By Zuzanna Gwadera
The US has supplied Ukraine, after much discussion, with the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) short-range ballistic missiles. The missiles would allow Ukraine to keep an additional percentage of Russian military equipment at risk and likely force Russia to adjust its force posture in response.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on 17 October 2023 that the US had supplied its armed forces with ATACMS, and the US National Security Council later confirmed this. On the same day, Ukraine struck two separate Russian-held airfields in Berdyansk and Luhansk in the first use of the system. Footage on social media showed the launch of at least six ATACMS missiles from an unknown location using what appeared to be the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launcher. The US has so far delivered 38 HIMARS launchers to Ukraine.
Washington’s protracted debate over providing the ATACMS to Kiev appears in part to be due to US President Joe Biden’s concern that its delivery could escalate the war. This concern seems to have faded after Russia’s muted response to France and the UK supplying Ukraine with the SCALP EG/Storm Shadow cruise missile. The range of SCALP EG/Storm Shadow is significantly greater than that of ATACMS.
The US Department of Defense was apparently concerned that transferring ATACMS would put pressure on inventories and reduce US readiness levels. The official number of ATACMS in US possession has not been disclosed. In 2020, the Department of Defense budgeted to update 1,075 older missiles as part of a life extension program. Images of the wreckage of a missile apparently used in the attack appear to show that Ukraine has been supplied with the M39 ATACMS Block I, manufactured in 1997.
The M39 version of the ATACMS is equipped with a 560 kg cluster munition warhead with 950 M74 bombs. These are effective against soft targets such as unarmoured vehicles, fixed and rotary wing aircraft and concentrations of soldiers. The missile has a maximum range of 165 km. Other variants of the ATACMS have a maximum range of up to 300 km.
Ukraine claims it destroyed nine helicopters in the October 17 attack, plus a surface-to-air missile launcher, several vehicles and an ammunition storage area, as well as an airstrip. Satellite images of the sites taken on October 18 suggest that at least 17 helicopters, including several Kamov Ka-52 Hokum attack helicopters, were likely damaged or destroyed. Given the apparent spread of submunitions, additional helicopters and other equipment may have been damaged, although this is not apparent from the images.
Destroying or damaging these helicopters has immediate implications for Russia, reducing the number of rotary platforms available to its forces in the Luhansk and Zaporizhia regions. It is a further blow to Russia’s stockpile of Ka-52 helicopters given that, by October 2022, Russia had already lost at least 25% of its pre-war operational fleet of 90.
More broadly, the ATACMS provides Kiev with a useful additional capability to hit Russian equipment that other Western-supplied weapons could not due to warhead or range limitations. As the October 17 attack demonstrated, unprotected soft-skinned equipment such as rotary- and fixed-wing platforms are vulnerable to warheads.
Given previous US concerns, it is likely that Washington has supplied Kiev with only a small number of ATACMS. Thus, Ukraine should carefully consider future targets for maximum impact, unless the US decides to send additional missiles in the future. Since the M39 variant is not effective against armored targets due to its design, Russia can respond to the move by building armored air shelters to protect high-value equipment or by dispersing vulnerable equipment now within the ATACMS range, 165 km. to multiple bases further away.
While such moves will likely reduce the vulnerability of Russian equipment to future Ukrainian short-range ballistic missile attacks, they will also likely reduce Russian aircraft’s time on station due to fuel and range limitations. If Russia is building hardened air shelters, Ukraine has other types of stand-off weapons, such as the SCALP EG/Storm Shadow supplied by France/UK, that it can use to target those sites.
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