US-made ATACMS cluster missiles could give Ukraine's HIMARS the power to punish Russia's artillery and 'cut off' its army, former US artillery officer says

  • Multiple reports have said Washington is going to send Ukraine sought-after ATACMS missiles.

  • One variant that could help Kyiv is the M39 cluster missile, which has nearly 1,000 submunitions.

  • A former US artillery officer said the weapons could hammer Russian artillery and isolate parts of its army.

Ukrainian forces are increasingly using long-range cruise missiles to pound high-value Russian positions far behind the war's front lines. It has only a limited supply of these weapons, but Kyiv has its eyes set on the US-provided MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System, known as ATACMS, to help it keep up the pressure on high-value targets in the rear.

It hasn't yet been announced, but multiple reports say the Biden administration has agreed to send ATACMS to Ukraine. The exact variant Kyiv's forces might receive is, however, unclear. A former US artillery officer said the M39, an older but still deadly long-range cluster missile packed with hundreds of explosive submunitions, was a likely choice and could allow Ukraine to isolate the Russian army on the occupied Crimean Peninsula and hammer its artillery — without having to liberate more territory first.

"You don't have to take the ground to prevent the Russians from being able to use it," Dan Rice, who previously served as a special advisor to Ukraine's military leadership, told Insider. Rice has lobbied for Washington to send cluster munitions since July 2022, and his efforts have also focused on cluster rockets and missiles.

Ukrainian officials, US lawmakers in Congress, military experts, and former US military officers have long pressured Washington to send ATACMS, missiles that can be fired from Kyiv's existing arsenal of US-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS, but requests have been repeatedly met with reluctance from the White House, which has been concerned about both escalating the war and also straining its own stockpiles for this weapon. Last week, however, President Joe Biden appeared to reverse course and tell his counterpart, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, that he was willing to provide the missiles.

Certain variants of the ground-launched ATACMS, such as the M57s with their 500-pound unitary warhead, can strike targets as far as 186 miles away, surpassing the 155-mile range of the Western-made Storm Shadow, or SCALP-EG, air-launched cruise missiles that Ukraine received from the UK and France. Fewer of these were produced compared with the older M39 cluster variant, military research indicates.

The M39 ATACMS variant, which saw use in Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, only has a maximum range of about 100 miles, but that's still double the range of the precision-guided Multiple Launch Rocket System Ukraine is firing from its HIMARS. The M39 is also packed with 950 anti-personnel and anti-materiel, or APAM, M74 bomblets. The submunitions are released and dispersed mid-flight over an area.

US Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) firing a missile into the East Sea during a South Korea-U.S. joint missile drill.
US Army Tactical Missile System firing a missile into the East Sea during a South Korea-US joint missile drill.South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images

Rice told Insider on Monday the transfer of the M39 variant to Ukraine could come soon and alongside two other weapons: M26 and M26A1 cluster rockets. A Department of Defense official said Tuesday they were unable to confirm reports of what Biden and Zelenskyy discussed during their meeting last week.

"President Biden has said in the past that ATACMS are not off the table, but I don't have anything new to announce," Maj. Charlie Dietz said in a statement shared with Insider. "We will continue to focus on what we can do to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield and protect its people." In a separate response, the State Department reiterated the Pentagon's position.

Isolating the Russian army

Like the M39 missiles, M26 and M26A1 cluster rockets can also be fired from Ukraine's HIMARS, combat-proven systems that have been a game changer in Ukraine.

The M26 has a range of about 18 miles and is packed with about 650 submunitions, while the M26A1 variant has a range of about 28 miles and is packed with about 510 submunitions. These rockets are a step up from the 155mm shells called dual-purpose improved conventional munitions, or DPICMs, that the US first delivered several months ago to Ukraine. Fired from shorter-range howitzer cannons, such as the US-made M777, these shells have been a headache for Russian forces, and Rice previously told Insider the cluster rockets would only make things worse for them.

Rice said the M39 ATACMS, though probably not as good at striking facilities as newer missiles, would have two major impacts on the battlefield: The first was that Ukraine could cut off the Russian military in Crimea by denying it the ability to stay supplied, and the second was that Kyiv could wreak havoc on and further degrade Moscow's artillery, something cluster rockets can also do.  

A HIMARS rocket launching.
A M142 HIMARS launching a rocket on the Bakhmut direction in May in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.Photo by Serhii Mykhalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Ukrainian forces are nearly four months into their counteroffensive, which is pressing forward in several directions along a sprawling front line along Russian-occupied territory in the east and south. One direction where Kyiv has found momentum recently is in the southern Zaporizhzhia region, where the ultimate aim of this particular axis of attack seems to be to eventually fight all the way down to the Sea of Azov.

Russian forces maintain a so-called "land bridge" that connects Russia with occupied Crimea in the south, and if Ukraine retakes key territory, its forces can sever certain Russian communication and supply lines. In the eastern part of the peninsula, there's also the 12-mile-long Kerch Bridge, a prized accomplishment of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who views the project as a symbol of Moscow's aspiration to illegally occupy the peninsula forever. But Kyiv has attacked that bridge twice— once with a truck bomb and again with sea drones — and strikes on Crimea are only likely to increase.

Rice said it was more difficult for Ukraine to target the land bridge than the Kerch bridge, but "the goal is to cut off" the Russian army. That's what ATACMS cluster missiles would help do, he said. By extending the range of the HIMARS and bolstering its area effect, Kyiv could strike railways and railway stations and disrupt rail traffic — all of which is needed to keep supplies flowing — without needing to reach the Sea of Azov.

"This is a major transformational change," Rice said, adding that even without Ukraine's military "gaining any more ground, they can isolate the Russian army in Crimea."

Ukraine has been increasingly attacking high-value Russian targets around Crimea over the past few weeks, including several significant strikes targeting the Black Sea Fleet. These major attacks are part of the Ukrainian pressure campaign to evict Moscow from Crimea, which Kyiv has vowed to liberate from nearly a decade of Russian occupation and make untenable for Putin's forces to stay there.

Ukrainian troops firing a howitzer.
Ukrainian military firing a M777 howitzer on the Bakhmut direction in May in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.Photo by Serhii Mykhalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Beyond targeting supply routes and logistics channels, Rice said Ukraine could use the ATACMS missiles and cluster rockets to "target the killer on the battlefield: Russian artillery."

When Ukrainian radars detect incoming fire from Moscow's artillery pieces, Kyiv should be firing something right back, but the problem is that its howitzers are kept back because they're expensive and valuable targets, he says. The HIMARS can fire immediately, and because the cluster rockets and missiles are area weapons, the submunitions within the respective systems can take out multiple guns, ammunition, vehicles, and personnel, Rice said.

M26 and M26A1 rockets can hit Russia's front-line battalions and rear-echelon battalions. With longer-range M39 ATACMS missiles packed with far more explosive submunitions, this becomes even more of a deadly challenge for Moscow's army.

"Counter-battery fire is just going to increase in lethality and range, and everything is now within range," Rice said, adding that "as the counteroffensive continues, this lethality is going to punish the Russians until they are forced to leave."

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