There are a whole bunch of letters in the name of this weapon, but what they mean is important: They stand for Army Tactical Missile System. It’s an upgrade from the HIMARS system – the High Mobility Multiple Artillery Rocket System that fires multiple rockets from a single launcher. The ATACMS fires a single rocket, but it will reach targets up to 190 miles away from the launcher, whereas the HIMARS will hit targets from about 10 to 50 miles away. All of these weapons systems use solid-,fuel rocket propulsion and GPS-aided guidance systems, meaning they are precision weapons, much more likely to hit what they are aimed at than conventional artillery or non-guided surface-to-surface rockets.
The Ukrainian army has been using the HIMARS systems for several months and its multiple-missile launchers have been credited with aiding the breakthroughs being made in the Kherson area, driving Russian forces back to the banks of the Dnipro River and, in some cases, across the river. The HIMARS system as well as the improved M777 155 mm howitzers that can fire long-range GPS-guided shells, have been extremely effective at hitting Russian forces, including knocking out armored vehicles and troop concentrations on the ground.
The Russian army, by contrast, has no precision-guided rockets and its large artillery pieces do not fire guided munitions. Reports from Ukraine say the Russians are expending more than 10 times the amount of ammunition the Ukrainian army uses. Because of the inaccuracy of the Russian artillery, they tend to blanket entire areas of the battlefront, basically hoping they hit something.
There is a problem with the ATACMS rocket system, however. Production of the weapon stopped in 2007, meaning there is a discrete number of the missiles in the U.S. inventory we can supply to Ukraine. Once the ATACMS missiles are fired, they cannot be replaced. A new army rocket system is being developed by Lockheed, the PRSM long range missile, a guided munition which is accurate to more than 300 miles. It is being tested by the army right now, but won’t come online until next year at the earliest. Four of the new PRSM rockets will be able to be fired from the same M270 rocket launcher used for the ATACMS, which carried only two. The HIMARS system will also be adapted for the new missile, firing two PRSMs rather than one. The new PRSM systems have more sophisticated rocket motors than anything currently in our army inventory and will carry a new high-explosive warhead that has a dud-rate lower than the current weapons.
The question remains, why haven’t we supplied Ukraine’s army with the long-range ATACMS rocket system by now? I raised the same question about the HIMARS system and the improved-accuracy M777 155 howitzers back in March in this column, and at the time asked my friend, former Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, why we weren’t shipping these highly accurate and deadly weapons to Ukraine. His answer was, nobody knows, and the answer for the ATACMS rockets today is the same. I don’t know why we haven’t supplied Ukraine with this longer-range missile system. I don’t know why we haven’t supplied them with top-of-the-line M-1 Abrams tanks, either.
There probably is an answer, however, and it’s the same one that explained why American soldiers were not supplied with the most up to date equipment earlier in other wars like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The people who make decisions about what gets sent to armies in the field, including the Ukrainian army currently fighting Russians on its own soil, are not on the ground in the fight. They are back in Washington, D.C., in heated and air-conditioned offices, and of course, politics comes into play. I am sure there was copious hand-wringing in the Pentagon in the early weeks and months of the war about what would happen if we sent the new M777 howitzers and HIMARS rockets to Ukraine.
The answer, of course, is that they have been used to great effect against the Russian army and have been responsible for most of the gains made by Ukraine on the battlefield, including the recent advances in northeastern Ukraine and the re-taking of towns and villages west of Kherson in the south. Putin, all the while, has saber-rattled about U.S. and NATO military support of Ukraine and made threats to use tactical nuclear weapons if the parts of Ukraine he annexed are attacked. It has already happened. Ukraine has taken back lands in eastern Ukraine that Putin claimed as part of Russia, and no nuclear weapons have been fired.
Meanwhile, retired General Barry McCaffrey was on MSNBC this morning talking about what terrible shape the Russian army is in. He said Putin has “sacked” eight of his generals and 10 more have been killed on the battlefield. The new general Putin put in command of Russian forces in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, led Russian forces in their brutal suppression of rebels in northern Syria. He has a reputation for corruption and was charged with illegal arms trafficking in 1995 but never tried. In other words, he is the kind of Putin crony you would expect.
Surovikin is, I think, the second or third army general Putin has appointed to lead his illegal war in Ukraine. One of the others was killed in a Ukrainian attack on a Russian headquarters, and the other was presumably “sacked,” to use McCaffrey’s old but excellent description for firing commanders in the military.
In general, no pun intended, the United States has treated the Ukrainian army the same way the U.S. army was treated by Washington in Iraq and Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was famously quoted in the early days of the Iraq war saying, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want,” when he answered a question from a young soldier about why the army had not been supplied with more armored personnel carriers rather than the canvas-sided Humvees they drove into Iraq.
In the case of Ukraine, however, the war they are fighting wasn’t the war of choice that Iraq was for us, and we could have been supplying Ukraine’s army with more powerful and accurate weapons right from the start if the Pentagon and political leaders in Washington had had their heads screwed on more tightly.
That’s going to change, according to what I have heard, and it’s about time.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.
Reprinted with permission from Lucian Truscott Newsletter