Step aside, Storm Shadow: Ukraine is getting an even more powerful missile

MLRS system capable of firing ATACMS
MLRS system capable of firing ATACMS

After more than a year of pleading with the Biden Administration, it seems that Zelensky has got his wish. The United States looks set to finally send MGM-140 ATACMS missiles to Ukraine.

The American missile would be the third long-range strike weapon Ukraine will receive from the West, following deliveries of Storm Shadow cruise missiles from Britain and France earlier this year.

While the British Storm Shadow has proved highly effective, the ATACMS – or “Army Tactical Missile System” – is on another level. Equipped with a 500-pound warhead, it is blazingly fast; while the Storm Shadow and Scalp-EG take 15 minutes to cover a distance of 190 miles, an ATACMS missile will cover the same ground in just five minutes.

Better still, it’s ground launched. While the Storm Shadow requires fighter jets for delivery, the ATACMS utilises the M-142 Himars rocket artillery launcher, which is already in service in Ukraine. This combination of high speed and easy delivery means that ATACMS is better able to engage time-sensitive targets, including mobile missile launchers and high-ranking military officials on frontline visits.

The only snag is how far Washington is willing to go. It isn’t clear how many systems the US is prepared to hand over, and according to reports Biden has indicated that only “a small number” will be provided to start with.

It’s also unclear what variant Ukraine will receive. The United States still has a significant reserve of ATACMS missiles, but the vast majority of them have expired and are currently considered unserviceable. The only operational type is the M57, which – loaded with over 200 pounds of high explosives – would be perfectly capable of defeating most Russian targets in Ukraine.

However if Washington is unwilling to hand these over, it could refurbish its expired M48 or M39 missiles. Many experts think this is more likely, considering the Biden Administration’s consistent emphasis on the operational importance of ATACMS in U.S. military planning, but the refurbishment could delay battlefield deployment.

When they are available, however, these missiles are likely to prove effective. The M48 is largely similar to the M57, although a little less accurate, but the M39 offers a very different payload. Its 500-pound cluster munition warhead disperses 300 bomblets over a wide area. When these bomblets explode, they create a dense cloud of deadly fragments that pose a threat to both personnel and equipment. This could be particularly useful when striking airfields and air defence sites in Crimea, and if the long range version of the M39 is handed over, all of Crimea would be in range.

Regardless of the specific variant Ukraine receives, ATACMS will give Kyiv a significant boost. Long-range strike weapons are critical in modern warfare, and British Storm Shadow cruise missiles have already devastated Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Headquarter in Sevastopol. But supplies are limited, and adding to the stockpile is essential as Kyiv attempts to keep up the tempo.

It will also encourage other countries to follow suit. Berlin is currently prevaricating over the potential delivery of KEPD 350 Taurus cruise missiles, with Chancellor Scholz concerned it risks potential escalation. The delivery of ATACMS should help set his mind at rest. And while it won’t win the war alone, it will play a crucial role in undermining Russia’s forces.

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