Explained: The 'Game-Changer' Weapon Ukraine Wants, U.S. Resists Sending

Ukrainian leaders are upping the pressure on the U.S. and its NATO allies to send modern multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) to help blunt Russia's Donbas offensive.

Western artillery systems—including American M777 howitzers—are already in service on Ukraine's eastern front, with more on the way. But the Ukrainians say they need more.

MLRS have risen to the top of the Ukrainian shopping list in recent weeks, as the Russian invasion settles into a contest characterized by long-range artillery duels and slow, bloody Russian gains.

Below, Newsweek takes a closer look at the MLRS, the role it could play in the war, and why Washington has so far resisted calls to send them into Ukraine.

What Are MLRS?

US MLRS firing in South Korea drill
An American multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) fires during a training exercise in the South Korean border county of Cheorwon on June 12, 2012. Ukraine wants U.S.-made MLRS to help stop the Russian invasion. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/GettyImages

These rocket launchers are mounted on vehicles, offering more mobility that emplaced howitzers, allowing troops to escape Russian counter-battery fire.

The U.S. has two MLRS variants.

  • M270: first produced in 1983. Its rockets can hit targets between 20 and 40 miles away, with more advanced rockets able to travel more than 100 miles
  • M142 HIMARS: developed in the late 1990s. Its standard rockets can hit targets 186 miles away, while specialized precision munitions are effective out to 310 miles

For comparison, M777 howitzers given to Ukraine have a top range of about 25 miles.

Why Ukraine Wants Them

On Thursday, Ukraine's Ministry of Defense tweeted a video of a Russian barrage on defenders' positions in the Donetsk Oblast. "Ukraine is ready to strike back," it said. "To do this, we need NATO-style MLRS. Immediately."

"Russia is now using artillery extensively and ruthlessly," Oleksandr Merezhko, chair of the Ukrainian parliament's foreign affairs committee, told Newsweek. "To counter this, to save the lives of our servicemen and civilians, we need MLRS."

Ukraine already has an arsenal of Soviet-era MLRS, which the U.S. and its NATO allies have replenished using old Cold War stock. But replacement ammunition is only produced en masse in Russia. Kyiv says it needs Western alternatives to fill the gap.

American-made launchers would allow Ukrainians to target more Russian artillery batteries and attackers at longer ranges. The extended range would also threaten Russian logistics hubs and routes, disruption of which will slow the offensive.

They might also help Ukraine unblock its seaports, end the Russian blockade in the Black Sea, and target Russian cruise missile sites firing from Crimea, Ryzhenko said.

Extended artillery range "is very important for us," he noted.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region where heavy fighting is taking place, told Newsweek on Thursday that more artillery support could be a "game-changer."

"We need precise, far-reaching artillery," he said. "A lot of guns and a lot of shells."

Why the U.S. Hasn't Sent Them

President Joe Biden is yet to greenlight the weapons for Ukraine.

Politico, who spoke to an unnamed Biden administration official last week, reported concern in the White House that providing technologically advanced, destructive, and long-range American MLRS and HIMARS will be interpreted as escalation by Moscow.

Biden and other NATO leaders have constantly stressed that the transatlantic alliance cannot be drawn into direct confrontation with Moscow.

Shell explodes near Donbas road Russia invasion
A mortar explodes next to the road leading to the city of Lysychansk in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, on May 23, 2022, amid Russian invasion of Ukraine. The battle for Donbas has been characterized by intense artillery duels, which Ukraine says MLRS would help them win. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are agitating for action on MLRS regardless. "We've got to be sure that we are giving them what they actually need," said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) this week. "To me this would include an example of what is called the multiple launch rocket systems, or MLRS, that they are asking for."

Western nations have established a steady flow of weapons into Ukraine despite such concerns. There is hope in Kyiv that MLRS, too, will soon be deemed suitable.

"The very fact that our diplomats raise this issue indicates that there are strong chances to get MLRS," Merezhko said. "I suppose it might happen...The U.S. often takes the lead in providing us with military aid, and to other states it serves as a good example to follow."

Newsweek has contacted the White House to request comment.