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America is preparing to send advanced rocket artillery systems to Ukraine as part of a huge new weapons shipment that could be announced as soon as next week.
Multiple-launch rocket systems, or MLRS in military slang, rose to the top of Kyiv’s wish-list after its army took a pounding for similar Russian weapons in Donbas which forced it to retreat from several key cities.
Joe Biden is said to be in favor of sending US weapons such as the M270 MLRS or M142 HIMARS – a similar system but designed to be lighter and easier to maneuver – to help Ukraine go toe-to-toe with Russia’s firepower.
The US is preparing to send long-range rocket artillery to Ukraine, to counter Russian systems which have devastated defences in the Donbas this week (pictured)
Russia has batteries capable of firing lung-crushing thermobaric rockets more than 200 miles, causing huge damage to Ukrainian defences
The issue of whether to supply Ukraine with the systems took top billing at two security meetings at the White House last week, according to CNN.
Those familiar with the meetings said concerns were raised that sending the weapons could be viewed as a provocation to Russia and risk escalating the fighting or risk retaliation against the US itself.
Chief among those concerns was whether the M270 or M142, which have a maximum range of around 310 miles depending on the kind of rockets fired, could be used to attack Russia itself.
America has already sent long-range artillery – the M777 Howitzer – to Ukraine, but it has a maximum range of around 25 miles when fired with high-precision rounds.
However, officials are thought to have discussed mitigating that by supply Ukraine with only short-range forms of ammunition, which have an effective range of just over 50 miles.
Concerns were also raised over whether drawing down so heavily on US stocks would create security issues. Mark Milley – chief of the general staff – said last week that he will be watching ‘very, very carefully’ to avoid such a risk.
Heavy rocket artillery is proving highly effective in the battle for Donbas, where wide-open terrain makes the vehicles easier to maneuver and defensive positions more vulnerable to their devastating barrages.
America is likely to send the M270 MLRS (pictured), which can range up to 300 miles if fired with precision rockets
Russia’s rocket artillery is the TOS-1 (pictured), which can fire up to 24 thermobaric rockets more than 200 miles
Russia has been operating the system since the early days of the war (pictured), but it is proving particularly adept in the wide-open battlefields of the Donbas
Ukraine is thought to have been forced to abandon the city of Lyman, a key defensive outpost on the east bank of the Donets River, in the last several days after it was reduced to rubble by rocket barrages.
A dramatic video from the region showed the devastating shockwaves produced by Russia’s TOS-1 rocket system which fires thermobaric warheads – known as ‘lung-crushers’ because of the vacuum they create when they explode.
The vacuum blast is also prized because of its devastating effect on nearby defensive positions.
TOS-1 systems have a range of up to 340 miles and carry 24 rockets, meaning they can shoot much further than anything in Ukraine’s current arsenal.
Kyiv does have some rocket artillery, but they are largely old Soviet systems such as the Grad. It is not clear how many of the systems are left after months of fighting.
The base-model Grad has a range of up to 250 miles and can carry up to 40 rockets.
Ukraine has adapted some of its Grad launchers into more modern systems, dubbed Bastion and Verba, though their capabilities are not clear.
The American M270 can carry up to twelve rockets, though each of them are equipped with ‘bomblets’ that scatter and explode over the target area when the missile strikes. Twelve rockets are capable of dropping almost 8,000 of the bombs.
As a sign of how effective the artillery batteries are likely to be, Poland – which has been watching the war in Ukraine closely amid fears it could be next on Russia’s target-list – has recently ordered 500 of the systems from the US.
America has already provided long-range M777 artillery cannons, but even these can only strike up to 25 miles when fired with precision ammunition
Russia and Ukraine are now locked into a bloody fight over the Donbas, which President Zelensky says has been ‘totally destroyed’ by the fighting
Mariusz Błaszczak, the country’s defence minister, announced the purchase on Thursday – saying they would be used to form 80 new artillery battalions, making Poland’s army one of the largest artillery forces in Europe.
Russia and Ukraine are currently locked into a bloody struggle for control over the Donbas, an industrial region in eastern Ukraine close to the Russian border.
Though the area has little monetary or strategic value, it has huge propaganda value for Putin because it contains sizable minorities of Russian-speaking citizens.
The despot justified his invasion of Ukraine by claiming – falsely – that Ukraine was about to massacre these citizens and it was his duty to step in an protect them.
For years he has been supporting separatist groups fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk – the two regions which make up the Donbas – and has declared the ‘liberation’ of the region to be the primary goal of his invasion.
Taking Donbas is far less ambitious than Putin’s original war aim of overthrowing the government, but is within the capabilities of his armed forces.
Ukraine has been forced into a series of retreats in recent days and is reportedly taking heavy losses along the frontline here, with Russia creeping forwards.
The battle is viewed as pivotal to the outcome of the war – a Russian win could weaken Ukraine to the point where it would be forced into a peace deal favourable to Moscow, while a win for Kyiv could see it start to retake lost territory.