With partners and allies stepping up big, Ukraine’s once long list of weapons requests has gotten shorter and shorter over time, and has been whittled down these past two weeks to one final request: MLRS, MLRS, and MLRS. It doesn’t mean they don’t need everything else, and more of it, but long-range artillery has been Ukraine’s final missing piece toward putting together the kind of army that won’t just hold off Russia, but pushing them out of Ukraine.
MLRS is “multiple launch rocket system,” or rocket artillery, and as I’ve written about several times, this is what I did for three years in the Army. MLRS. And specifically, I was fire direction for a MLRS platoon, managing fire missions and, more importantly, its logistics—fuel, water, food, ammunition (for the three M270 launchers), and mechanics for all the things that broke down. There were around 60 vehicles supporting nine launchers in my batter, and it was rare when we had all nine operational. I read somewhere that a MLRS unit has the highest per-mile logistical cost in the entire Army. And while I haven’t verified that “fact,” my experience certainly backs up an extremely high operational challenge. I’ve been horrified at the idea of Ukraine having to manage that kind of logistical and mechanical challenge in the middle of a war, without an established NCO corps with MRLS experience. The alternative, the wheeled, simplified version of the M270, the M142 HIMARS, is objectively a better option. And it’s what the United States will send to Ukraine.
Here are three recommended threads if you’re interested in learning more about HIMARS (and MLRS):
Theiner was an artillery officer in the Italian army and clearly knows his shit. This second thread is just as good:
Then there’s this one by retired American general and former US Army Europe commander Mark Hertling.
Hertling agreed with my assessment about HIMARS vs MLRS:
Theiner chimed in:
Oh good, the swivel mechanism has been upgraded since my time, that’s big. The U.S. says they can train Ukrainians on HIMARS in two weeks. The maintenance/mechanics crowd, that won’t be enough time. But the guys inside the cab? They can train those in one day. I was fire direction, but I got to sit in the M270 and fire rockets several times, for fun, and it was a computer, type in the coordinates, and press a button. That was it. I can’t imagine things have gotten any more complicated than that in the last 30 years. The bigger learning task is loading the pods onto the launcher, so sure, that could take a day or two along with the ammo truck guys. Easy enough. They’ll get these on the front line in short order.
Let’s talk about range using standard rounds, which are by far the most common in the battlefield. Specialty extended-range rounds are rare and expensive.
Russian D30: 15.4 km (9 mi)
Russian 2S19: 25 km (16 mi)
NATO M777: 29 km (18 mi)
Russian GRAD (MLRS): 45 km (28 mi)
Russian SMERCH (MLRS): 70 km (43 mi)
NATO M142 HIMARS: 70+ km (43+ mi)
As far as I can tell, there aren’t many SMERCH systems in Ukraine, and they are nowhere near as mobile and flexible as HIMARS (read the Theiner thread above). Theiner also points out that HIMARS has a longer range than the official numbers. Back in my time, our fire direction computers let us plot targets beyond rated range, so that tracks.
As you can see above, the M777 howitzers that have been streaming into Ukraine already outgun everything except Russian rocket artillery. With HIMARS, no Russian artillery will be safe. No supply depot will be safe (Kupiansk, supplying the entire northern Donbas front, is in range!). No Russian advance will be safe.
There is a potential role for M270 MLRS if the U.S. decides to clear out obsolete early versions of the system—urban defense. Place a platoon, three M270 launchers, somewhere on the outskirts of frequently targeted towns like Sumy, Kharkiv, and Mykolaiv, in an abandoned barn. Pinpoint the source of any incoming artillery, roll them out, fire a volley, then have them roll into the neighbor’s barn (in case Russia counters with long-range ballistic missiles). As long as the M270s don’t have to move much, they might hold up well enough as semi-fixed local defense.
Let’s take a look at the battlefield. When you read this, Russia may have full control of Severodonetsk.
I spent way too much time (here, here, and here) wondering why Ukraine would try and hold a city surrounded on three sides, far from Ukrainian artillery support, with no strategic value, when there was a far more defensible position literally across the river. Seems like Ukraine had the same thought, and has been conducting a fighting retreat from the city over the last couple of days.
Lysychansk is everything you want in a defensive position.
Not only is the town protected behind a river Russia has thus far proven incapable of crossing, but a network of bluffs and hills overlook Severodonetsk and the river between them, offering effective firing positions to any direct approaches. Hills on the south edge of town make any approach difficult if Russian forces ever manage to break out of the Popasna salient.
Speaking of, the last I saw from Popasna was pro-Russia Telegram accounts screaming that Wagner mercenaries had been mauled trying to break out of the pocket to the north, and that they were forcing Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) troops to take the vanguard. Didn’t sound too promising for them, if real. What we do know for sure is that Russia is attempting to advance in three different directions out of Popasna, in case you thought Russia had finally learned to focus its efforts.
Back to Lysychansk, its supply lines are threatened by Russian artillery, but they remain open. And there’s plenty of friendly territory to its west for artillery to operate. It’s still out on a limb, but a far more defensible one. Pretty soon, HIMARS will offer even more dramatic coverage of this entire area.
A well-supplied battery of nine launchers could easily cover the entire Donbas front, or even a platoon of three, raining a steady stream of rockets wherever Russia tried to advance. Ukraine isn’t lying when they say it’s going to be game-changing, and Russia really can’t afford any further attrition.
A Russian Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) is supposed to have 800-1,000 soldiers each. Mark talked yesterday about Russia running low, but still having bodies to throw into the meat grinder until it doesn’t. At some point, the tap will run dry.
In yesterday’s discussion, I mentioned one more thing that Ukraine was still asking about—improved air defense systems. In recent days, Russia has been more willing to risk aircraft, so long as those aircraft are flying low over the Donbas or far out along the Russian border. That air support has been critical in Russia’s ability to make advances in eastern Ukraine, and while human-carried systems are capable of making a direct attack on nearby aircraft, Ukraine was looking for more systems capable of longer range defense.
This system, built by Diehl, incorporates a modified version of the IRIS-T missiles used by numerous fighter jets into a truck-based system that first rolled out in 2014. The system is rated to take out targets 40km (25 miles) away, and the ground-based version can chase down targets at altitudes up to 19km (12 miles).
The system is reportedly highly mobile and relatively simple to use. It offers a large improvement over the aging Soviet systems Ukraine now depends on. A few other air defense systems have been sent, but “few” is the word. Like … one S-300 system, and one Strela. Hopefully, the number of IRIS-T SLM systems will be more than one.
The question is: How quickly will Germany deliver? Slow action on the part of Germany in meeting past promises has generated a lot of (often unwarranted, sometimes warranted) criticism of Scholz.