit targets within Russia proper and thus potentially inviting a bigger US-Russia armed conflict.

Why have they been so crucial in Ukraine?

HIMARS have stepped up Ukraine’s strike competency. They have a longer range than previously-used weapons, allowing forces to attack targets Russia thought were safe, especially weapons stockpiles and key infrastructure.

They can also move around quickly because they’re truck-mounted, enabling a fast getaway and making it hard for Russia to destroy them. And they’re more efficient because the missiles they use don’t need to be individually re-loaded.

HIMARS launchers were crucial to the liberation of Kherson, when Ukraine used them to hit bridges into the city, cutting off supply lines and escape routes and eventually forcing a retreat. They’ve been successful in making dent after dent in Russia’s campaign – even Zelensky proclaimed that “Himars and other precision weapons are turning the course of war in our favour.”

Most HIMARS targets have been Russian infrastructure locations, including supply lines.

Most recently, Ukraine used HIMARS rockets in their deadly New Year’s Day attack in Donetsk province.

The attack was the first notable time Ukraine has used HIMARS to target an area of concentrated troops, rather than Russian infrastructure. Russian officials have reported 89 casualties, but Kyiv claims deaths were in the hundreds.

The success of HIMARS rockets in Ukraine has been noted by other countries worried about future conflict. Lockheed Martin is ramping up their production capabilities after receiving increased orders for the rocket systems from Estonia and Poland

Even Australia is jumping on the bandwagon. Richard Marles, our Defence Minister, announced earlier this month that Australia would acquire HIMARS systems from the US. The systems will be in use as early as 2026.

“In the current strategic environment, it’s important the Australian Defence Force is equipped with high-end, targeted military capabilities,” said Marles.

Cover photo: “HIMARS fire” by Fort Bragg is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

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