HIMARS rockets proved to be a game-changing weapon for Ukraine when they arrived last year.
Now they need is a firepower boost from M26 cluster rockets, a former US artillery officer says.
These munitions would increase the lethality of its HIMARS and threaten Russian artillery pieces.
When the US-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) first arrived in Ukraine, the difference it could make for Kyiv’s forces was immediately clear. It allowed them to strike Russian positions hard at ranges far beyond all other available artillery.
While it’s still a formidable weapon, even as Russia’s forces have somewhat adapted to it by pulling back their ammunition depots and command and control centers, a former US artillery officer says it’s time to increase their destructive capacity.
He argues that what these rocket artillery systems need now is a firepower boost from M26 cluster rockets, which would allow Ukraine to increase the lethality of its HIMARS and turn them into an area weapon that could threaten Russian artillery, crippling a key capability in this fight. Cluster rockets would be a step up from the deadly 155 mm shells called dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICMs) — commonly known as cluster munitions — that the US recently delivered to Ukraine.
Washington “should be providing DPICM for the HIMARS rockets,” Dan Rice, who lobbied for the Pentagon to send cluster munitions as a special advisor to Ukraine’s military leadership, told Insider. “It’s the biggest thing of this war.”
The HIMARS first arrived in Ukraine last summer and were immediately celebrated by Kyiv’s troops. The precision rockets could hit targets nearly 50 miles away, significantly farther than the M777 howitzers with ranges of a little over 15 miles, putting valuable Russian positions — like command and control posts and ammunition depots — in harm’s way.
As the HIMARS extended Ukraine’s reach beyond that of the US-provided M777s delivered earlier in the war, the weapon was touted as a “game-changing” system in Kyiv’s brutal artillery duel with Russia.
With Russia’s battlefield tactics dependent on its ability to maintain high rates of artillery fire, Ukraine used the HIMARS to degrade it by battering Moscow’s ammunition storage, but not necessarily the artillery pieces themselves. Ukraine’s HIMARS forced Russia to move ammunition, command and control, and key logistics hubs deeper behind the front lines to get them out of range of the HIMARS and reduce their vulnerability.
Even as the HIMARS changed the battlefield, weapons like the howitzers remained critical, and as the war dragged on, the relentless artillery exchanges did not let up.
Ukraine continued to burn through its stockpiles of conventional 155 mm artillery shells, which in turn put a strain on the stockpiles of its Western military backers. To ease this burden, the US in July announced it would outfit Kyiv with 155 mm DPICMs — ground-launched shells that break apart mid-air and disperse smaller submunitions over a piece of land below.
The decision was controversial. While cluster munitions are more efficient and deadlier than the conventional munitions Ukraine been using, the bomblets or submunitions sometimes fail to detonate, and the unexploded ordnance can pose a risk to civilians long after the fighting has ended. White House and Pentagon officials defended the move by saying that DPICMs will help Ukraine sustain high rates of fire. They also said that any impact of cluster munitions would be less destructive for Ukraine than losing to Russia.
‘This will change the war’
Cluster munitions have already made a difference on the battlefield for Ukraine as it presses forward with its grueling counteroffensive.
But what Kyiv’s military needs now are DPICMs for HIMARS in the form of M26 or M26A1 rockets, Rice said. These 227 mm rockets are packed with around 650 and 500 submunitions, respectively, which is a substantial increase over the nearly 90 submunitions that Ukraine’s current cluster munitions contain.
Right now, Ukraine’s HIMARS are consuming solid projectile rockets that are quite lethal. But Kyiv only has a limited number of them, and they’re in high demand. For this reason, HIMARS rockets aren’t used against individual Russian artillery pieces and are instead fired sporadically at higher-value targets, Rice said.
“What would happen if we gave them DPICM rockets would be that it would actually be used at a tactical level. So your HIMARS systems could now go after front-line battalions,” he said.
Russia places many of its artillery pieces in defensive areas because all it needs to do is reach the forward edge of the battlefield area to threaten the slowly advancing Ukrainian troops, Rice said. If Ukraine wanted to strike the Russian pieces with its own artillery of the same range, Kyiv’s military would have to put its artillery pieces on the forward edge, which it won’t do because they’re expensive and valuable targets — thus rendering many Russian artillery pieces out of reach.
“You need the HIMARS cluster munitions, which is an area weapon, so that every time a Russian artillery piece fires, you fire a rocket to the grid zone and you take out the artillery piece,” Rice said.
The US has a large stockpile of DPICM rockets for HIMARS that are otherwise going to be destroyed, and if even a fraction of those are given to Ukraine, “the war would be over,” Rice predicted. From a political standpoint, he believes getting Ukraine the M26 rockets is achievable because they are not increasing the current range of the HIMARS, long an argument against providing long-range missiles like the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), but rather just boosting its lethality and making it an area weapon.
However, Rice, cautioned, one of the issues is that the M26 rockets are believed to have a higher dud rate than what US officials gave for its 155 millimeter cluster munitions, which is less than 2.35%. A top Pentagon official said last month that Russia’s cluster munitions, by comparison, have a dud rate of up to 40%.
But Rice noted that the M26 submunitions are the same as the ones that Ukraine already has in its arsenal, and the battlefield has already been littered with these, thanks in part to widespread unexploded ordnance contamination by Russia.
“All of the areas that are being fired upon are areas the Russians have been,” Rice said. “And every area the Russians have been is contaminated with millions of unexploded rounds and land mines.”
Like he first did with the 155 millimeter cluster munitions, Rice is currently lobbying for Washington to provide the M26 rockets to Ukraine. It remains to be seen if the US will do so. The Pentagon said it could not speculate on future security assistance packages before they are announced.
“That’s the way that this will change the war,” Rice said. The US has given Ukraine a chance at a certain degree of fire superiority with cluster munitions, “but now we have to give them the chance to win it.”
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