February 24, 2023:
A major Ukrainian advantage during the last year of fighting Russians has been logistics. Not just keeping Ukrainian troops supplied but making it difficult for the Russians to supply their own troops with munitions and much else. This became a critical problem for the Russians once the Ukrainians began receiving and using the HIMARS vehicle and the six GLMRS guided missiles each of these vehicles (a 6x6 truck with the six missiles stored in a single box-like launch container) carried and fired. The GMLRS missile used by HIMARS has a range of 85 kilometers and the Ukrainians always had good information on where Russian supplies of munitions, fuel, food and so on were. Ukraine had access to the Starlink satellite communications system as well as NATO satellite and aerial surveillance of Russian occupied Ukraine. Before HIMARS arrived the Russians could store supplies within 20 or 30 kilometers of the front like and be out of range of Ukrainian artillery. With HIMARS the Russians had to store supplies more than 80 kilometers from the fighting. GLMRS missiles are GPS guided while most Ukrainian artillery shells are not. Because of Starlink and locally produced UAVs Ukrainian forces could quickly spot Russian supply storage areas and order an artillery or GLMRS attack. This meant that the Russians were chronically short of supplies because so many of them were being destroyed with Ukrainian artillery or missiles. Russia was, and still is, less capable of attacking Ukrainian supplies for frontline troops.
A HIMARS vehicle with a full load of missiles weighs 16.2 tons. The vehicle carries the crew of three who operate and maintain the truck and the fire-control system fir the missiles. Only one crew member is needed to enter GPS target coordinates into each missile and launch it. Ukraine currently has 22 HIMARS vehicles and 16 more on the way. Neighboring Poland ordered 18 HIMARS vehicles in May 2022. Nearby NATO member Romania has 54 HIMARs vehicles on order and began receiving them in 2021. Each HIMARS vehicle has a built-in crane to enable the empty missile pod to be removed and replaced by a pod with missiles. The process takes five to ten minutes.
The latest (February 2023) American arms shipment to Ukraine includes recently developed longer-range GMLRS guided rockets. Ukraine has been asking for those since mid-2022. They were satisfied with the performance of ordinary GMLRS but found there were important targets beyond its 85-kilometer range. The U.S. has a stockpile of over 3,000 ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) with 300-kilometer range held in reserve for American use. The Americans were afraid that if given a longer-range missile like ATACMS the Ukrainians would attack targets inside Russia that would lead to a disastrous escalation. Ukraine demonstrated that it had other ways to strike deep inside Russia and that did not prompt another Russian escalation, even though the Russians blamed the Americans for providing the tech used in the Ukrainian improvised long-range systems. What really bothered the Russians was HIMARS. This truck mounted GLMRS system entered service in 2010 and was successfully used in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nearly 600 HIMARS vehicles have been built or are on order. The successful use of HIMARS in Ukraine has prompted more NATO nations to order it.
Ukraine was told that there would soon be a longer-range GMLRS called GLSDB (Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb) with a range of 150 kilometers. These will get their first combat use in Ukraine and that will take place sometime in early 2023. The Russians are already moving supplies and other key facilities farther away from the front lines.
Ukraine has been asking for the longer range (300 kilometers) version of ATACMS. It is, like GMLRS, carried and launched from the HIMARS truck but HIMARS can only carry and launch one ATACMS at a time. HIMARS can carry and use six GLSDB. Ukraine would still like the longer range ATACMS but the Americans say they need those for any military emergencies in the Pacific. There, the longer 300-kilometer range is crucial. Despite that Poland and Romania are receiving some ATACMS missiles with their HIMARS vehicles.
While Lockheed Martin developed ATACMS, Boeing developed and produced GMLRS. Boeing and Swedish firm Saab jointly developed an even longer range of GMLRS called GLSDB. The design concept is simple. Take the 227mm rocket motor that propels the GMLRS and use it to launch the latest version of the U.S. Air Force SDB (Small Diameter Bomb), the GBU-53 Stormbreaker.
Initially, the SDB was seen as the next generation of smart bombs and is a more compact design of the classic 227 kg (500-pound) unguided bomb. The streamlined shape of the SDB carried the GPS and other guidance system components internally. SDB has a hard front end that can punch through nearly three meters (eight feet) of rock or concrete and a warhead that does less damage than the usual dumb bomb (explosives in a metal casing). That’s because the SDB warhead carries only 17 kg (38 pounds) of explosives, compared to 127 kg (280 pounds) in the conventional 227 kg (500-pound) bomb. SDB can carry other types of warheads, like the high-explosive one currently found in GMLRS.
Ukraine liked GLSDB because it can be fired from HIMARS, or any other GMLRS launch vehicle, and has a range of 150 kilometers. Moreover, it is more precise than GMLRS because Stormbreaker has multiple guidance systems that enable it to hit moving targets, including ships at sea and do so at night and in any weather. This puts Russian warships in the Black Sea at risk as well as moving supply trains and vital bridges the railroads use. Because of GLSDB the Russian supply situation got much worse and normally safe rear-area bases are now subject to attack.
Stormbreaker entered service in 2018 as the latest version of the SDB II (Small Diameter Bomb also known as GBU-53) in service. This version can identify, track and hit a moving target on the ground in any weather and at night. The novel targeting system was so impressive that the GBU-53 was given an official nickname; Stormbreaker. SDB is basically an unpowered missile which can glide long distances. This makes the SDB even more compact, capable, and expensive. While the original SDB I cost about $70,000 each, that went up to $300,000 for Stormbreaker.
Small wings allow the SDB to glide up to a hundred kilometers (from high altitude). Launching Stormbreaker from the ground (or even a ship at sea) using any GMLRS launcher provides long range precision firepower at relatively low cost. In 2017 the American marines demonstrated that GMLRS rockets could be launched from the flight deck of amphibious assault ships against land targets. This concept can use GLSDB to do the same, but also against enemy ships as well as land targets. This feature enables Ukraine to keep Russian warships out of areas of the Black Sea used by Ukraine.
GLSDB has shortcomings. It achieves the longer range using Stormbreaker the second stage of the GLSDB by having the Stormbreaker glide bomb use the GLMRS rocket as a first stage to take it to a high altitude and then separate and allow Stormbreaker, as the second stage, to proceed on its own. This is done by deploying wings and control surfaces that enable the unpowered second stage to locate and hit its target. GMLRS was a single stage missile and made its final approach to the target at a higher speed than GLSDB. The HIMARS and larger tracked GMLRS carriers have to get new fire control software installed before they can use GLSDB. It is unclear how long this will take. It could be simultaneous with GLSDB delivery and will be obvious once GLSDB is first used in Ukraine. Ukrainians have long demonstrated the ability to quickly learn and use new tech.
The Ukrainians are the ones getting shot at and have a more “can do” wartime attitude that has time and again overcome issues like this that the Americans underestimated. NATO nations closer to Ukraine, like Poland, are more familiar with that attitude because they know that if Russia wins in Ukraine, Poland is next on the Russian conquest list. Poland and the larger NATO members like the United States, Britain and France often disagree because of the “we are next” attitude of Poland versus the more diplomatic attitude of the larger and farther away NATO nations. These differences in perspective and attitude makes sending Ukrainians what they feel they need a more complicated process than it should be. The Ukrainians point out that they are fighting for NATO to stop the Russians from advancing into NATO territory. The Ukrainians should receive all the weapons NATO forces would receive if the NATO mutual-defense system were activated by one NATO member being attacked. The Russians make all manner of outrageous threats against NATO to prevent Ukraine from receiving some weapons. Ukrainians point out that this is typical of the Russians and part of their standard response to problems they have created and can’t handle. Hit the Russians hard enough and they will back off. GLSDB is an example of that and so would ATACMS be if Ukraine had it.
The Ukrainians only attack targets in Russia that are the source of attacks on Ukrainian cities. Ukraine has hit Russian air bases deep inside Russia where Russian long-range bombers and the missiles they carry and use against Ukrainian cities are based. Most NATO countries agree that these bases are a legitimate target and necessary to reduce the Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities, civilians and infrastructure.
The Russians still can’t keep their troops supplied and the Ukrainian can, while also making it even more difficult for the Russians to supply their force in Ukraine.