A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jan 21, 2023

Why Tactical Missile Systems May Be More Important To Ukraine Than Tanks

With modern tank deliveries stalled for the moment and Russia securing munitions from North Korea, tactical missile systems would force Russia to move all of its major supply depots out of occupied Ukraine - and possibly even out of Crimea. 

This might improve chances of forcing Russia to concede and reduce the length of the war while limiting casualties. JL 

Phillips O'Brien reports in The Spectator:

ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile Systems) are the longest-range ammunition now available for the HIMARS. ATACMS could be of greater use to Ukraine. With a range of 200 miles, and the accuracy US weapons have shown already, ATACMs would allow Ukraine to hit any target it could locate. Since the HIMARS appeared this summer, the Russians have been forced to move depots further behind the lines. This has made supply issues even more difficult, helping reduce the amount of Russian shells that can be fired daily as well as the number of vehicles near the front line. It could force the Russians to move all their depots out of Ukraine, and sever supply lines running (from) Crimea.

What weapons will Ukraine get next? It’s a crucial question that matters perhaps more than anything else for understanding how the Russo-Ukraine war will end. For the last few months two different systems have received the most attention, systems that Ukraine has asked for almost daily. These are tanks, or MBTs (Main Battle Tanks), the key armoured vehicle of 20th and 21st century land warfare, and ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile Systems), the longest-range ammunition now available for the US-made HIMARS rocket launchers already in Ukraine. 

Both are needed for the quickest possible Ukrainian victory in the war, though for now it seems that the first, tanks, are on their way and the other, ATACMS, are still a while away.  

Nato-standard MBTs, such as British-made Challengers or German-made Leopards, look very much to be heading to Ukraine. This weekend, it was reported that the UK government had assured the Ukrainian government that Challenger 2s (probably only a small number) will be going to Kyiv in the not-too-distant future. The Ukrainians hope that these kinds of pledges, matched by Polish pledges to send some of their Leopards, will embolden the German government, which naturally has the most Leopards to offer, to really open the taps and send its own MBTs.  

Such a move should be a real asset to the Ukrainian war effort, though it will take a few months until the training and logistical systems will be in place for Ukraine to be able to utilise them efficiently. Until now Ukraine has equipped its forces with legacy Soviet era systems, which they have had to upgrade, a large number of captured Russian tanks, and those supplied by some of Ukraine’s most committed friends such as Poland and Czechia. What the war has shown, however, is the large gap between the operating effectiveness of Nato equipment and its Russian counterparts. If Ukraine can field a large force of Leopards, it should give the country a noticeable advantage. 

The question is, of course, how MBTs would operate. Pre-war assessments stressed Russia’s ability to quickly overrun Ukrainian positions with fast-moving armoured vehicles. But this war has seen few armoured breakthrough/exploitation events. Indeed, in the immediate future, the role of these tanks for Ukraine might be in helping to whittle down the numerically large Russian forces they are now facing.

The Russian army in Ukraine, according to some Ukrainian sources I’ve talked to, could presently number as much as 300,000 soldiers, which would make it significantly larger than the one that crossed the border on February 24. However, while the Russian army is numerically larger, it generally has poorer equipment, which has been taken out of storage as opposed to newly produced, advanced supplies. Even Russian airborne forces, which you would think would get the best possible kit, seems to have worse equipment than in February 2022. 

Moreover, the new Russian units being prepared for combat seem to be composed almost entirely of draftees, pressed into service in the last few months. There are no signs that the Russians are trying to actually mix in combat experienced units. The result could end up being a bloody mess for Russia, with Ukraine using its new MBTs in a defensive role for a while, soaking up and destroying these numerically large but not well-equipped Russian formations. It would see the tank operate as a form of mobile artillery or a defensive support weapon, not in any large or risky advance. In the meantime, therefore, until Russian forces are worn down, ATACMS could even be of greater use to Ukraine. With a range of 300km (almost 200 miles), and the kind of accuracy that US weapons have shown already in this war, ATACMs would allow the Ukrainians to expand the war even further behind Russian lines in occupied Ukraine. It would allow Ukraine to hit any target it could locate, including supply lines that are now operating for the Russian army. Since the HIMARS first appeared this summer, the Russians have been forced to move their larger depots further behind the lines. This seems to have made supply issues even more difficult for them, helping reduce significantly the amount of Russian shells that can be fired daily as well as the number of vehicles that can be supplied near the front line.

If Ukraine can get its hands on ATACMS, it could basically force the Russians to move all their large depots entirely out of occupied Ukraine, and at the same time sever the supply lines running to Russian forces through the Crimea. It would take an already bad supply situation for the Russian army, and make it considerably worse, maybe even catastrophic for Russian forces in the west.  

ATACMS, however, will probably have to wait. Nato countries seem willing to take the plunge on MBTs, but so far there is little sign that anything equivalent will happen with ATACMS. The Biden administration still seems to see them as having too much potential to escalate the conflict. So unless Russia does something stupidly egregious, which is always a possibility, we will likely see tanks and not missiles heading Ukraine’s way in the near term. The issue for Ukraine, is that ATACMS would probably be the more valuable addition right now. 


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