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Ukraine Update: HIMARS has even longer range, thus more effective than its official specs

Stop and shoot: HIMARS launches rockets toward Russian ammo depots somewhere on the front lines.

The ELINT News Twitter account plotted HIMAR strike locations on a map and learned that the rocket artillery system has an actual range of around 85 kilometers, much longer than the 70 kilometers claimed on the system’s spec sheet.

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This might explain Ukraine’s use of HIMARS almost exclusively at night, as it has been driving close to the front lines to hit targets well behind them. Now Russia will be forced to reassess the location of those supply depots, lengthening supply lines it already has a hard time maintaining. 

I wrote yesterday that each guided MLRS (GMLRS) rocket cost $135,000 based on some news stories. I dug deeper to confirm, and the cost of GMLRS in 2000 was around $43,000 per rocket. But it’s 22 years later, and the latest contract with Lockheed Martin priced the rockets at $1.1 billion for 9,000 GMLRS rockets and 2,000 cheap practice rounds. Average price is $100,000 per rocket, but given the practice rounds are likely significantly cheaper, $135,000 per actual GMLRS makes sense. That means the bottleneck will continue to be hyperexpensive ammunition. One pod is $810,000, and supply is limited—only 50,000 of the rockets have been produced, not all of them delivered to Ukraine’s partners, some used up in Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and smaller operators won’t surrender their expensive and limited supply to Ukraine. Only 9,000 are produced per year. Older rockets have cluster munitions banned by international treaty, and there seems to be little appetite to deploy them. (Assuming those rockets still exist somewhere, unexploded cluster bombs would dramatically complicate post-war cleanup.)

HIMARS is like the Gillette razor of military equipment—a launcher costs $5.1 million, or just six rocket volleys. It’s the ammo that breaks the bank, which is why the allies have committed to just 15 launchers that fire those pods. Yet there’s a reason these rockets cost so much: They are satellite-guided. So while Russia’s equivalent MLRS systems have a margin of error of around half a mile (adequate, since they’re just leveling cities), a guided MLRS rocket will hit within 1 meter of its intended target. 

That level of accuracy allows Ukraine to target Russian ammunition depots nestled in populated areas: 

One of the wonders of HIMARS is that each rocket can be individually programmed to hit a different target. You can see the trajectory vary in these rocket launches: 

It takes little time to reload a HIMARS, but given likely ammunition shortages and Russian desperation to take these systems out, it’s more important for HIMARS to stay mobile to increase its survivability. It likely won’t fire a second volley anywhere near a launch site. 

Note how the HIMARS arrives at a location with a fresh pod already lying on the ground. Supply trucks will sprinkle pods at various locations, making them 1) nearly impossible for Russian drones to find, and 2) easy to limit the damage if they are found and targeted. Even if the HIMARS vehicle itself is found and targeted, the toll would be the single vehicle (which, remember, at $5 million is relatively inexpensive) and three crew members. A typical artillery emplacement, with supply vehicles in tow, could easily lose 20 soldiers or more if successfully targeted. 

HIMARS can drive 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour), with a range of around 500 kilometers on a tank of gas. That means it can float freely between the Donbas and Zaporizhzhia fronts. (Sloviansk to Zaporizhzhia city is 330 kilometers, or four to six hours of driving depending on the condition of roads.) The Kherson front is too far, however, so it will need to be covered by some of the HIMARS or M270 MLRS launchers that will be arriving in country later this month. 

The Kherson front is starved of modern artillery, per local reports. No HIMARS for sure, but also no M777 howitzers. Despite that, Ukraine continues to advance on that front. 

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Snihurivka, that pointy red area in the center of the map, has seen fierce fighting the last week as Ukrainian forces have been trying to displace entrenched Russians on the northern edge of the village. Ukraine seems to be having more luck on that northwestern approach to Kherson and has also been rolling back Russians from the Kryvyi Rih approach, the top-right corner of this map. 

Look at NASA FIRMS fire data overlaid by territorial control. (Open in new window to see better details.)

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Red is Russian, light blue is recently liberated Ukrainian-held territory, green is long-held Ukrainian territory.

Ukraine may not have the latest long-range artillery on this front, but that’s not stopping it from absolutely smacking the shit out of Russian positions. We have never seen this level of fire on this front before. Here it is without territorial control overlay: 

Kherson area FIRMS data
Kherson front is on fire.

Ukraine says a full-scale counteroffensive isn’t in store until August and September, but Ukraine is already working hard to “shape the battlefield.” 

Meanwhile, recriminations have begun against Ukraine’s decision to defend Severodonetsk—a choice that made little military sense (as I and so many others pointed out). 

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Lots of reports like this one: 

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The only way defending Severodonetsk made sense is if Russia was suffering exponentially worse casualties, a number we simply don’t have. Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych claims 7,000 Russians killed in the battle, which is ludicrous given that the Ministry of Defense claimed 5,000 Russians killed in all of Ukraine for the month of June. 

What we do know is that Russia wasn’t degraded to the point of combat ineffectiveness, but Ukraine apparently was. They lost not just Severodonetsk, as was always expected, but the far more defensible Lysychansk across the river as Ukrainian defenses in the town’s southern approach collapsed. A full accounting of this decision will someday be made, and I really hope we don’t learn that too many Ukrainians died in vain. 




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