Ukraine Is Bringing a Big Gun to a Knife Fight

But U.S. and European multiple launch rockets alone aren’t enough to put Ukraine on the front foot for a counteroffensive.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket System fires salvoes in Morocco.
A U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket System fires salvoes in Morocco.
A U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket System fires salvoes during the second annual “African Lion” military exercise in the Tan-Tan region in southwestern Morocco on June 30. Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images

From dozens of miles away, Ukrainian troops watched the aftermath of a rocket blast, fired from tubes rigged up to the back of an U.S.-provided truck. They first spoke in shouts, then in hushed murmurs, as the blast cloud behind Russian lines from the American High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS, grew and grew. 

“Holy fuck, look how the Russians are dying,” one soldier said in footage that made the rounds on social media. 

With eight American HIMARS now in Ukrainian hands and four more expected to get into the country by the end of July, the defenders are racking up a major cost in Russian ammunition, supplies, and likely lives. Ukrainian troops knocked out 14 ammunition dumps in June, according to a tally by the BBC’s Russian service, many of them behind Russian lines in the Donbas, using the new weapons and another four tank-mounted rocket launchers from Britain. (More are on the way from Germany and Norway too.) The explosions have spawned a cottage industry of pro-Ukrainian memes featuring Japanese Shiba dogs in military fatigues watching the blasts, and the Ukrainian military believes that at least one Russian general has been killed in the blasts.

From dozens of miles away, Ukrainian troops watched the aftermath of a rocket blast, fired from tubes rigged up to the back of an U.S.-provided truck. They first spoke in shouts, then in hushed murmurs, as the blast cloud behind Russian lines from the American High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS, grew and grew. 

“Holy fuck, look how the Russians are dying,” one soldier said in footage that made the rounds on social media. 

With eight American HIMARS now in Ukrainian hands and four more expected to get into the country by the end of July, the defenders are racking up a major cost in Russian ammunition, supplies, and likely lives. Ukrainian troops knocked out 14 ammunition dumps in June, according to a tally by the BBC’s Russian service, many of them behind Russian lines in the Donbas, using the new weapons and another four tank-mounted rocket launchers from Britain. (More are on the way from Germany and Norway too.) The explosions have spawned a cottage industry of pro-Ukrainian memes featuring Japanese Shiba dogs in military fatigues watching the blasts, and the Ukrainian military believes that at least one Russian general has been killed in the blasts.

Ukraine is, despite the internet narrative, losing ground in the war, with Russia swallowing up most of the strategic Luhansk province as it refits to strike deeper into Donetsk. Yet the arrival of U.S.-provided HIMARS and accompanying guided multiple launch rocket systems (GMLRs) that can strike targets 40 miles away is giving Kyiv hope that a potential counteroffensive is not far off. The soldier’s words (“look how the Russians are dying”) are becoming a new rallying cry for Ukrainians—tantamount to the charge of “Russian warship, go fuck yourself,” yelled by border guards defending Snake Island in the war’s first week—but at a new stage of the five-month conflict that is increasingly becoming an attritional slugfest. 

And in the early telling, it’s a stage of the war that the Russians did not anticipate, experts said. Russia has used cannons to batter its enemies from afar for three centuries, and officials knew that the U.S.-made precision missiles were coming for months, even sending a formal diplomatic letter to the U.S. State Department in April to try and warn off the Biden administration. There’s a reason that the Kremlin was nervous. The truck-mounted system weighs nearly 18 tons and can fire six precision-guided missiles at a time and then can quickly skedaddle, cutting into Moscow’s firepower advantage in massed artillery that is about 3-1 in the Donbas region. 

Yet Russia still left itself open to a counterpunch. Early in the war, it left long, vulnerable supply convoys that were ravaged by Ukrainian sneak attacks during the Kyiv offensive. Now, they’re facing the same sort of ambush—from afar, while the vaunted S-400 air defense systems Russia brought into Ukraine have been helpless against the low-altitude threat.

“It’s clear that they were not preparing to deal with this,” said Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps. “It’s been no secret that the Ukrainians have been asking for HIMARS for a while; it was no secret that when they got HIMARS, they were coming; and it’s no secret what the capabilities of HIMARS are. What steps did Russia take to adapt? It doesn’t look like they took many steps at all.” 

The U.S. Defense Department and other U.S. agencies fed HIMARS into Ukraine slowly, officials said, waiting to test Kyiv’s aptitude on the system, reflected by Germany and Britain, which handed off multiple launch rockets mounted on Bradley tank frames four at a time. But U.S. and European officials have been impressed, they said, by Ukraine’s systematic selection of targets, interdicting Russian supplies and attacking command posts in a bid to grind the Kremlin’s war effort to a near-complete halt. The goal, one Ukrainian military official said, is to destroy all Russian storage facilities on Ukrainian soil, picking off targets about five miles behind enemy lines. 

“What you see is the Ukrainians … actually systematically selecting targets and then accurately hitting them, thus providing this precise method of degrading Russian capability,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters this month. The Ukrainian military official told Foreign Policy on Tuesday that Russia has responded by pulling back command posts, but because of the Kremlin’s top-down military planning and refusal to delegate command further down the ranks, it lacks the nimbleness in its logistics to disperse military supplies as Ukrainian defenders have done. 

But Ukrainian officials said the weapons are not yet enough to put them on the front foot for a counteroffensive, which Kyiv had hoped to begin mounting by August. (Western officials more conservatively hope for Ukraine to start large-scale counterattacks by next spring but bearing in mind increasing public fatigue.) For instance, Ukraine’s demand for longer-range Army Tactical Missile Systems, known as ATACMS, that can be fired one at a time from the HIMARS truck beds and hit Russian targets nearly 200 miles away have fallen on deaf ears with the Biden administration, which is worried about Ukraine hitting targets inside of Russia and escalating the conflict. Kyiv has pledged that it would not do that. 

“It’s not enough for an effective counterattack,” said Daria Kaleniuk, co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, who has become an informal advocate for more Western arms provisions to Ukraine during the war. “What we have achieved so far is the decrease of Ukrainian losses.” Ukrainian troops are also facing a time crunch, Kaleniuk said. They need to begin liberating Russian-occupied ground before the harsh winter sets in around November or risk falling into a longer-term conflict that would favor Moscow. 

The Ukrainian official said Kyiv is hoping for dozens of HIMARS to eventually arrive in Ukraine—a far cry from the 300 multiple launch rocket systems that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s confidante Mykhailo Podolyak asked for in June; Kaleniuk pegged the number at 40 batteries loaded with ATACMS missiles to begin the counterattack and self-propelled Paladin artillery pieces that can more easily dodge Russian counter-fire.

Ukrainian officials insist that Russia has not succeeded in destroying any of their batteries so far, but there remain growing fears that Russia will begin to find countermeasures from the HIMARS rockets. And the potential arrival of up to 100 Iranian combat drones, which U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Tehran had agreed to sell to Russia, is creating fears in the Ukrainian ranks that the HIMARS batteries will be left helpless to an aerial onslaught, the Ukrainian military official told Foreign Policy. Ukraine has been asking U.S. officials for more drones of their own to conduct reconnaissance sweeps and fight back. “It will be really hard for [Russia] to hide command posts from our reconnaissance,” the official said. 

“Russia is not above learning from market leaders—first Israeli drones over a decade ago and now Iranians,” said Samuel Bendett, an advisor with the CNA think tank and a member of the organization’s Russia Studies Program.“If Iranians provide Russia with loitering munitions, then Moscow can start applying tactics it learnt from the Nagorno-Karabakh war, where loitering munitions proved decisive.”

Even with the HIMARS screaming and more Russian ammunition depots going boom in the night, experts believe that the new American weapons are likely to simply reinforce the status quo on the ground: a protracted stalemate. 

“By hitting command and control, by hitting ammo depots, you make it much more likely that a Russian offensive will stall,” Lee said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that HIMARS is going to give the Ukrainians the ability to retake terrain.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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