President Joe Biden dithered on delivering ATACMS long-range missiles to Ukraine. But on the 601st day since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the first of these missiles rained down on two Russian air bases.
The videos coming out of Russian-occupied territory are stunning, with Russian sources claiming it is the single worst day for Russian aviation in this misbegotten war.
Thus far, Ukraine claims they destroyed nine helicopters, one air defense system, an ammo dump (you can hear it cooking off in the video above), and unspecified personnel and other equipment losses. Russia curiously released pictures of spent ATACMS rocket bodies:
There were questions about whether the slower-flying ATACMS missiles would be more susceptible to Russian air defenses than typical GMLRS rockets, but the answer is clearly “no.” Oddly, a “senior Ukrainian official” told the Washington Post that they had fired 18 ATACMS, but that quote is now missing from the story. The original quote was: “Airfield runways were also damaged in the strikes, the message said. The senior official ... confirmed ATACMS were used in the operation—10 fired at Berdyansk and eight at Luhansk.” The story now reads: “Airfield runways were also damaged in the strikes, the message said. The senior Ukrainian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, confirmed ATACMS weaponry was used in the operation.”
Given that initial rumors suggested Ukraine would get around 100 ATACMS, perhaps admitting they blew through 18% of their stash on day one wasn’t wise. Or maybe it was just wrong. And who knows, maybe Ukraine is getting more than 100. The U.S. is certainly banking on the “element of surprise” to keep Russia off-balance.
Ukraine released videos of five of these monster missiles being fired. Here are the first three:
And then another two:
The ATACMS variant used is the oldest in the U.S. arsenal, made between 1996-1997, with a range of 165 kilometers, carrying 950 cluster munitions. That is roughly 11 times the 88 cluster bomblets a 155 mm artillery cluster round carries, but the real value, of course, is in the range. Newer ATACMS variants have double the range of this version. Does Ukraine have them? Who knows, and it’s best to keep the Russians guessing.
It’s amazing that a 30-year-old missile was so easily able to evade Russian air defenses. By all indications, the Russian helicopter base at Berdyansk was heavily protected by air defenses. For all their bluster, Russia still doesn’t have any response to rockets and missiles fired from MLRS/HIMARS launchers.
And with Berdyansk and other air bases now at risk from further attacks, Russia will be forced to push their remaining helicopters even further away from the front lines. Their attack helicopters have an operational range of around 500 kilometers before they need to fly home. Push them out beyond the 300-kilometer range of newer ATACMS variants, and those helicopters suddenly have a dramatically reduced ability to loiter over a battlefield looking for targets, and they may be forced to carry a lighter payload as well, further reducing their impact.
The arrival of this one single weapons system has dramatically reshaped Russia’s ability to wage its war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is certainly pleased. “Our agreements with President Biden are being implemented successfully,” he said. “ATACMS have proven themselves.”
Politico reports that the U.S. won’t be sending the long-range version. “Working together with the Defense Department, the National Security Council team came up with an idea,” Politico reported. “While the U.S. military’s existing stocks of the long-range Army Tactical Missile System were in short supply, the U.S. could send the medium-range version, carrying warheads containing hundreds of cluster bomblets that could hit targets 100 miles away.”
This shorter-range version of ATACMS can hit all of Russian-occupied Ukraine, except for the southern half of Crimea.
There is still no definitive word on whether Ukraine is allowed to strike targets on Russian territory. All such restrictions should be lifted.
Let’s also hope that the U.S. does send the longer-range versions, and that claiming otherwise is merely misdirection to set up Russia for more “surprises.” Ukraine doesn’t even need too many of the longer-range missiles. Send five, launch them periodically, and keep Russia guessing. Like Russia’s ships currently fleeing their Sevastopol naval base in southern Crimea, it doesn’t take much to push Russian assets further from the battlefield. As long as they know they can be hit, self-preservation pushes them further back.
Meanwhile, the celebration on the pro-Ukraine side is real.
And the bipartisan celebration from our own side is real too:
Note that Russia had thousands of long-range cruise missiles at the start of the war. Imagine if they had used them to degrade Ukrainian military targets instead of civilian supermarkets, apartment complexes, and grain silos.
Unlike Ukraine, which is still range-restricted, Russia could hit anywhere in Ukraine it wants. Ukraine is showing how intentional use of assets can have a dramatic effect on the course of the war, contrasting with Russia’s genocidal rage tactics.
The former will lead to victory, the latter just to senseless death.