Why ATACMS are a Big Deal for Ukraine

Wes O'Donnell
6 min readSep 22, 2023
Soldiers, from the 3rd Battalion, 321st Field Artillery Regiment of the 18th Field Artillery Brigade out of Fort Bragg NC, visited the New Mexico range to conduct reliability tests of early versions of the Army Tactical Missile System. Public domain

All modern, major U.S. weapon systems given to Ukraine to date — HIMARS rocket artillery, Patriots, Abrams, cluster munitions, and F-16 fighter jets — follow the same predictable pattern:

The U.S. says, “I don’t know, but probably not. What if Russia escalates?”

Followed by, “Well, maybe.”

Followed by, “Okay, we’ll give ’em to you!”

This process takes months and costs Ukrainian lives. To be sure, there are logistical aspects that impose real delays on weapons deliveries, but by far the longest delay is political.

Can we just skip to the part where Ukraine gets the good stuff? I’ll admit that at each stage of this cycle, emotions run high for Ukrainian supporters like me.

The most recent weapon system caught up in the cycle of American indecision is the MGM-140 ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System).

But it looks like we just transitioned from the “well, maybe” phase to the “okay, we’ll give ’em to you” phase. U.S. President Joe Biden just told Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the United States will deliver a small number of long-range ATACMS missiles.

The ATACMS are often called a “wonder weapon” by some in the U.S. Army. But we need to be careful here — there is no single weapon system that will single-handedly win the war for the Ukrainians.

So, what exactly is the ATACMS and how might its introduction to the battlefield change the calculus on the ground in Ukraine?

ATACMS are a long-range guided missile system that gives commanders the immediate firepower to win the “deep battle”.

Each ATACMS missile is packaged in an MLRS look-alike launch pod and is fired from the MLRS Family of Launchers.

In the U.S., these have improved GPS guidance packages, a 500-lb blast fragmentation warhead, and a range of 300 km (about 185 mi). It’s not yet clear if Ukraine is getting the most up-to-date version or older missiles.

The U.S. Army uses ATACMS as a sort of “in-house” deep strike weapon when the Air Force guys are sleeping on the job. Seriously, though, sometimes air power is deterred by air defense, sandstorms, or bad weather and simply can’t get…

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Wes O'Donnell

Army & Air Force Veteran | Global Security guy at War is Boring, GEN, OneZero | Intel Forecaster | Law Student | TEDx Speaker | Pro-Democracy | Pro-Human Rights