Russian forces struggled to counter Ukraine’s use of American-made HIMARS rockets. Some Russians have an explanation: HIMARS has a secret feature that makes it harder to target them. It’s likely bluster intended to distract from Russian military failures, an expert told Insider. Something is loading.
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Why can’t Russia destroy Ukraine’s American-made HIMARS rocket launchers?
A Russian defense blog has an explanation: HIMARS has a secret feature that prevents Russian artillery from targeting it.
Not quite, say Western defense experts. The most likely reason is Russian incompetence.
In September, Russian defense blog Avia explained why Russian artillery was unable to take out Ukrainian M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, which fire GPS-guided rockets that ransacked vital Russian targets such as ammunition dumps, command posts and bridges.
A HIMARS during an exercise in Latvia in September. GINTS IVUSKANS/AFP
In theory, Russia’s massive arsenal of howitzers and multiple-launch rocket systems should be capable of destroying HIMARS by using counter-battery radar to track the trajectory of the rockets it fires to their point of launch. .
Ah, but those smart Americans have a trick, according to Avia’s unsigned blog post: They designed HIMARS to have its rockets change course and fool counter-battery radars.
“This can be seen from the flight path of the missile, which, in effect, shifts the coordinates set by the counter-battery combat assets by hundreds of meters, making it impossible to deliver precise strikes,” the message reads. , pointing to videos of Ukraine firing the rockets.
“Experts draw attention to video footage released by the Ukrainian military, which shows that after launch, the rocket changes flight path almost immediately,” the post read, according to a Google translation.
“This greatly distinguishes American systems from conventional MLRS [multiple launch rocket systems], where projectiles fly along a ballistic trajectory. With a high probability, it is this fact that prevents establishing the exact location of the coordinates of the launchers,” he adds.
A HIMARS is fired off the flight deck of the amphibious ship USS Anchorage in October 2017. U.S. Navy Specialist/Mass Communication 2nd Class Matthew Dickinson
Do HIMARS rockets really alter their trajectory after launch, the same way NASA rockets rotate their engines to change course as they climb into orbit?
In response to an Insider question, HIMARS manufacturer Lockheed Martin deferred comments to the U.S. military. The US military’s response was simply that “the missile hits its assigned ballistic trajectory to hit the target”.
Counter-battery fire – using artillery to knock out other artillery – is a difficult process even under the best of circumstances. But weak Russian counter-battery capabilities compound the problem.
“The article is probably clinging to straws,” Samuel Cranny-Evans, a land warfare expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute think tank, told Insider.
For example, the Russian Zoopark-1 counter-battery radar can detect rockets at a distance of 9 to 13 miles, but HIMARS rockets have a range of about 50 miles.
“The radar needs to pick up the projectile as it launches to try to predict its path and plot its likely approach before extrapolating back to reach a likely launch point,” Cranny-Evans said. “So if he’s not picking up the rocket from his launch point because he’s out of range, he can’t provide a targeting solution.”
US soldiers set up an AN/TPQ-53 Q-53 counterfire target acquisition radar during an exercise in Hawaii in June. US Army/1st Lt. Steph Sweeney
Additionally, counter-battery radars are configured to search for incoming shells and rockets passing through a specific sector at a specific height.
“Unless the radar is looking in the right place at the right time, it won’t detect a HIMARS launch,” Cranny-Evans said. “I doubt the Russians have enough counter-battery radars to provide continuous cover and would therefore be limited in their ability to provide persistent surveillance even if they might be within range of the rockets.”
Counter-battery radars also give an approximate location of the gun battery. While this might be good enough to set up a general barrage and hope to hit something, it’s not accurate enough for a pinpoint shot.
This is especially true for mobile artillery, such as truck-mounted HIMARS and armored self-propelled howitzers, which use “shoot and dash” tactics to fire a salvo and move within minutes.
This tactic requires counter-battery fire to be launched within minutes of detection of incoming fire – and the Russian command structure has been too slow to do so.
Ukrainian troops with a captured Russian self-propelled gun at Izium on September 14. Viacheslav Mavrychev/Suspilne Ukraine/JSC “UA:PBC”/Global Images Ukraine
“The Russians seem to have a very slow targeting process that is often unable to account for moving targets or a changing situation,” Cranny-Evans said. “If they don’t immediately fire at the suspected HIMARS location, or if the fire mission is given a low priority for some reason, they won’t be able to engage.”
Although this article by Avia seems groundless, Russian defense blogs – which often have ties to the Russian government and military – can be quite enlightening.
The HIMARS article reveals the depth of Russian frustration with new weapons supplied by Ukraine to the West. When Russian forces invaded in February, their more modern artillery overtook the older Soviet-era Ukrainian weapons. Now the shoe is on the other foot.
The article also suggests that someone in Moscow is looking for scapegoats. Rather than fixing poor equipment or ineffective procedures, they find it easier to blame the defeat on enemy secret weapons. Green grapes don’t win wars.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine and other publications. He holds a master’s degree in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.