November 9, 2023 | Breaking Defense

On ATACMS for Ukraine, don’t settle for a job half done

In this op-ed, John Hardie and Bradley Bowman argue that the US should send Ukraine as many ATACMS as it can without impacting US military readiness.
November 9, 2023 | Breaking Defense

On ATACMS for Ukraine, don’t settle for a job half done

In this op-ed, John Hardie and Bradley Bowman argue that the US should send Ukraine as many ATACMS as it can without impacting US military readiness.

In October, Ukraine revealed it had quietly received, and then successfully used, the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) long-range weapon against Russia. In this new op-ed, John Hardie and Bradley Bowman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies argue that the US needs to send significantly more of the weapons — and not just the older variants that Ukraine has received so far.

Two weeks after Ukraine first employed the US-provided Army Tactical Missile System against Russian forces, top GOP lawmakers sent a letter to President Joe Biden arguing that “the job on ATACMS is only half-done.”

They’re right. Without more ATACMS deliveries, Ukraine will likely soon run out. And just as importantly, Kyiv would benefit from other ATACMS variants beyond the version already provided.

ATACMS is a ground-launched ballistic missile system operated by the US Army and several allied and partner militaries. It offers a highly survivable, all-weather long-range precision-strike capability that can respond to time-sensitive targets faster than a cruise missile.

Obtaining ATACMS had been a top priority for Kyiv for more than a year. But only after bipartisan congressional pressure and growing concerns regarding the war did the Biden administration finally agree in September to send ATACMS to Ukraine.

While that belated decision has helped Ukraine on the battlefield, the administration did not send the newest or most advanced version of ATACMS. Instead, Ukraine received the M39 Block I, the oldest ATACMS variant. It has a maximum range of 165 kilometers and carries a warhead that disperses 950 anti-personnel/anti-materiel (APAM) bomblets. By contrast, modern versions of ATACMS have a 300-kilometer range and carry unitary warheads. The Pentagon reportedly agreed to donate the M39 because it’s not written into US war plans, as its warhead is inconsistent with US policy discouraging the use of cluster munitions.

Ukraine quickly put the missiles to good use. In mid-October, Kyiv’s forces struck the Berdyansk and Luhansk airfields, located in eastern and southern Ukraine, respectively. In addition to destroying or damaging numerous Russian helicopters, the strikes will likely force Russian Army Aviation to operate from more distant bases, reducing its effectiveness.

Of course, ATACMS might’ve had a greater impact if Biden had sent them earlier. After Kyiv launched its counteroffensive in early June, Russian Ka-52 attack helicopters operating from Berdyansk helped thwart Ukrainian advances. But late is better than never.

As the lawmakers note in their Nov. 1 letter, however, “the United States has only provided a smaller number” of ATACMS to Ukraine. Western officials told The New York Times that the initial delivery consisted of just 20 or so missiles, while the Associated Press reported that Kyiv had received fewer than a dozen as of mid-October. Ukraine likely expended most of those missiles during its initial salvos. Absent additional supplies, Ukraine will soon run out — if it has not already.

In their letter, the lawmakers called on Biden to send Kyiv the rest of America’s ATACMS missiles with APAM warheads. This would include both the M39 as well as the M39A1 Block IA. The latter also carries a cluster warhead but has a 300-kilometer range, allowing Ukraine to hold at risk targets in all of Crimea. If the Pentagon doesn’t need the M39 due to its cluster warhead, then the same presumably applies to the M39A1. The US Army reportedly had nearly 1,500 ATACMS missiles as of late August, including over 360 with APAM warheads.

In addition to the APAM variants, the lawmakers also urged Biden to give Ukraine some ATACMS missiles with unitary warheads. Whereas the APAM variant is effective against soft-skinned targets such as aircraft and air defense systems, its warhead is ineffective against targets such as bridges and hardened command posts. Destroying those targets requires a powerful unitary warhead like those found on modern ATACMS variants.

Ukraine does have other long-range missiles with unitary warheads, most notably its Storm Shadow and SCALP-EG air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), provided by the United Kingdom and France, respectively. But Kyiv likely has few of those missiles left, and London and Paris cannot soon provide many more.

Also, because those missiles have a maximum range of just 250 kilometers, Ukrainian pilots would have to put themselves at great risk to strike targets deep in Crimea. This includes the Crimean Bridge, which Russia uses to transport equipment and supplies to southern Ukraine. Disabling that bridge could facilitate Ukrainian gains during a renewed offensive in the spring. While Germany’s Taurus ALCM would probably offer the best solution thanks to its over 500-kilometer range and sophisticated fuze, Berlin has refused to provide it.

Pentagon officials have argued that the United States doesn’t have enough unitary ATACMS to spare. These missiles are certainly a high-demand asset. But the US military plans to soon begin fielding a more capable replacement, the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), within the next two years. Indeed, deliveries of PrSM Increment 1 could begin as early as 2024. As the US Army’s top procurement official said in September, the PrSM’s imminent arrival could “make it less risky from a readiness standpoint to provide some number” of ATACMS to Ukraine.

Moreover, ATACMS remains in full-rate production at Lockheed Martin. The company makes “about 500 per year,” a spokesman told The Washington Post in July. Currently, 209 missiles are planned for sales to foreign countries in fiscal year 2024. Washington could ask one or more of those countries to delay receipt so the missiles can either go directly to Ukraine or backfill US donations. Better yet, Congress could appropriate funding this year to procure more ATACMS for Ukraine.

ATACMS has proven to be a useful addition to Ukraine’s arsenal of long-range precision-strike capabilities. But it’s too soon for Washington to pat itself on the back.

The Biden administration should deliver the Pentagon’s remaining APAM missiles to Ukraine without delay and send as many ATACMS with unitary warheads as possible without jeopardizing US military readiness; that would likely include at least several dozen. For their part, Republicans in Congress should support quickly passing a supplemental Ukraine aid bill.

Ukrainians are determined to defend their homes against Russia’s unprovoked invasion. But success on the battlefield requires more than determination. It also requires the right weapons. That’s why Washington should provide Kyiv with additional ATACMS without delay.

John Hardie is deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a nonpartisan research institute based in Washington, DC. Bradley Bowman is senior director of FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power.


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