If you left all military means to their own merits when Russia launched its “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine on February 23, 2022, chances are Ukraine would have been overwhelmed within the first month.
The Ukrainian defenders, however, proved as skilful as they were stubborn. They also made the most of the time gained by their resistance, convincing the United States and many European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to “donate” selected weapons from their arsenals to supplement the Ukrainians’ original stocks of Soviet-made ammunition. As these sophisticated Western weapons arrived, their technical advantages inflicted such heavy casualties that they slowed the Russian advance. In May, the ground war amounted to a struggle between Ukrainian technical and tactical superiority and the large number of simpler equipment deployed by the Russians.
The biggest handicap for Ukrainians was the limited number and late arrival of Western donations. Among the most coveted weapons whose arrival seemed forever postponed was an American missile launcher designated the M142 but better known as HIMARS, for “high mobility artillery rocket system”.
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Developed in the 1990s and entering military service in 2010, the Lockheed Martin M142 is a wheeled version of the M270 Tracked Armored Rocket Launcher System, or MLRS. At 23 feet long, 7 feet 10 inches wide, and 10 feet 6 inches tall, it weighs a total of 35,800 pounds.
Its payload is a pod of six M30/M31 GMLRS rockets, two PrSM missiles or a Lockheed Martin ATACMS missile. These surface-to-surface missiles are satellite-driven and can travel up to 52 miles with a one-meter deviation from the target – a range and accuracy surpassing that of any of its contemporaries. For comparison, the Soviet-era Russian BM-27 Uragan (“Hurricane”) 220mm multiple rocket launcher has a range of 20 miles with a margin of error of half a mile. Although it contains only one missile pod, rather than the two on the MLRS, the more agile HIMARS is designed to “pull and spin”, regularly changing position at speeds of up to 53 mph – in plus what it is airborne.
This performance doesn’t come cheap: each system costs $5 million to produce. The self-preservation in the field of the weapon and its three-man crew favor night launches, and even they produce a telltale flare that required constant changes of position. This is facilitated by the fact that the vehicle is ready to move two minutes after launch.
HIMARS Service History
The M142 entered service in 2010, supporting NATO forces in Afghanistan, as well as the Turkish military, Syrian Democratic Forces, and Iraqi government troops fighting Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. On October 21, 2010, The New York Times reported a HIMARS unit active in a battle in Kandahar that ended in the withdrawal of Taliban leaders in Pakistan – although they would return. On May 24, 2018, an M142 unit landed three missiles in a building in Musa Qala in 14 seconds, killing 50 Taliban fighters holed up inside. By the time the Afghan war officially ended in August 2022, the overall US effort was a failure, but HIMARS units had logged a total of one million operational hours and maintained a 99% operational readiness rate.
With all the deadly effectiveness it has to offer, the HIMARS was high on Ukraine’s shopping list alongside the Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles and the M777 and CAESAR howitzers. Besides the cost of the weapon, however, its exceptional range adds a political dimension by hitting Russian soil and potentially escalating the war. After two months of negotiations during which Ukraine assured that it would use the weapons exclusively for internal defence, the first four M142s arrived in Europe in June 2022, as part of a 700 million aid package of dollars. Since the manuals were published by the U.S. military, Ukrainian aircrew who did not speak English spent their two-week training periods in hands-on familiarization, ready to jot down selected instructions in notebooks.
The four M142s and their crews deployed to Ukraine on June 25, with the stated priority of being used against Russian command posts in warehouses and other static positions. Shortly after, the Ukrainians said they used the missiles on such a CP in Izyum, killing 40 Russians, including a senior officer identified as Colonel Andrei Vasilyev.
A journalist’s subsequent visit to the front included an M142 whose crew members had settled into their homes with a scantily clad woman, air freshener, prayer beads and three black skulls depicting destroyed Russian targets. “We actually have six,” the system chief, identified only as “Kuzya,” told The Washington Post. “We just haven’t had a chance to add the other three yet.”
Subsequent Ukrainian reports have so far indicated that Russian defenses are proving ineffective against long-range HIMARS, and on July 12, Serhiy Bratchuk, a spokesman for the Odessa Regional Army, announced the “liquidation” of Major General Artyom Nasbulin, Chief of Staff of the 22n/a Army Corps, when HIMARS missiles hit its headquarters in the Kherson region. If confirmed, he would be the ninth Russian general officer killed in action since February 24, 2022.
In June, four more M142s were prepositioned in Europe under a $450 million US aid package, ready to train a second iteration of crew members. The Ukrainian army has said it needs at least 100 HIMARS and other long-range munitions if it is to have any prospect of defeating the Russians. This number will not be available immediately, but on July 21, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III promised four more HIMARS. Earlier in the week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered his generals in Ukraine to give the highest priority to destroying enemy long-range missiles and artillery.
It would therefore seem that the first HIMARS, however few in number, have made their presence known. Like its stablemates, the M142 will pit its outstanding battlefield performance and crew skill against the raw mass numbers of its opponents…with the end result yet to be decided.
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