Video Above: Army 2-Star Describes Range Doubling, Course Correcting Artillery
After months of urgent pleas from Ukraine and internal debate, the Pentagon has finally decided to send Multiple Launch Rocket Systems and High Mobility Artillery Rocket System to Ukraine to fight off invading Russian forces
“This system will provide Ukraine with additional precision in targeting at range. The Ukrainians have given us assurances that they will use this system for defensive purposes only. These are critical capabilities to help the Ukrainians repel the Russian offensive in the east. One such need is the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System I just mentioned, which responds to Ukraine's top priority ask,” Dr. Colin Kahl, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.
In existence for many years, HIMARS are mobile rocket systems which can in some cases hit ranges as far as 300 miles, but it is not clear how far the HIMARS Ukraine will receive will be able to travel to targets. . However the Pentagon appears to be offering precision guided rockets able to travel up to 70km. The weapon, called GMLRS, for Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, is a GPS-guided precision rocket able to pinpoint targets out to 70 or 80km. GMLRS made its combat debut during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was responsible for successful strikes on Taliban leaders such as Mullah Omar. These kinds of precision weapons could prove extremely impactful when it comes to targeting Russian rocket launchers, mechanized columns or force concentrations.
“We've already pre-positioned the systems in the theater so that we can deliver them expeditiously. I think it's important to keep in mind though, these aren't turnkey these, of course, are systems that the Ukrainians need to be trained on. We think that'll take around three weeks,” Kahl said.
A three-week training period is a long time considering that Ukrainian forces and civilian areas continue to be bombarded with incoming missiles, rockets and artillery, much of which is targeted towards neighborhoods and civilian areas.
There is some room for interpretation regarding how “defensive” purposes might be defined, as it raises the question as to whether firing rockets into Russian territory would constitute “offensive use.” Kahl made a point to explain that many Russian targets such as rocket launchers and artillery are within the borders of Ukraine, suggesting that there would be an extremely useful way to use the guided HIMARS rockets without hitting across the border into Russia.
“They've given us their assurances that they're not going to use these systems for striking Russian territory. And we trust the Ukrainians will live up to those assurances,” Kahl said.
This still leaves a few unanswered questions, however, given that Russia continues to fire air and ground based rockets and missiles from the Russian side of the border. Wouldn’t striking them arguably be defensive? Some rockets and cruise missiles can travel at ranges up to 200 to 300 miles, meaning they can attack at great standoff ranges an terrorize Ukrainian communities. Launchers for some of these systems are still most likely in Russia and could arguably be considered appropriate targets for Ukrainian missile defense.
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The Pentagon describes the current war in Ukraine as an “artillery duel” in which each side is firing stand-off projectiles at ranges out to 30 km or more. Russian weapons such as rockets and missiles are able to travel hundreds of miles, but 155mm Howitzer cannons now possessed by Ukraine can fire as far as 30km, meaning Russian forces are now more vulnerable than they were previously.
Russia is making some uneven and insecure gains, yet the Pentagon effort to send large amounts of artillery is described as a specific response to what Ukrainian forces most need in the current fight.
“In the last several days, the Russians have made some incremental progress in and around the Donbas. They have not had a decisive breakthrough. And the Ukrainians are putting up a heck of a fight,” Dr. Colin Kahl, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.
Kahl explained the artillery war in the context of a newly approved $700 million US aid package to Ukraine which includes counter artillery radar, drones, mechanized vehicles and, for the first time, GPS-targeted Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems able to destroy targets with precision out to 70km.
“Right now, it's a concentrated artillery duel in the east. It's why we put so much emphasis on providing 108 M777 howitzers, and 200,000 rounds of ammunition,” Kahl said.
Unlike the defense of Kyiv, which benefited greatly from closer-in anti-armor weapons such as a Stinger or Javelin which can fire out to several miles, fighting in Donbas and Eastern Ukraine is flatter, more open terrain less hospitable to ambushes and hit-and-run attacks with anti-armor weapons.
At the same time, there are many urban areas in Donbas and it remains to be seen how much the Russian forces will have success entering the cities. Closer-in urban fighting might greatly benefit the Ukrainians, which is one reason why the aid package includes 1,000 additional Javelins and 6,000 anti-armor weapons. Heavier forces are likely to be quite vulnerable in close-quarter-battle where buildings, hills and uneven terrain can be used for surprise ambushes and hit-and-run attacks. Heavy armor such as tanks, infantry carriers and even some tactical vehicles would likely be extremely vulnerable passing through narrow passageways, intersections or other areas where they would be subject to being fired upon from hidden locations.
The other aspect of this is simply that it will be difficult for Russian forces to “hold” territory they may seize given that occupying forces are likely to be subject to anti-armor or anti-personnel strikes from Ukrainians.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.