Short for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, HIMARS is a compact truck with a launcher capable of using different types of GPS-guided missiles to hit targets up to 50 miles away. The launchers are extremely powerful, capable of obliterating buildings with an explosive firestorm in seconds. They are also quick to set up and use, able to be ready to attack in just minutes, fire missiles in the blink of an eye, and quickly close shop to abandon their position, avoiding being caught for target by the enemy.
Despite its complicated-looking interface, HIMARS offers computer-assisted operation and simple instructions, which were a decisive factor in the success of Ukraine’s counter-offensive operation.
“Artillery for Dummies”
The United States has begun returning HIMARS units to Ukraine in June. Speak end of July, the Ukrainian army had deployed 16 units. A few days later, on August 3, multiple reports began to appear, describing Russian command centers and logistics depots destroyed by HIMARS batteries. The Ukraine was wreaking havoc all over the Russian lines, reducing their ability to resupply. By the end of the month, it was clear that weapons were essential to turn the tide of war. They proved so effective, in fact, that the Russian Ministry of Defense Sergei Shoigu ordered their destruction as a top priority for his troops.
Impressive, despite having no prior experience with HIMARS systems, Ukrainian military operators quickly succeeded. Although their gunners were familiar with the use of Soviet-era howitzers and surface-to-air missile units, HIMARS was a completely new weapon. Yet, in just a few days, they were breaking the Russian positions.
As United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Jon O’Gorman, a military professor at the US Naval War College, told me via video conference, the reason is quite simple: “HIMARS is artillery for dummies”. O’Gorman, who as a field artillery officer used HIMARS units in Iraq and Syria, where he was chief of fire support during Resolution inherent in the operation. He also oversaw HIMARS units in Afghanistan, targeting the Taliban in various locations.
He explains that HIMARS is so easy to use that anyone can learn to fire its missiles in no time. If you look online manualsit looks complicatedd because it has so many knobs and buttons. It sounds more complicated than a traditional artillery system, which is a simpler mechanical system, but Gorman explains that the actual operation of selecting a target and firing HIMARS is relatively easy compared to multi-step math. involved in aiming a weapon like a howitzer.
The classic howitzer was difficult to use
The classic The howitzer, a long-range artillery piece that fires in an arcing trajectory, was developed in the 16th century as an alternative to cannons, which fire in a flat trajectory. Howitzer firing requires knowledge of a large number of technical operations. Basically, the operator must first set up a grid on a map, knowing where they are. Then they must get information from reconnaissance soldiers or aircraft pilots about the location of the target in this grid. After placing the target on the grid, they start having to do a lot calculations, solving equations to create a shooting solution taking into account direction, distance and atmospheric conditions (air density, temperature and wind). These factors can all affect the trajectory of the projectile on its way to the target. The calculations inform the operator where to aim the artillery. To physically aim, however, they spin knobs and wheels that activate a mechanical or hydraulic system to move the artillery piece left or right and up or down. They then load your typical 155mm projectile, reinforcement, and fire.
As a rule, the first shot can fail. At this point, the operator receives a report telling him by how much the target was missed, which triggers another series of calculations to correct the trajectory. They will repeat this process as many times as necessary until they reach the goal, and success really depends on the experience of the operator. Newer howitzers have firing computers that can help calculate trajectory, but, ultimately, most projectiles in use today are just kinetic bombs, pieces of metal that follow a parabolic trajectory. All of this takes hard work and, often, trial and error.
HIMARS User Experience Prioritizes Automation
With HIMARS, most of these steps are eliminated, thanks to his computer and the use of GPS. There is no calculation to do. No need to feel the wind or check the temperature. There are only coordinates. And, in US units, operators don’t even have to enter the coordinates themselves, O’Gorman points out: An operator at a fire direction center transmits them to your HIMARS unit via an encrypted channel. After the operator receives the order to fire, he only needs to make sure that the launcher is pointing in the general direction of the target, that everything is connected, that he assigns a certain number of missiles to the target , that he lift the security and, “[the operators] just press the button, and then the rockets go off,” says O’Gorman.
At this point, the rocket’s built-in computer takes control, guiding itself with its built-in GPS unit, small control wings, and gyroscopes to reach its target. And unlike howitzers, they never fail. If the target coordinates are correct and there is no system failure, the target is erased.
According to Christina Valecillos, senior communications manager at Lockheed Martin, the HIMARS manufacturer, the system underwent rigorous usability testing before entering service in 2005.”We have worked closely with the [armed services] to ensure that HIMARS met all customer requirements to include end user needs,” she said. “This included live-fire events at White Sands Missiles Range in New Mexico, conducted by soldiers.” She proposes that these tests “regularly consider user input and customer and end-user feedback to incorporate into future upgrades.”
The company wouldn’t disclose who performed the usability testing, beyond saying that “the efforts were done in partnership with Lockheed Martin, our vendors, the US Army and US Marine Corps; and operational tests were conducted with army units to certify the system.
To validate systems like HIMARS, the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) performs its own usability testing, measuring how easily users can memorize different processes needed to operate these machines. In a 95-page report published in 1996, entitled “Evaluating the Training Effectiveness of an MLRS Fire Control Panel Simulator Using Distributed Interactive Simulation,” the ARL shows a fairly thoughtful and thorough methodology to test the first control and targeting system on the HIMARS predecessor, the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), where the first fire control system made its debut (Ukraine also uses 10 MLRS units in the current war, donated by NATO countries).
If the ARL found that the device is not functioning as it should to ensure smooth operation in the high stress environment of the battlefield, it would not be operational today. As Valecillos points out, “[the UX testing] followed the milestones of a major defense acquisition program (MDAP). We incorporate measurement and feedback into every design phase.” Even after HIMARS went live in 2010, she says, they continued to add improvements and upgrades based on additional feedback and the addition of new features.
Building on the past
Ken Shirriff – a computer historian renowned for restoring an Apollo guidance computer – told me via email that the HIMARS targeting system evolved from this 1996 fire control system (FCS) It is, for now, the culmination of a long line of computer-assisted shooting devices: “The HIMARS and MLRS user interfaces are essentially the same. The fire control system has undergone various revisions: FCS (fire control system), IFCS (improved FCS), UFCS (universal FCS) and CFCS (common FCS).
The photo above, taken from a unclassified presentation by Col. Chris Mills, U.S. Army Project Manager for Precision Fire Rocket and Missile Systems—displays the CFCS, which is presumably inside the HIMARS that the Ukrainian forces are using against the Russians. “Notice the black soft function keys around the screen, pointing to the green labels on the screen,” Shirriff explains. “The user interface looks somewhat clunky, with lots of softkey presses to move around menus.” However, if the interface is ugly, its effectiveness on the battlefield is undeniable.
Looking at a 2002 training evaluation report, using a HIMARS is clearly not as simple as picking up an iPhone and tapping on icons. But then, that is also part of his nature. The keys are very similar to those you can find on the bezels of screens in other military systems, such as on the cockpits of fighter jets, as well as on civilian planes and ships. Instead of abstracting controls under layers of menus or deep settings, these keys allow quick and direct access to the machine’s many functions.
The Ukrainian motivator
However, one could criticize the spartan ugliness of the HIMARS interface, as O’Gorman points out, the proof is on the battlefield: “The time between [HIMARS] units arrive and the first results of destroying things are short. They took out about 100 targets, according to the Pentagon in the early days of using these systems. So they were quite effective. This tells him that their experience must have been similar to what happened to him the first time he entered a HIMARS cabin in Syria. The unit commander gave him a quick rundown of how it all worked, and he got it right away.
For O’Gorman, it is obvious that the Ukrainians understood the system in record time. In the United States, training in the use of HIMARS takes several weeks, he says. But with the right motivation, like the Ukrainians, it can take much less time. “You probably take Ukrainian soldiers who have been trained as gunners, so they know the process of an artillery piece or a mortar piece,” he points out. “Converting this knowledge using HIMARS is not such a big change.” But motivation alone would not have been enough if they had a difficult weapon to use. Ultimately, the runaway success of Ukrainian forces adapting to this system and turning the tide of war speaks to the counterintuitive effectiveness of HIMARS’ UX.