President Joe Biden been known for his gaffes and slips of the tongue—generally breaches of decorum rather than substance. But in the realm of international politics and security, minor changes in wording can lead to substantively different interpretations. That was evident in a recent statement made by Biden asserting a U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan that his staff seemingly attempted to walk back—and late in May it appears to be tripping up his messaging regarding military assistance to Ukraine.
As Russian forces advance further into Ukraine’s Donbas region with the reported capture of most of the symbolically important city of Severodonetsk, speculation and controversy is swirling regarding Biden’s statement Monday, “We’re not going to send to Ukraine rocket systems that can strike into Russia” in response to a journalist’s question.
That came after days of reports from prominent U.S. media his administration was preparing to authorize sending Multiple Rocket Launcher Systems (MRLSs) to Ukraine, which have been urgently requested by Kyiv to counter Russian artillery.
In fact, this is very likely another misworded statement exploded into a unnecessary controversy. Biden probably should have said “longer-range rockets” or “missiles,” not “rocket systems.” And of course any artillery weapon near the border can strike “into Russia”—the intended meaning was deep into Russia.
In other words, Ukraine will probably receive MRLS systems, just not the longest-range munition those systems are capable of firing: the MGM-140 Advanced Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which has a maximum range of 186 miles.
That is not a huge blow, as Ukraine has far more pressing needs for the shorter-range precision strike rockets, which remain effective against targets up to 43 miles. And ATACMS would present significant complications.
Distinguishing rockets from missiles
The U.S. builds two types of MRLSs, the beefier M270 which can rapidly launch twelve 227-millimeter rockets at once, or carry two much larger ATACMS missiles; and the lightweight M142 HIMARS, which can carry half as many of the same types of munitions.
The ATACMS is expensive at around $750,000+ per missile, and as a result has been used only quite sparingly by the U.S. Army. It’s functionally a ballistic missile like the Tochka missile used by Ukraine, though with greater range and precision.
The three munitions Ukraine is instead likely to receive are the standard, unguided M26 rocket with a range of 28 miles, and/or the GPS-guided M30 and M31, which can reach out to 43.5 miles.
Both the M26 and M30 rockets use cluster submunitions that spray hundreds of small bomblets over a wide area. Cluster weapons, which are being employed by both Ukraine and Russia in the current fighting, are controversial and banned in many countries due to their tendency to leave behind dud munitions which can harm civilians well after the fighting has moved on. Though the U.S. doesn’t adhere to Convention on Cluster Munitions, it may be reluctant to transfer them.
Instead, the most interesting capabilities come from the M31 GMLRS rocket, which uses GPS guidance to land on target with airstrike-like accuracy; so precise it’s effective with a standard 200-pound ‘unitary’ warhead. However, there’s also the M30 GPS-guided variant, which can carry either 400 cluster bomblets, or a large number of non-exploding penetrating balls or fragments.
Traditionally, MRLSs are fired in huge volleys of rockets, relying on volume of fire rather than precision to achieve effects. But guided M31s can be fired individually to pick off buildings, troop positions or stationary vehicles while posing less of a collateral damage risk to everything in a wide radius near the target.
In the anti-ISIS war, this allowed the U.S. Army and Marine HIMARS to provide round-the-clock precision strikes (see video above) with a weapon previously considered too indiscriminately destructive for use near populated areas.
The range of 43 miles is still enough to outdistance all Russian howitzer artillery and hit targets well behind the frontline. Furthermore, both the M270 and M142 are capable of launching their weapons fast enough to “shoot-and-scoot” before a retaliatory salvo can possibly hit them.
These systems could be used to efficiently gnaw down Russia’s larger arsenal of artillery from a safe distance. It’s that arsenal Russia has depended upon to inelegantly but effectively claw more territory from Ukraine in the Donbas region.
But why not ATACMS?
Kyiv would still surely like to have ATACMS missiles, but there are some defensible reasons for Washington not to furnish the weapon.
That’s because ATACMS would be most useful for attacking targets on Russian soil. While Moscow would remain out of range (roughly 270 miles from the closest point on Ukraine’s border), cities like Voronezh and Rostov-on-Don could become vulnerable to attack.
To be clear, Russia has invaded Ukraine unprovoked, and Ukraine is well within its rights to attack military targets in Russia facilitating the invasion like airbases, fuel depots, barracks, troop-carrying railheads etc. And Kyiv has indeed conducted some strikes against strategic targets using attack helicopters, Tochka ballistic missiles, and, apparently, Bayraktar drones and clandestine agents.
However, having made-in-America ballistic missiles falling around cities deep inside Russia poses significant risks. For one, Moscow would claim such attacks validated Putin’s pre-war claims that NATO would convert Ukraine into a missile base for attacks against Russia, while brushing aside the distinction between whether Ukrainian and NATO forces are operating those weapons (as Russian propaganda already routinely does).
While Moscow would look for ways to retaliate against NATO, perhaps an even greater risk is that deep strikes could be used by Putin to whip up popular support for a broader, renewed war effort against Ukraine bolstered by large-scale mobilization.
While Kyiv might not to use ballistic missile capabilities this way, or may weigh risks differently, Washington will surely prefer not to entertain such risks at all. Besides, GPS-guided rockets are by far the more pressing use-case for any American MRLS systems given to Ukraine.
There remain some complications to consider. Moscow will be disinclined to trust Washington’s assertions it isn’t giving ATACMS to Kyiv, and will still probably look for ways to retaliate.
Moscow may also grouse that launchers given to Ukraine could later be supplied with ballistic missiles anyway, perhaps by Poland, which has ordered both the HIMARS system and ATACMS missiles. However, the U.S. may deliver any MLRSs stripped of equipment necessary for ATACMS, just as U.S. M777 howitzers apparently have been delivered with certain sensitive components removed.
Finally, it’s worth noting that as the U.S. plans to field longer-range version of GPS-guided MRLS rockets called ER GMLRS with a range of 93 miles. That means systems given to Ukraine could eventually have their range more than doubled if supplied with those forthcoming munitions.
Separately, Kyiv could try to obtain longer-range capabilities by completing developments of its indigenous 310-mile-range Hrim-2 or Sapsan short-range ballistic missile, which already has received Saudi financing.
The bottom line for now, though, is that the Biden administration appears poised to supply Ukraine with HIMARS and/or M270 systems—it just won’t provide them with ATACMS missile. And that is not a big loss, because Ukraine has far more pressing need for more numerous M31 rockets it can use to pick off Russian artillery bombarding Ukrainian forces and communities across the frontline.