For a few weeks now, Russia has de facto admitted that its hold on the right bank of the Dnieper in the Kherson region is tenuous.
Russia’s new commander in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, in his first interview after taking over command, admitted that the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the southern region of Kherson had made the situation for the Russian army “tense.”
Russia subsequently ordered the evacuation of its citizens from the right bank of the Dnieper river, offering them refuge on the left bank and elsewhere in Russia.
Russia has been losing ground in Kherson for months now. The slow but inexorable pushback of Russian forces has confounded those sympathetic towards Russia and left them wondering why the mighty Russian war machine cannot find its feet in the Kherson area.
Ironically, the slow advance has frustrated knowledgeable Ukraine backers too! It has left them wondering why Ukrainian forces are taking so much time to evict Russian forces from the right bank.
Why are Ukraine and its Western backers confident of a victory in Kherson? And why does Russia appear reconciled to its possible defeat in Kherson? It’s likely that there is a one-word answer to both the posers – HIMARS. And perhaps, geography.
To understand the frustration on both sides, we need to first understand HIMARS’ capabilities.
Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Ukraine has not lost a single HIMARS, but russia has lost its humanity and dignity. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of tons of ammunition and thousands of soldiers whom they sent to certain death. pic.twitter.com/VXNFxJQYJD
— Defense of Ukraine (@DefenceU) November 6, 2022
Accuracy, range, and mobility are three outstanding attributes of the HIMARS system.
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, told CBS News that HIMARAS fires a 200-pound warhead up to 50 miles and hits within 10 feet of its intended target.
A single HIMARS rocket, without warning, can achieve what scores of less accurate artillery rounds may not achieve. The 16 HIMARS systems shipped to Ukraine in June appeared to have leveled the playing field for Ukraine despite the overwhelming numerical superiority of Russian artillery.
The 50-mile range of the HIMARS system gives a single system more geographical spread than tens of Russian guns. The system has excellent off-road mobility.
It can break cover, move to a well-displaced launch point and fire several rockets at short intervals. Assuming that it’s spotted as soon as it fires, the system can reposition far away from the launch point well it is endangered by counter-battery fire.
The combination of range and mobility makes counter-battery fire a very difficult proposition.
Russia claims to have destroyed several HIMARS systems, but a senior Defense Department official told Politico recently that Russia has failed to destroy a single HIMARS launcher since Ukraine first began using them in June.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly in the context of Kherson, HIMARS gives the Ukrainians the ability to reach out and hit targets that the Russians would have thought were safe.
The accuracy and range of HIMARS have forced Russia to relocate its fuel and ammunition storage depots deep into the interiors, away from the front line.
“You still gotta get that ammunition to the guns, which are closer to the front,” Hodges explains. “So, now you’ve increased the distance that the trucks have to move, carrying very heavy ammunition.”
Stretched supply lines mean easier adversary interdiction through attacks by loitering ammunition such as Phoenix Ghost. The interdiction results in a significant reduction in the amount of Russian artillery and rocket fire unleashed on Ukrainian forces.
In the context of Kherson, geography aggravated the resupply dilemma for the Russians since they were forced to relocate their depots on the left bank of the Dnieper river. Their supply lines are stretched across the river, which has no functional bridges now – they have all been rendered unusable by HIMARS attacks!
As a result, Russia is forced to ferry supplies across the Dnieper, a slow process. Luckily for the Russians, HIMARS projectiles use satellite navigation, rendering them useless against moving targets such as ferries.
Earlier, there were reports that Russia is building pontoon bridges across the Dnieper, but either the reports were false, or Russia abandoned the idea of static bridges that could easily be targeted by HIMARS, preferring moving ferries that could not be.
Russia can minimize the threat from HIMARS through extensive use of loitering ammunition such as Lancet drones. Till recently, Russia didn’t have an adequate inventory of such weapons. Of late, Russian use of Lancet drones has increased with reports of stepped-up production.
As recently as October 30, 2022, RuMoD reported, “Two launchers of the American HIMARS multiple-launch rocket system were hit near Zaporizhzhia.”
The fact that Russian forces are prepared to vacate Kherson is an indication that they don’t yet have an effective counter to HIMARS. Even if Russian claims of having destroyed HIMARS systems are correct, clearly, HIMARS attrition hasn’t impacted Ukrainian offensive capability.
Russia’s Limited Success In Countering HIMRAS
Russia appears to have had more success with downing HIMARS rockets as compared to destroying HIMARS systems. RuMoD routinely reports a large number of HIMARAS projectile shootdowns every day.
On November 1, 2022, RuMoD reported that “over the past 10 days, more than 200 projectiles launched by HIMARS have been intercepted.
HIMARS shoot downs on a daily basis since then are listed below.
HIMARS Shoot Downs
Curiously, in the past, US officials have confidently stated that Russian AD systems don’t have the ability to shoot down HIMARS rockets.
But the fact that Antonovsky bridge is still standing, albeit only usable for light traffic, after months of attacks by HIMARS rockets does compel an objective mind to treat US claims with the proverbial pinch of salt.
Russian ability to stop the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson will ultimately be decided by its ability to counter the HIMARS systems deployed by Ukraine. So far, there is no cause for any Russian optimism.
HIMARS Noose Set To Tighten
Unfortunately for Russia, the HIMARS noose around its neck in Kherson is set to tighten. The $625 million in security assistance cleared by the US Department of Defense on October 4, 2024, included 4 additional HIMARS systems and 500 M982 Excalibur precision-guided rounds for M777 155 mm Howitzers.
The M982 Excalibur rounds have a range of up to 57 km with an accuracy (CEP) of 4m. Additional HIMARS systems and more long-range precision-guided artillery shells will reduce Russian ability to keep its frontline troops adequately supplied even further.
Additionally, under the November 4 Ukraine Security Aid Initiative (USAI) aid package worth $400 million, Ukraine is set to receive 40 armored riverine boats. The acquisition of the boats is likely to impact Russian ability to ferry supplies across the Dnieper.
Clearly, a Russian defeat in Kherson could well be on the cards!
- Vijainder K Thakur is a retired IAF Jaguar pilot. He is also an author, software architect, entrepreneur, and military analyst. VIEWS PERSONAL
- Reach out to the author at vkthakur (at) gmail.com