What is HIMARS? The advanced rocket system US is sending Ukraine

White House officials have confirmed that the United States will send M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, also known as HIMARS, to war-torn Ukraine.

The medium-range rocket systems have long topped the lists of weapons requests by Kyiv as fighting against Russian forces has concentrated in the eastern regions of the country.

The US officials confirmed the systems would be part of a new $700m security assistance package to Ukraine that will also include helicopters, Javelin anti-tank weapon systems, tactical vehicles, spare parts and more.

In an op-ed in the New York Times on Tuesday, Biden wrote that the US will “provide the Ukrainians with more advanced rocket systems and munitions that will enable them to more precisely strike key targets on the battlefield in Ukraine”, although he did not name the systems by name.

A Ukrainian multiple rocket launcher shells Russian troops' position, near Lugansk, in the Donbas region, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian multiple rocket launcher BM-21 “Grad” fires towards Russian troops’ position in the Donbas region [File: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP]

He said the weapons are meant to help Ukraine “fight on the battlefield and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table”.

The military package, which is expected to be officially announced on Wednesday, will be the eleventh provided by the US to Ukraine since the Russian invasion began on February 24.

In total, the US has provided about $4.5bn in military assistance since the invasion, including howitzers approved in April, the most powerful artillery provided prior to the HIMARS.

What is the new system US is providing?

HIMARS are a high-tech, lightweight rocket launcher that is wheel mounted, giving it more agility and manoeuvrability on the battlefield.

Each unit can carry six GPS guided rockets, which can be reloaded in about a minute with only a small crew.

Analysts say the system is considerably more reliable than other rocket systems Ukrainian forces currently use.

The range of the systems provided by Washington will be about 80km (50 miles), almost double the range of the US-provided M777 howitzers, which entered the Ukrainian battlefield in May.

It was not clear on Wednesday how many of the systems the US will send to Ukraine.

Why is the system significant?

Ukrainian officials have long called for longer-range artillery systems to help repel Russia’s advances in the east, a region of sprawling fields that is generally considered more difficult to defend than more dense urban areas.

On Saturday, as Russian forces bore down on the strategically significant city of Severodonetsk, Ukrainian presidential adviser and peace talks negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak again said longer-range weapons were needed to match Russian capabilities.

“It is hard to fight when you are attacked from 70 km away and have nothing to fight back with. Ukraine can return Russia behind the Iron Curtain, but we need effective weapons for that,” Podolyak tweeted.

The HIMARS will give Ukraine’s forces the ability to attack further behind Russian lines. They will also be able to launch attacks from a more protected distance.

“Broadly speaking, Ukraine’s artillery arsenal is outranged and outnumbered by Russia’s,” Samuel Cranny-Evans, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, told Al Jazeera.

He said that, if upgraded, systems currently in use by Russia, notably the BM-30 Smerch, can “provide sustained and destructive fire at distances up to 90 km or 120 km”.

The HIMARS “will provide Ukraine firstly with the ability to reach these systems if they are operating beyond howitzer range,” he said. “In addition, the longer-range systems can be used to engage Russian logistics and command and control nodes, which are critical to Russia’s ability to sustain the fight.”

The effectiveness of the new systems, he added, will ultimately “depend on the Ukrainian ability to conduct reconnaissance and intelligence gathering functions into Russia’s operational depth and coordinate that with the new artillery assets as they enter service”.

Why has the US waited until now?

The US has wrestled with providing weapons that could risk escalating the conflict beyond Ukraine’s borders.

To date, Washington has not overtly backed any of the short-range attacks Ukraine has reportedly conducted inside Russian territory, either with rockets, drones or helicopters.

While the artillery provided with the HIMARS could theoretically reach Russia if fired close enough to the border, a US official told reporters on Tuesday “Ukrainians have given assurances they will not use these systems against Russian territory”.

The US has said it will not supply Ukraine with the Army Tactical Missile Systems, which have a range of 300km (186 miles).

Russia has said the US decision to provide the HIMARS would increase the risk of a direct confrontation.

On Wednesday, the Kremlin sharply criticised the US decision to supply the rocket systems and munitions to Ukraine, and accused Washington of adding “fuel to the fire”.

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