Ukraine update: Ukraine doesn’t need ATACMS (for now)

Ukraine update: Ukraine doesn’t need ATACMS (for now)

There is an article of faith among certain circles that Ukraine “needs” ATACMS in order to finish off the Russians. ATACMS are long-range rockets fired by HIMARS/MLRS launchers. Here’s the difference between GMLRS, which is what Ukraine has been firing, and ATACMS:




6 80km (48mi) 200 lbs $160K
1 300km (190mi) 500 lbs $1M

A pod of GMLRS costs about $960,000, delivering 1,200 pounds of explosive power. A single ATACMS costs (slightly) more, for just 42% of the explosive power. The value, then, is really about distance, the ability to hit distant targets. 

The Biden Administration has been reluctant to deliver ATACMS to Ukraine, partly because it fears further escalation with Russia. But while many critics have zeroed in on the “escalation” argument to accuse President Joe Biden of timidity in the face of Russian aggression, the full answer is more complicated than that.

“[Colin H. Kahl, under secretary of defense for policy] said that while the United States is committed to providing Ukraine with the equipment it needs to counter Russian aggression, the Pentagon has assessed that Ukraine does not need the ATACMS for ‘targets that are directly relevant to the current fight,’” reported The New York Times. Why risk potential escalation if the weapon isn’t currently needed? 

Retired Gen. Mark Hertling defended that decision in a Twitter thread he admitted would “NOT be a popular thread.”

His reasons might be cost/effectiveness per round, capability of acquiring targets at over 100km (you have to see what you want to hit), # of targets, # of missiles in US stock required to meet US contingency plans, and more. All likely played a part in the discussion. 12/

— Mark Hertling (@MarkHertling) September 16, 2022

The advantages of ATACMS are clear: hitting targets in Crimea, maybe some rail depots deep behind enemy lines in the Donbas. The disadvantages are that the payload is weak, the number of rockets is limited, they are vulnerable to Russian air defenses, and most important Russian targets are already in range of GMLRS. 

Unlike what many think, ATACMS can’t bring down the Kerch bridge, not even close. Witness the dozens of GMLRS that have hit bridges around Kherson, and they still haven’t taken down most of them despite the bigger overall explosive punch. Russia tried to take down the bridge connecting Odesa with Moldova and a slice of Ukrainian territory to the south, lobbing several volleys of cruise missiles (with 1,100-pound warheads) at the bridge and its support structures. It failed, eventually giving up after multiple attacks. 

In southern #Ukraine, today it’s reported Russia struck the road & rail bridge at Zatoka. It’s the only bridge across a significant body of water to this large chunk of land bordering #Moldova. Russia maybe planning to land forces here, as spring board for offensive against Odesa

— Glasnost Gone (@GlasnostGone) April 26, 2022

The Kerch bridge was specifically built to withstand conventional missile attacks (though given Russian grift and corruption, there’s a chance the construction contractors didn’t deliver to plan).

Still, Ukraine doesn’t even need to take out the Kerch bridge. There are just two rail lines headed north from Crimea into Kherson oblast, and both have been repeatedly targeted and knocked out of commission by HIMARS rockets. And Ukraine wouldn’t have to push too deep into southern Kherson oblast to put the Kerch bridge in range of regular GMLRS. So what exactly would ATACMS strike? Airfields, for sure. Yet Ukraine has found ways to hit distant airfields without ATACMS.

Another video of the explosion in the area of military airport in Novofedorivka, Saky region on the territory of occupied Crimea.

— Anton Gerashchenko (@Gerashchenko_en) August 9, 2022

Maybe Ukraine could hit ships and submarines at port at Sevastopol naval base? Russia would move any assets within range of those rockets. And in any case, I can’t remember the last time I saw Russian submarines or ships launch cruise missiles into Ukraine. Odds are good Russia is running low on those $6.5 million missiles. With Ukrainian grain shipments currently allowed under agreement by Russia, there’s vanishing little military impetus to strike Russian naval assets (morale and propaganda are other matters, entirely). 

Out east, HIMARS can already easily hit Russia’s logistical hub at Belgorod: 

HIMARS range from the now-liberated border region north of Kharkiv. This isn’t a one-sided artillery battle any more… (cc: @konrad_muzyka)

— ChrisO (@ChrisO_wiki) September 11, 2022

With the collapse of the Kharkiv occupation, Belgorod’s status as Russia’s main logistical hub is severely under threat. If Ukraine manages to push out into northern Luhansk oblast, Belgorod will cease being an option, and Russia will have to readjust. I’m going to be digging into this thread a bit more in a later update, but look at the rail network in the northeast: 

The hubs of the rail network supplying Russia’s occupation of northeast Ukraine are laid out like a pyramid. At the top is the primary supply hub Voronezh, then the junctions of Stary Oskol and Liski, and finally the forward supply hubs of Belgorod, Valuyki and Millerovo. /2

— Tom Warner (@warnerta) September 18, 2022

Ukraine already has Belgorod and Valuyki in GMLRS range. With those lines cuts, it won’t take much for Ukraine to liberate northern Luhansk, and once they do, the line to Millerovo will be cut, either physically (the line runs though a tip of Ukraine) or with HIMARS and regular artillery. Furthermore, the more populated areas of southern Luhansk will then be in GMLRS range as well. 

(I suspect Ukraine will refrain from hitting Belgorod with HIMARS, lest Russia feels extra compelled to reinvade the region to create a buffer zone.)

In the south, the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk are just out of GMLRS range with the current front lines. If Ukraine manages to push that line back about 10 kilometers, they too will be under fire control. All rail lines connecting those ports to the rest of Ukraine are already in GMLRS range. 

Russia would eventually have to work out new supply lines heading into eastern Ukraine, and if those are out of range of GMLRS rockets and need ATACMS to effectively shut down, then the Pentagon and Biden might be like, “Okay, Putin may throw a tantrum, but this benefit is too valuable to pass up.”

For now, GMLRS pods, with six rockets, pack a bigger collective punch, are more versatile, and are immune to Russian air defenses. They have been stunningly effective shaping the battlefield, earning the “game changer” title when it was doubtful any one weapons system could be that impactful. 

ATACMS is a “would be nice” type of weapon, not a must-have. 

What Ukraine does need, however, are more infantry fighting vehicles and armored troop carriers. Such vehicles are still too rare, and we’re seeing Ukrainians advance into enemy territory in janky civilian Scooby vans. 


The M113s armored personnel carriers the U.S. and several allies have sent Ukraine are okay, but they are 50-year-old technology. The U.S. has thousands of M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles in storage, and they are better than anything Russia is fielding on their side. (Mark Sumner wrote about the M2 Bradley when we thought that’s what Ukraine would be getting.)

In any case, no one likes to hear “the U.S. won’t send Ukraine the ATACMS it’s requesting,” but as of now, the Pentagon has done a good job of sending Ukraine exactly the tools it has needed for each stage of the war. 

In Season One: The Battle of Kyiv, the U.S. and allies sent anti-tank rockets like NLAWS and Javelins, as well as shoulder-fired anti-air missiles like Stingers. It worked—those suckers defeated the Russian air force, and plucky guerilla-style tactics ended Russia’s designs in Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy. 

In Season Two: The Battle for the Donbas, we saw bloody attritional artillery and trench warfare. The U.S. and allies rushed artillery guns, both towed and self-propelled, and millions of NATO-standard shells to fight Russia—with a once-massive artillery advantage—to a draw. 

Season Three: Shaping the Battlefield culminated with the Battle of Kharkiv Oblast, or whatever historians end up calling it. It required the long-range attrition of Russian supply depots, supply lines, and command and control centers. Russia struggles any time it moves more than 25 kilometers from a rail hub, so why not force them to use hubs further behind the lines? And while Ukraine baited Russia into the obvious Kherson trap, it used the Soviet-era tanks Poland and several other nations sent, as well as M113, Humvees, and other infantry vehicles to create a host of maneuver units to go on the offensive along two fronts. HARM missiles degraded Russian air defenses to the point that armed drones were free to reenter the battle.

The Pentagon has been working closely with Ukrainian military leadership in helping craft next steps in the war. They’ll know best what weapons systems Ukraine needs (as opposed to wants) for future seasons of this war. 


VIDEO of Ukrainian troops in Bilohorivka/Belogorovka in the Luhansk region app 20km West of Severodonetsk. Geolocation 48.919995, 38.252648 #Ukraine #RussianUkrainianWar #Putin #UkraineWar #Russia

— raging545 (@raging545) September 18, 2022

Nothing sensitive about that video other than burned out homes. Bilohorivka is the famous town where Russia made three disastrous river crossing attempts, losing close to 100 armored vehicles in the process. It was the last corner of Luhansk oblast under Ukrainian control when Russia conquered the whole oblast, so it is fitting that it is the first toehold back into Luhansk as Ukrainian army pushes forward. 

🇺🇦 have advanced in the North of Kherson and there is now fighting around the settlement of Bilyaivka.

— War Mapper (@War_Mapper) September 19, 2022

The gains aren’t as dramatic as a week ago, but Ukraine is steadily pushing forward. Look at that cauldron forming in northern Kherson as Ukrainian forces expand the Davydiv Brid bridgehead toward Beryslav and Nova Kakhovka, simultaneously putting pressure from the top. Russian forces are in danger of being cut in half. 

Beryslav also hosts of one of Russia’s notorious concentration “filtration” camps. I’m not looking forward to the horrors they will unearth when it is liberated. 


OMG, Peak Tankie: 

The perils of trying to make the world fit your ideological fixation – in this case, that American military involvement is axiomatically a bad thing – at something like peak form: you can argue yourself into Holocaust “revisionist” territory and do so in a high moral tone.

— Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) September 19, 2022

Click here to donate to help those escaping Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

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