Explained: The US-made HIMARS rocket launchers that Ukraine has used to kill over 100 Russian troops

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Ukraine and Russia’s war rages on in the new year and on the second day of 2023, Ukraine had a reason to smile after one of its strikes killed scores of Russian forces.

On Monday, Kyiv stated that they had carried out a strike in the city of Makiivka — in the occupied region of Donetsk — through United States-manufactured HIMARS, killing 400 Russian troops. However, Russian officials contested the figure, saying only 63 troops were killed.

“The Kyiv regime struck with six rockets of the US-made HIMARS multiple launch rocket system at the temporary deployment point of one of the units of the Russian armed forces in the area of the settlement of Makiivka in the Donetsk People’s Republic,” TASS quoted the Russian defence ministry as saying.

“As a result of the destruction of four missiles with a high-explosive warhead of the temporary deployment point, 63 Russian servicemen were killed,” it further said, adding that Moscow was able to shoot down two HIMARS rockets.

It is the highest number of deaths acknowledged by Moscow in a single incident since the war began 10 months ago.

As the war enters the 314th day, here’s a closer look at the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) weaponry that the US gave Ukraine back in June 2022.

What Are MLRS?

As per Newsweek, these rocket launchers are mounted on vehicles, offering more mobility that emplaced howitzers, allowing troops to escape Russian counter-battery fire.

The US has two MLRS variants

  • M270: first produced in 1983. Its rockets can hit targets between 20 and 40 miles away, with more advanced rockets able to travel more than 100 miles
  • M142 HIMARS: developed in the late 1990s. Its standard rockets can hit targets 186 miles away, while specialized precision munitions are effective out to 310 miles.

What is HIMARS?

Weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s website  describes HIMARS as “interoperable with the latest precision munitions that range from 15 to 499+ km. This includes the entire suite of Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) munitions: Extended-Range Guided MLRS (ER GMLRS), GMLRS, the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) and the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS).”

But what is?

  • It is a weapons system mounted on a truck
  • It can carry a container with six rockets
  • It is highly mobile, can fire and retreating in minutes, thus reducing the chance of being targeted by the enemy –  known as ‘scoot and shoot’ capability
  • It can launch medium and long-range rockets
  • Has been used by US forces in multiple conflicts since 2010, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Why this matters

With precision-guided munitions and a longer range than weapons currently deployed by Ukraine, the multiple rocket launchers represent an important upgrade at a time when the Ukrainians are battling Russian artillery in the east of the country.

Ukrainian servicemen walk past a building heavily damaged in a Russian bombing in Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, 28 May, 2022. AP

The expectation is that Ukraine could use the rockets in the eastern Donbas region, where they could both intercept Russian artillery and take out Russian positions in towns where fighting is intense, such as Sievierodonetsk, an official told Euro News.

Sievierodonetsk is important to Russian efforts to capture the Donbas before more Western arms arrive to bolster Ukraine’s defense.

The city, which is 90 miles (145 kilometres) south of the Russian border, is in an area that is the last pocket under Ukrainian government control in the Luhansk region of the Donbas.

What experts say

Democrat Jason Crow of Colorado told CNN he believes the defence system could help Ukraine gain significant momentum against Russia.

“I think it could be a game-changer, to be honest with you,” Crow said, not only for offensive attacks but also for defence. He explained that Russian conventional artillery, which has a range of about 50km, “would not get close” to Ukrainian urban centers if MLRS systems were positioned there.

“So it would take away their siege tactics,” he said of the Russians.

But Philip Breedlove, a retired US Air Force general who was NATO’s top commander from 2013 to 2016 told CBS Ukraine needs multiple launch rocket systems.

“These are very important capabilities that we have not gotten them yet. And they not only need them, but they have been very vociferous in explaining they want them,” said Breedlove. “We need to get serious about supplying this army so that it can do what the world is asking it to do: fight a world superpower alone on the battlefield,” he said.

Not a direct threat to Russia

However, with Russia’s warnings in mind, the US was also at pains to clarify that this weapons system was not a direct threat to Russia itself.

File image of Russian president Vladimir Putin. AP

The ammunition for the HIMARS will not include a version able to reach some 186 miles (300 kilometers), out of fear that the Ukrainians would use it to hit deep inside Russia, an official said.

They will instead get the version extending about 50 miles (80 km), which is still significantly further than the Ukrainians’ present capabilities, the US official said. That means Ukraine’s forces will be able to strike at Russian positions with the rockets from relative safety.

The “Ukrainians have given assurances they will not use these systems against Russian territory,” the official stressed.

The HIMARS rockets “will enable the Ukrainians to more precisely strike targets on the battlefield from greater distance inside Ukraine and to help them repel Russia,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“These systems will be used by the Ukrainians to repel Russian advances on Ukrainian territory but they will not be used against Russia.”

The new weaponry will come from a recently approved fund of $40 billion. Already the Biden administration has sent $4.5 billion in mostly military aid to Ukraine since the war began with Russia’s February invasion.

Asked what the United States considers the war aim for Ukraine, the official said it was to put Kyiv “in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.”

While the United States does not want to “prolong the war,” it considers it vital that Russia “pay a heavy price for its actions” or it will “send a message to other would-be aggressors that they can take a territory by force,” the official said.

“We will not pressure the Ukrainian government in private or in public to make any territorial concessions,” the official said.

With inputs from agencies

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Explained: The US-made HIMARS rocket launchers that Ukraine has used to kill over 100 Russian troops
Explained: The US-made HIMARS rocket launchers that Ukraine has used to kill over 100 Russian troops
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