Introducing the West’s new weapon working overtime to tilt war in Kyiv’s favour

·5 min read
Ukraine Himars strike - Armed Forces of Ukraine/Cover Images
Ukraine Himars strike - Armed Forces of Ukraine/Cover Images

On Monday, the Ukrainian ministry of defence released footage of a rocket launcher firing from the middle of a highway somewhere in the Zaporizhzhya region, the rockets arching high into what looked like an early evening sky.

They did not say what they were firing at. But the same day, a massive strike was reported on the airbase at the occupied city of Melitopol, about 50 miles south of the Zaporizhzhya region front line.

It was the latest in a series of deep precision strikes by Western weapons that Kyiv hopes could turn the tide of the war.

The US has promised Ukraine eight M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (Himars).

At least four, including the one seen firing from Zaporizhzhya on Monday, arrived in the last week of June. The remainder are meant to arrive before the end of this month.

It is a small number, but the Himars outrange and are more accurate than anything either the Ukrainians or the Russians possess. Kyiv hopes that could help erode Russia’s most feared battlefield advantage.

Russia is currently firing an estimated 20,000 artillery rounds a day compared to Ukraine’s 6,000 rounds, according to Ukrainian officials cited in a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi).

Devastating howitzer and rocket barrages inflicted heavy casualties during the three-month battle for Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, and ultimately forced Ukraine to retreat from the Luhansk region over the weekend.

Ukraine cannot match the Russians gun for gun, even with Western weapons. But by targeting the ammunition supply chain, they hope to starve the enemy of shells.

The Himars have certainly been working overtime since Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s defence minister, announced their arrival on the battlefield on June 23.

On Monday morning alone, Ukraine had claimed three more strikes on ammunition dumps in the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions.

The chaos continued on Tuesday, with thick pillars of smoke rising over Donetsk, the regional capital occupied by Russia in 2014, as the Ukrainians targeted the railway station and a nearby vehicle repair workshop.

Deprived of the ability to lay down thousands of shells a day, the theory goes, Russia will be unable to replicate its grinding advance through the Luhansk and its assault on Donetsk region will stall.

“It is a solid concept that should work as long as the Russians are not using precision-guided munitions, because the way they are using artillery they cannot help but have ammunition dumps,” said Jack Watling, a Rusi researcher who authored the report. “We will see in the coming weeks if it works.”

The deliveries have once again highlighted a gap between what Ukraine says it needs and what the West is able or prepared to deliver.

Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defence minister who has been involved in talks about arms procurement from the West, said: “It is an excellent piece of equipment. We can probe deep into the front. But the short answer is no, it is absolutely not enough. We need tens of them.

“If we had more, we would go after their equipment, their own artillery units, their own multiple rocket launches – and then we would be able to stop the offensive and secondly return the dynamic and start to move them out. That was the idea.

“Unfortunately at the moment, it is completely unclear when most of that stuff is coming and it is unclear what we are going to get.”

Ukraine has received a smorgasbord of Western and former Soviet weaponry from its Western allies since the war began, but often later and in smaller numbers that Kyiv would like.

Recent deliveries include M777 howitzers and Himars missiles from the US, Caesar 155 mm howitzers from France, M270 multiple rocket launch systems from the UK, and Bushmaster armoured vehicles from Australia.

The haphazard deliveries – partly the result of multiple well-meaning heads of state asking their armies what they can spare – has created what Mr Zagorodnyuk calls a “logistical nightmare” of separate training programmes and ammunition supply chains for different units.

Delays caused by a combination of logistical challenges and Western governments try to balance Ukraine requests against fears of provoking further escalation from Russia, have undoubtedly cost lives and allowed the Russians to take Lysychansk, he said.

But perhaps more concerning are the vulnerabilities revealed at the heart of Western military planning. Few Nato members actually had much to give, in either ammunition or weaponry, and discussions are now under way for a “very serious” expansion of industrial military production.

Ukrainian soldiers fire a U.S.-supplied M777 howitzer - Efrem Lukatsky/ AP
Ukrainian soldiers fire a U.S.-supplied M777 howitzer - Efrem Lukatsky/ AP

Mr Watling, who spent weeks speaking to Ukrainian commanders and frontline troops for his latest report, said that Western governments will have to significantly expand and rationalise support if they are serious about helping Kyiv win the war.

“Then you run into the issue that donating kit is relatively easy, but putting the money on the table to produce more kit or step up manufacturing is a major investment, and at a time of a cost of living crisis that is politically difficult,” he noted.

It will require a larger supply of multiple launch rocket systems to target Russian artillery; 155mm (6.1 inch) howitzers to break up Russian infantry concentrations; and armoured vehicles to allow Ukrainian infantry to mass safely prior to launching their own offensives, he said.

He also said that jamming devices are slowing the Ukrainian “kill chain” – the time from when a target is identified to being fired upon – enough for Russian guns to often escape Ukrainian counter-battery fire.

Turning the tide will require specialised radiation-seeking rockets to hunt and destroy the Shipovnik-Aero electronic warfare trucks that are jamming Ukrainian drones and command networks.

For that to take effect, Ukrainian soldiers will have to buy time: likely with another gruelling and bloody defensive battle in the Donetsk region.

The campaign of Himars strikes on Russian ammunition supplies may help, but it will not be clear for some weeks whether the Russian’s offensive capabilities have been exhausted.

“The logic of buying time for Ukraine to prepare a better defence and more options in the future makes sense,” said Mr Watling. “The question is whether they lost too many of their good people.”

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