February 6, 2024:
Since 2022 Russia has been trying to destroy the American HIMARS missile launchers provided to Ukraine. The first four HIMARS systems arrived in Ukraine in June 2023 and eventually there were 39. Despite repeated efforts and a few close calls, Russia has not been able to destroy any HIMARs vehicles. The 16-ton HIMARS launcher is mounted on a 6x6 truck and operated by a three-man crew. The vehicle is difficult to destroy because the truck can move a minute or two after launching missiles. Top speed of the truck is 85 kilometers an hour and most of the time the Ukrainians keep them hidden under trees or in large buildings like barns or other structures the vehicle can drive into. The Russians can’t attack what they can’t see, and HIMARS crews understand that staying out of sight is the key to survival. The HIMARS vehicle emerges from cover to launch one or more missiles and then returns to its hiding place. Another issue that arose in 2022 was the need for longer range American missiles. The missile normally fired from HIMARS has a range of 80 kilometers. Ukraine wanted a longer range guided rocket, but the Americans refused. In 2023 it became obvious that the Ukrainian request was legitimate, and the United States eventually supplied some ATACMS Army Tactical Missile Systems, a larger missile with a range of 300 kilometers that can be fired from the HIMARS vehicles. One ATACMS can be carried by HIMARS versus six GMLRS (Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System) missiles with a range of 80 kilometers. There are other longer-range missiles available from the United States. There is a longer range GMLRS called ER GMLRS with a range of 150 kilometers. Testing of this version was completed in 2023 and production models are going to Ukraine in 2024.
There is also a successor to ATACMS called PrSM (Precision Strike Missile) with a range of 650 kilometers. The first of these was delivered at the end of 2023 and more are coming in 2024. Ukraine will be the first to receive PrSM.
GMLRS, ER GMLRS, ATACMS and PrSM are all developed and produced by Lockheed Martin. GMLRS has been a big seller with over 50,000 missiles produced so far. Ukraine is responsible for depleting American and other NATO nation stockpiles of these missiles and production has been increased to prevent stockpiles from being exhausted and then to rebuild the stockpiles.
All four of these missiles can be carried and launched from the HIMARS vehicle. All three variants are more expensive than GMLRS, which cost about $150,000 each. ER GMLRS doubles that price and PrSM cost about $1.5 million each. While HIMARS carries six GMLRS or ER GMLRS, it can only carry one ATACMS. PrSM is smaller than ATACMS but larger than GMLRS. That means HIMARS can carry two PrSMs.
The original ATACMS had a range of 300 kilometers and a 230 kg warhead. A planned replacement for ATACMS called Deepstrike was renamed Precision Strike Missile or PrSM. Deepstrike was designed to be capable of hitting targets over 600 kilometers distant and has more capable guidance system features. This includes an optional guidance system that allows PrSM to hit moving targets, especially ships at sea. The U.S. Navy is interested in this because the Marine Corps has already demonstrated that HIMARS can launch GMLRS from the deck of an amphibious assault ship, which has a flight deck similar to the larger nuclear carriers.
The ATACMS is a 610mm ballistic missile that is no longer produced. Its latest upgrades have been to the guidance system. In 2017 ATACMS was given the ability to hit moving targets, specifically ships at sea. ATACMS has sufficient range for that, and the U.S. pioneered the development of terminal guidance systems for ballistic missiles in the 1970s with the Pershing mobile missile. Since then, the U.S. has developed similar guidance systems so that high-speed missiles can hit moving targets. It was not difficult to then develop a terminal guidance system for ATACMS that searches for a certain size ship and heads for it while moving at more than a thousand meters a second, which is faster than most bullets. The ATACMS guidance system has also received a proximity detonation capability so that it can be programmed to explode in the air above a target. All the current ATACMS needs is the GPS coordinates of the moving target on land or sea. Since maximum flight time at maximum range is only a few minutes, it is easy to predict where the moving target will be based on aerial, satellite, or sonar detection. It takes less than a minute to update the guidance system and launch. If nothing else this will give potential naval foes something more to worry about and be a popular export item as well.
Most current ATACMS are armed with a 227 kg high explosive warhead. The U.S. used over 700 ATACMS, most of them in Iraq and Afghanistan combat operations and their performance was excellent, especially the guided ones. Nearly 4,000 ATACMS have been built since the mid-1980s and about half are still available for use. In addition to those used in combat about three percent were fired for training or testing.
Ukraine demonstrated that launching longer-range missiles from HIMARS was much more useful in a near peer war than previously thought. The main reason American leaders gave for not providing Ukraine with longer range missiles was the risk of the war escalating. Russia has already done that, and the Ukrainians make the case that the longer-range missiles will help speed the end of the war.