News and Magazine

  • Russian forces have struggled to counter Ukraine’s use of US-made HIMARS rockets.
  • Some Russians have an explanation: HIMARS has a secret feature that makes it harder to target them.
  • That’s probably bluster meant to distract from Russian military failings, one expert told Insider.

Why can’t Russia destroy Ukraine’s US-made HIMARS rocket launchers?

One Russian defense blog has an explanation: HIMARS has a secret feature that prevents Russian artillery from targeting it.

Not quite, Western defense experts say. The more likely reason is Russian incompetence.

In September, Russian defense blog Avia wrote about why Russian artillery has been not able to knock out Ukraine’s M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, which fire GPS-guided rockets that have savaged vital Russian targets such as ammunition dumps, command posts, and bridges.

HIMARS in Latvia

A HIMARS during an exercise in Latvia in September.


In theory, Russia’s huge arsenal of howitzers and multiple-launch rocket systems should be able to destroy HIMARS by using counter-battery radar to track the trajectory of the rockets it fires back to their launch point.

Ah, but those clever Americans have a trick, according to Avia’s unsigned blog post: They designed HIMARS so its rockets would change trajectory and fool counter-battery radars.

“This can be seen from the missile’s flight path, which, in fact, shifts the coordinates set by counterbattery means of combat by hundreds of meters, making it impossible to deliver accurate strikes,” the post says, pointing to videos of Ukraine firing the rockets.

“Experts draw attention to video footage published by the Ukrainian military, which shows that after launch, the rocket changes its flight path almost immediately,” the post says, according to a translation done by Google.

“This greatly distinguishes American systems from conventional MLRS [multiple launch rocket systems], where the projectiles fly along a ballistic trajectory. With a high degree of probability, it is this fact that prevents the establishment of the exact location of the coordinates of the launchers,” it adds.

High Mobility Artillery Rocket System HIMARS

A HIMARS is fired on the flight deck of the amphibious ship USS Anchorage in October 2017.

US Navy/Mass Comm Specialist 2nd Class Matthew Dickinson

Do HIMARS rockets really alter their trajectory after launch, in the same way that NASA rockets pivot their engines to change course during their ascent to orbit?

In response to a query from Insider, HIMARS manufacturer Lockheed Martin deferred comment to the US Army. The US Army’s response was simply that “the missile attains the ballistic trajectory it’s assigned to reach the target.”

Counter-battery fire — using artillery to knock out other artillery — is a difficult process even under the best of circumstances. But poor Russian counter-battery capabilities are compounding the problem.

“The article is probably grasping at straws,” Samuel Cranny-Evans, a land-warfare expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute think tank, told Insider.

For example, Russia’s Zoopark-1 counter-battery radar can detect rockets at a ranges of 9 to 13 miles, but HIMARS rockets have a range of about 50 miles.

“The radar needs to pick the projectile up as it is launched to try and predict its trajectory and plot its likely approach before extrapolating backwards to reach a probable launch point,” Cranny-Evans said. “So if it doesn’t pick the rocket up from its launch point because it’s not within range, it can’t provide a targeting solution.”

Army soldiers AN/TPQ-53 Q-53 counter-battery radar

US soldiers set up an AN/TPQ-53 Q-53 counter-fire target acquisition radar during an exercise in Hawaii in June.

US Army/1st Lt. Steph Sweeney

In addition, counter-battery radars are set to scan for incoming shells and rockets passing through a specific sector at a specific height.

“Unless the radar happens to be looking in the right place at the right time, it will not detect a HIMARS launch,” Cranny-Evans said. “I doubt the Russians have enough counter-battery radars to provide continuous coverage and so would be limited in their ability to provide persistent monitoring even if they could get within range of the rockets.”

Counter-battery radars also give an approximate location of the firing battery. While this may be good enough to lay down a general barrage and hope to hit something, it’s not accurate enough for a precise shot.

This is especially true for mobile artillery, such as truck-mounted HIMARS and armored self-propelled howitzers, that use “shoot and scoot” tactics to fire a salvo and relocate within minutes.

That tactic requires counter-battery fire to be launched within minutes of detecting incoming fire – and Russia’s command structure has been too slow to do this.

Ukrainian troops with captured Russian self-propelled artillery gun

Ukrainian troops with a captured Russian self-propelled gun in Izium on September 14.

Viacheslav Mavrychev/Suspilne Ukraine/JSC “UA:PBC”/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

“The Russians appear to have a very slow targeting process that is often unable to take account of moving targets or a changing situation,” Cranny-Evans said. “If they do not immediately fire on the suspected HIMARS location, or the fire mission gets allocated a low priority for whatever reason, they will not be able to engage.”

While this Avia article appears groundless, Russian defense blogs — which often have links to the Russian government and military — can be quite illuminating.

The HIMARS article reveals the depth of Russian frustration with Ukraine’s new Western-supplied weapons. When Russian forces invaded in February, their more modern artillery outranged Ukraine’s older Soviet-era arms. 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 defeat on enemy secret weapons. Sour 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 in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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