I’ll start by saying any operation where Ukraine tries to cross the Dnipro River and attack the Russian-occupied Kherson Oblast would require Russia to have virtually emptied the defenses along the east bank of the Dnipro River.
I got started on this mental exercise from some comments from sfojimbo suggesting that the main Ukrainian counteroffensive would occur across the Dnipro River.
To be perfectly honest, my first instinct was to discount this possibility out of hand. Russia had built numerous defensive structures across the east bank of the Dnipro, Ukraine has very limited amphibious assault resources, and the Dnipro is very, very wide.
For example, the Dnipro River narrows around the area across the river from the city of Kherson, where the Antonivka Road Bridge is constructed. Nonetheless, the Antonivka Road Bridge is over 1300m long, almost 4500ft in length. The river is nearly a mile wide.
Furthermore, Russia has not neglected to build defensive structures in this area.
Making matters worse, Ukraine only has the venerable Yuri Olefirenko as an amphibious vessel, which the Russians claimed (for the second time) to have destroyed on May 29, a claim the Ukrainian Navy denied. The Yuri Olefirenko has a draft of a little under 3m, while the lowest areas of the Dnipro’s depth is around 8m, so it seems that it would be plausible for the Yuri Olefirenko to support a river crossing operation if it were not destroyed.
However, the Yuri Olefirenko is not particularly large, capable of carrying a single platoon of 4 tanks, or around a company of dismounted infantry (150 men, give or take). It has landing boats it can launch to bring those assets to shore.
Ukraine can support this ability with rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs), smaller high-speedRiver boats of varying sizes that can carry between 6 to as many as 20 men at a time.
Ukraine has been using these boats as their primary means of transport to conduct periodic raids across the Dnipro River, particularly around the Antonivsky bridge area opposite Kherson.
So there are two issues.
- Can Ukraine bring sufficient forces across the Dnipro to establish a secure a foothold and perimeter surrounding the landing area?
- Can Ukraine establish a logistical supply route across the Dnipro to conduct further offensive operations deeper past the river beyond the scope of a mere raid?
I believe the answer to this question is… maybe. I found this answer to be surprising, as I expected it to be a clear no, but Ukraine may have the equipment it needs to conduct such an operation.
It would, however, be dependent on very minimal Russian defenses in the area, and Russia being unable to mobilize massed reserves to converge onto the landing site to overwhelm it before a bridge can be established.
First, it’s notable that since last December, Ukraine’s ability to conduct amphibious operations has very quietly seen a manyfold increase.
This is because Ukraine has received numerous M3 Amphibious Bridging Vehicles and PFM Motorized Bridge Sections. These bridging vehicles can be linked together to create bridges, but they can also be used as military ferries. For example, just three M3 ABVs can be linked together to create a ferry that can carry 2 western MBTs. The PFM motorized bridge sections can be used similarly.
Much of this bridging equipment began to be delivered this spring, as Ukrainian allies began playing weapon deliveries closer to the vest. Ukraine received at least 6 German-made M3 ABVs from the Netherlands, but there are rumors that they received more. Germany’s Bundeswehr also uses the M3 ABV in its engineering corps, and it provided undisclosed “light and heavy bridging assets” that may include some M3 ABVs. The UK, Sweden, Latvia, and the Netherlands all use the M3 ABV, thus it would not be surprising if Ukraine had as many as a dozen or two M3 ABVs.
If, hypothetically, Ukraine had 12 M3 ABVs, that alone would provide enough carrying capacity to bring 8 Western MBTs (or possibly as many as 12 T72s or M2 Bradleys) in a single trip.
Add in the PFM Motorized Bridge Sections’ capability to function as military ferries for heavy equipment, and suddenly, Ukraine has a much greater capacity to bring heavy firepower across the Dnipro than might be assumed. I think the ability to bring across 1 company of Main Battle Tanks (x14) or more per trip by ferry is a reasonable conservative guess, possibly a great deal more.
As amphibious tracked vessels, the M3 ABVs can drive directly onto the shore, have the tanks move off, then return to the water with no docking facilities needed. They can make 14 kmh on water. Even assuming a less-than-ideal speed fully laden at 10kmh, it can make the 1km trip back and forth over the Dnipro in 5-6 minutes.
In 1 hour, 12 M3 ABVs could likely make 5 round trips. You would presumably leave the task of carrying infantry for lighter boats like the RHIBs, so you could devote the ferries to transporting heavy weaponry. For example, in just 1 hour, the M3 might bring across
- 14 Western MBTs (1 company)
- 52 IFVs (almost 4 companies)
Ukraine also was given 16 Mi-17 helicopters from the U.S. The Mi-17 helicopters have enough carrying capacity to bring across 24 soldiers, or up to 5,000kg of cargo strapped externally. Thus, a single run by the Mi-17 helicopters could bring 380+ infantry (2 full companies) in just minutes. it takes to cross the Dnipro.
The Mi-8s and Mi-17s could also be used to carry M777 howitzers The M777 weights 4200kgs, thus is light enough to be slung under a Mi-17, although the towing trucks (around 11-15 tons) would need to be carried across by ferry.
Furthermore, Ukraine had 52 operational Mi-8 helicopters at the start of the war and has received 40 similar helicopters from allies, with similar carrying capacities. If Ukraine can bring 40~50 helicopters to bring troops and supplies across, if it could secure safe passage for the helicopters, it could bring easily five-six thousand infantry across the Dnipro in a single hour, and tons of supplies thereafter.
What is notable is that none of these vessels are particularly resistant to enemy attack. The ferries are slow-moving and unarmored. The transport helicopters are vulnerable to MANPADS (infantry-carried anti-air missiles) or enemy interceptors.
A Normandy Invasion-style amphibious assault against a heavily fortified beachhead would simply be impossible.
However, that doesn’t appear to be the situation that Ukraine faces on the east bank of the Dnipro.
One thing that has characterized Ukrainian operations in the Kherson region since the fall of Kherson has been its systematic driving back of Russian infantry and artillery forces from close to the riverbank back to the second layer of towns and cities. In the past month, there have been reports of repeated Ukrainian raids, particularly around the former bridge sites of Antonivka and Nova Kahofka.
One interpretation of this activity is simply to keep Russia honest and to prevent them from redeploying their troops elsewhere.
But these raids may also be reconnaissance units gauging the strength of Russian defenses close to the river, and seeking to drive pockets of Russian soldiers back from any potential landing sites.
Further complicating Russian defenses, Ukrainian artillery systems can hit deeply into Kherson without needing to cross the river. M777s and Paladins can strike targets into the 2nd level of Russian-occupied towns and cities, Excalibur rounds and HIMARS GMLRS rockets can strike deep into the region, so Ukrainian troops can expect ample fire support in the early stages of securing a crossing point without the need for the artillery units to physically cross the river.
So a hypothetical Ukrainian operation might first see Ukrainian Special Forces conduct what appears to initially be a raid similar to ones done by Ukrainian troops before, coming across around Antonivka and striking out along the river bank seeking to clear any Russian infantry present in both directions.
The Russians have pulled most of their forces back from along the riverbank, thus this Ukraine should be able to establish a localized superiority of forces, with precision fire support from the opposite bank.
However, once this initial clearing stage is finished, the Ukrainian speed boats will return with another bigger wave of soldiers, this time accompanied by dozens of transport helicopters and attack helicopters.
The attack helicopters will fly in at low altitudes to avoid radar detection or long-range anti-aircraft fire, thus their main threat will be Russian MANPAD-equipped infantry, against which Ukrainian infantry will need to provide support. But in the early stages, the attack helicopters will provide heavy fire support against any Russian mechanized infantry units or tanks that might make an early counterattack and can suppress any Russian infantry positions that fire on Ukrainian ferries with heavy machine gun fire and rockets.
Advanced Western Anti-aircraft batteries should be deployed in the area to provide air cover, such as a Patriot Battery supported by additional shorter-range anti-aircraft batteries like Buk Missile Systems or NASAMS. This will guard against enemy interceptor fighters trying to disrupt the helicopter crossings.
The infantry will fan out to further secure the beachhead and the surrounding area to create a secure perimeter to prevent Russian infantry from bringing forwards any anti-ship assets to disrupt the ferry crossings, or any MANPADS to disrupt the transport helicopters.
The transport helicopters will zoom at low altitude across the Dnipro, drop 20-30 soldiers, then zoom back. With 40 helicopters making crossings, it’s reasonable to assume within 20 minutes, Ukraine could build up over 2,000 dismounted infantry, assuming 2.5 round trips, in addition to the boats making crossings.
These could be elite Air Assault infantry or Ukrainian Marine units.
The first stages of infantry should be well equipped with MANPADS and ATGMS (antitank guided missiles) so they can defend themselves reasonably against any early small-scale Russian armored counterattacks or Russian helicopters.
Meanwhile, the slower amphibious ferries will begin making their crossings with Leopard 2s or other Western MBTs. In the first 20 minutes, they should make 2 crossings bringing 8 MBTs and 12 Infantry Fighting Vehicles (like Marders or Bradleys)
This will give the early bridge crossing a strong armored component that will make the forces more resilient against any early-stage Russian mechanized counterattack.
By the end of the 2 hours, if Russia fails to disrupt the crossings, Ukraine should be able to bring across around 30- 40MBTs, 80-100 IFVs, 8,000+ dismounted infantry, and supporting artillery.
These troops should avoid getting concentrated, and upon disembarking quickly move to secure the surrounding areas and push deeper inland to penetrate the first lines of Russian defense.
Ideally, Ukraine could secure a 10km deep x 20km wide area around the bridgehead, it should drive Russian artillery and observation drones far enough away to prevent effective attacks on the landing area and the pontoon bridges which will need to be constructed.
Once this force is established, helicopters and boats will switch to carrying supplies (ammunition, fuel, food, and water), along with supply trucks. Engineers should immediately begin to construct a pontoon bridge that spans the Dnipro.
The Pontoon Bridge
I looked at several options for what Ukraine may have on hand to cross the Dnipro. It seems impossible that Ukraine would have enough M3 ABVs that could span the 1300m Dnipro river, which would take over 80 M3 ABVs—the whole German army only has 30 in its engineering battalions, so this option seems unrealistic.
Likewise, Ukraine may have 20-30 PFV Mobile Bridge Sections, but this too will fall well short of the 1300m gap.
So a traditional pontoon bridge is what Ukraine will likely need (components of which are on the list of Ukraine’s supplies from both the US and the Netherlands).
1300m is a long way to build a pontoon bridge, but the US Army constructed a 600m pontoon bridge that crossed the Sava River from Croatia to Bosnia in 72 hours. The US Army’s pontoon bridges were sturdy enough to bring 70-ton Leopard 2 and M1A1 Abrams tanks across.
Thus, Ukrainian pontoon bridges provided to it by her Western allies are likely to be able to accommodate the movement of heavy supply trucks and MBTs.
it seems reasonable to assume that if the Ukrainians can hold the bridgehead area for 1 week, the pontoon bridge can be completed and supplies can begin being brought across by truck. Ideally, the Ukrainian engineers would build a second bridge the following week, both as backup and for additional supply capacity.
Further forces could be built up, and within 2 weeks, Ukraine might realistically bring Corps strength forces ready to go on the offensive in the area.
The key is having enough time to establish a bridgehead and secure the area long enough to place a bridge.
So any Dnipro river crossing would likely be in support of a major Ukrainian offensive around Tokmak and Melitopol.
For reasons that I explained in detail in a previous diary, Tokmak is a lynchpin strategic location where besieging or capturing Tokmak will prevent the east-west flow of Russian troops.
Thus an initial major offensive towards Tokmak/Melitopol should draw Russian reserves from the Russian-occupied Kherson Oblast areas towards the center. If Ukrainian troops can cut the east/west rail line near Tokmak which is just 30km from the current front lines, it will become very difficult for Russia to move reinforcements further west.
If Russian-occupied Kherson Oblast is sufficiently weakened, opening a second offensive in that area by a surprise crossing of the River could put a second major Ukrainian force to the rear of the Russian defenses, with no easy way for the Russians to bring forces to counter this thrust.
It would require several conditions to be feasible.
- The Russian defenses along the Dnipro are very undermanned and not heavily defended.
- The Russians have relatively few reserves it can throw at a major Ukrainian landing, and cannot overrun a bridgehead before the supply bridges can be established.
Neither of those necessary elements seems very unrealistic. As it is, Ukrainian raiding parties appear to be regularly pushing the small number of Russian infantry placed near the waterfront around. Russian artillery has been positioned further back and is being struck regularly by precision Ukrainian munitions. Patriot and NASAMS batteries should be sufficient to provide air cover for the operations, and the Ukrainian Air Force at their base outside Mykolaiv will be close at hand to provide fire support with JDAMs, or to fly interceptors or low altitude CAP missions to support the river crossing.
if timed well with a main attack towards Melitopol/Tokmak, it might be a devastating wrinkle to bring a major force to the rear of the Russian position.