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U.S. rocket artillery for Ukraine will double its explosive reach

A U.S.-supplied HIMARS artillery system in eastern Ukraine last summer. (Anastasia Vlasova/For The Washington Post)
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The United States will provide Ukraine with longer-range rocket artillery that will double the reach of its current munitions, the Pentagon said Friday, as the country’s Western backers anticipate fighting to intensify dramatically in coming months.

Ukraine will receive ground-launched, small diameter bombs (GLSDB) as part of a new $2.17 billion aid package announced by the Biden administration. The munitions have a range of roughly 95 miles, nearly twice the capability previously provided by the U.S. government, which has until now refused to supply such weapons for fear that Ukrainian forces will use them to strike inside Russia. This will enable them instead to target command posts, ammunition depots and other Russian military facilities in occupied parts of Ukraine.

Ukrainian commanders have said that, while their troops have proved effective at destroying such targets, Russia has adapted by moving its important infrastructure outside the range of U.S.-provided rocket artillery vehicles, like the HIMARS and M270, necessitating greater reach. The small diameter bombs were designed to be fired from aircraft but have been adapted with rocket motors to launch from such systems. They can strike their intended targets within the radius of a car tire, according to Saab, which developed the program with Boeing.

The Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan explained how a handful of U.S. missile systems played a pivotal role in Ukraine's defense against Russia. (Video: Jackson Barton/The Washington Post)

The munitions are part of a package drawn from the U.S. defense industry, not existing military stockpiles, so it could take months for the ammunition to arrive on the battlefield, according to U.S. officials. Both sides have signaled they intend to go on the offensive in the spring, though the fighting in the east around Bakhmut and Soledar has remained fierce throughout the winter.

By providing the GLSDB, the Biden administration has relaxed one of its biggest hang-ups over providing Ukraine with longer-range capabilities. But officials continue to rebuff calls for missiles that can travel even farther — munitions known as ATACMS that can travel roughly 186 miles.

“If we could strike at a distance of up to 300 kilometers, the Russian army wouldn’t be able to mount a defense and will have to withdraw,” Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said Thursday at a meeting with European Union officials, referring to the range of the ATACMS. “Ukraine is ready to provide any guarantees that your weapons will not be involved in attacks on the Russian territory. We have enough targets in the occupied areas of Ukraine, and we’re prepared to coordinate on [these] targets with our partners.”

Reznikov’s comments were reported earlier by the Associated Press.

The package also included equipment that will “integrate Western air defense launchers, missiles, and radars with Ukraine’s air defense systems,” underscoring the urgency in Ukraine in protecting its skies from Russian missiles and Iranian-supplied drones. To date, the government in Kyiv has relied on a patchwork of different systems provided by numerous allies to protect against the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine’s power grid and other civilian infrastructure.

Like the small diameter bombs, this equipment along with other air defense capabilities in the newly announced package will be contracted from manufacturers, a process, the Pentagon has said, that typically takes months to procure and deliver.

A separate package culling from existing U.S. stocks includes a significant resupply of rocket artillery, howitzer ammunition and small arms. The United States will provide 190 heavy machine guns with thermal imagery sights to shoot down drones. Some armed drones, like those provided by Iran, fly low and slow, making them sometimes adequate targets for well-trained machine gunners, rather than using expensive missiles in more advanced air defense systems.