It’s official – ATACMS are now in Ukraine.

The long-requested tactical ballistic missile made its debut in a devastating attack on Russian airfields earlier this week in what one pro-Kremlin milblogger described as “the most serious strike of the war.

The news was confirmed by Ukraine in a surprisingly whimsical video which declared: “They say good things come to those who wait. Buddy, they ain’t kidding.”

ATACMS (pronounced “attack’ems”) is a tactical ballistic missile manufactured by the US defense company Lockheed Martin. Development of the missile started in 1980, based on a US requirement for a long-range, non-nuclear capability to strike enemy rear-area logistic and reserve positions.

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It has a solid propellant motor which gives it a range of between 160 and 300 kilometers, depending on the variant used. The missile is 4 meters long and 610 millimeters in diameter.

It can be fired from the tracked M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), and the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), both of which are in use with the Armed Forces of Ukrainian (AFU).

What have they already achieved?

In their Ukrainian debut, ATACMS were used to target two Russian airfields, one in southern Berdyansk and one in eastern Luhansk.

In a mission dubbed “Operation Dragonfly,” Ukraine’s special forces said on Tuesday they had destroyed nine helicopters, an air defense launcher, and an ammunition warehouse.

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Fighters from Ukraine’s Third Assault Brigade hit a mortar system capable of destroying the most fortified defenses and entire buildings with an FPV drone.

Though the type of weapon used in the attack was not initially disclosed, pictures soon began circulating on social media of what appeared to be remnants of ATACMS submunitions at the strike locations.

President Zelensky later confirmed the news in his daily address, saying: “My special gratitude today goes to the US.

“Our agreements with President Biden are working. And precisely so. ATACMS have proven themselves.”

How many ATACMS does Ukraine now have?

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According to reports, fewer than a dozen ATACMS missiles are currently in Ukraine and they are believed to be the M39 variant. This seemed to be confirmed by US National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson, who said on Tuesday that the version “recently” sent to Ukraine had a range of 165 kilometers (102 miles), whereas ATACMS have a maximum range of around 300 kilometers (190 miles).

Images of missile debris found on the Berdyansk airfield showed American M74 bomblets, a sub munition developed in the 1970s and no longer in use with US forces.

Other reports strongly suggested the ATACMS model sent to Ukraine, which eventually struck the Russian air base, was a Block I, a missile first fielded in the US military in 1996, and taken mostly out of service in the mid-2010s.  

Until now, the US had been reluctant to send ATACMS to Ukraine for fear they would be used to strike targets inside Russia itself, potentially escalating the war in Ukraine.

“We believe these ATACMS will provide a significant boost to Ukraine’s battlefield capabilities without risking our (US) military readiness,” Watson said.

Ukraine already has Storm Shadow and SCALP anti-ship cruise missiles provided by the UK and France which have a longer range of 250 kilometers (155 miles), which have been used to devastating effect on Russian targets in occupied Crimea, most notably the HQ of the Black Sea Fleet last month.

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Storm Shadow/SCALP are state-of-the-art weapons designed to overcome defending radars and interceptors by flying close to the ground and near the speed of sound. The missile’s unitary warhead is built to punch deeply inside a steel target before detonating. An advanced guidance system uses GPS, pre-programmed terrain following and other technologies to allow strike planners to pick and hit targets as small as a meter in size.

Storm Shadow and SCALP cruise missiles have to be launched by aircraft. That means a longer prep time, and potentially risking a Ukrainian bomber and its crew to carry out the strike.

ATACMS models now in Ukraine are likely not able to reach as far, but, they can be loaded with cluster munitions designed to scatter over a large area before exploding, making the missile ideal for hitting relatively vulnerable targets like aircraft on airfields or ammunition dumps.

The early model Block I ATACMS most likely to be in Ukrainian hands uses an inertial guidance system to reach its target, making it somewhat less accurate than the precision-guided Storm Shadow/SCALP. However, as we can see from the video from the Russian airfield at Berdyansk, ATACMS-delivered cluster munitions are devastatingly effective at taking out aircraft spaced out over a relatively wide area.

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A ballistic missile similar in propulsion technology to a rocket used to place a communications satellite into orbit, the ATACMS flies in a high arc near the edge of space at more than three times the speed of sound. Like most armies, in the Russian military air defense missiles and cannon are designed primarily to find and shoot down incoming bombers and cruise missiles flying near the ground at around the speed of sound, rather than a ballistic missile coming in at a parabolic arc almost from space, at three or more times the speed of sound.

Since ATACMS can be launched from mobile HIMARS launchers able to execute a fire mission about as fast as it takes operators to key in grid coordinates and prep the system for firing, and because the missile itself is ballistic, ATAMCS are close to impossible for the Russian military to intercept.

The only really effective defenses to ATACMS missiles available to Kremlin planners is hiding whatever they can – extremely difficult in hostile territory – or by moving anything the Ukrainians might wish to target out of ATACMS’ range.

The only real limit to the threat posed by ATACMS missiles to Russian rear area bases and military infrastructure, in practical terms, is the total number of ATACMS missiles the Americans intend to hand over to the Ukrainians.  

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What else is in range of Ukraine’s ATACMS?

The full-range versions of ATACMS, both the cluster bomb version and the unitary warhead version, would open up a whole range of Russian targets.

However, if the US delivers to Ukraine only the early-model ATACMS, the Crimea Bridge and major Russian military installations in the southern half of the occupied Crimean Peninsula – particularly Russian warships and naval facilities around Sevastopol port, and Russian bombers and fighters based at Saki airfield, would still be outside the range of the Ukrainian military.

The Russian military imprint in occupied Ukraine is nevertheless substantial and there are plenty of targets well within the range of the early model ATACMS missiles Ukraine is likely to be operating.

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One of the most significant impacts of ATAMCS’ arrival will likely be felt by Russian battlefield aviation. This is primarily attack helicopters that need to be based relatively close to the fighting line in order to be effective.

For many months of the invasion, Russia would use rotary-wing aircraft from the Berdyansk airfield in the western Zaporizhzhia region “to great effect” against Ukraine, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) noted on Tuesday.

The think tank’s analysts wrote: “Previous satellite imagery of the Berdyansk airfield showed that Russian forces dispersed aircraft across the airfield, and Ukrainian forces were likely only able to conduct strikes on individual aircraft with previously available long-range missiles.

“The cluster munition–armed version of the ATACMS long-range missiles will allow Ukrainian forces to conduct strikes on Russian airfields that can more widely destroy Russian aircraft and other assets.”

The arrival of Western-provided longer-range missiles has allowed Ukrainian forces to conduct repeated strikes on the Chornobaivka airfield, which caused significant damage, “and Russian command withdrew military equipment and aviation from the airfield due to their inability to combat” these kinds of attacks, the ISW wrote.

Furthermore, the ISW hypothesized: “The relocation of aircraft to airfields further in the rear will likely impact the loitering time that Russian aviation will have to support operations. This will likely be particularly significant for Russian rotary-wing aircraft (helicopters), which operated in relatively small sections of the front line for long periods of time to degrade advancing Ukrainian forces at the beginning of the counteroffensive.”

What does Russia think about all this?

The Kremlin is not very happy at all, describing Washington's decision to supply Ukraine with ATACMS as “a grave mistake.”

Russia’s ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov said on Wednesday: “The consequences of this step, which was deliberately hidden from the public, will be of the most serious nature.”

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