How Ukraine could use US-supplied ATACMS missiles

The United States has secretly transferred ATACMS to Ukraine
The United States has secretly transferred ATACMS to Ukraine

The provision of long-range ATACMS ballistic missiles has already proven to be one of the most significant "upgrades" in the class of weapons provided to Ukraine by its Western partners.

Although the United States has so far transferred a very limited number of ATACMS to Ukraine ("fewer than a dozen" according to AP, and up to 20 according to the New York Times), they are significantly expanding the range of potential Russian targets that the Armed Forces of Ukraine can now hit. The first few missiles used have already had a major impact on Russian military helicopters, as the enemy lost at least nine vehicles in Luhansk and Berdyansk.

NV explains how the characteristics of this missile affect the potential range of targets which ATACMS strikes could potentially reach.

Is the range 300 or 165 km? What missiles did Ukraine receive?

ATACMS missiles come in several varieties. Ukraine received long-range MGM-140A cluster missiles – an ATACMS variant with a shorter range but larger number of submunitions.

The maximum range of these missiles, also known as M39 or ATACMS Block I, is 165 km. On Oct. 17, the White House officially confirmed that Ukraine had received ATACMS missiles with that specific range.

These are ballistic missiles with a solid fuel engine. Their launch mass is more than 1,600 kg, while the mass of the warhead is 570 kg. The payload consists of 950 individual M74 submunitions, which greatly expands the area which the detonation can affect.

Read also: Russia reduces helicopter usage after ATACMS strikes — Danilov

The M74 submunitions are 75mm spheres weighing about 500 grams each. One submunition can create about 260 fragments during detonation, creating a blast zone of up to 15 square meters, according to Ukrainian outlet Militarnyi. Each of the 950 submunitions contains a detonator and explosives, and their outer body contains aerodynamic ridges that give it a spin during the descent.

The missile is equipped with an autonomous inertial guidance system with laser gyroscopes. However, since such missiles were produced in the 1990s, they do not have a GPS satellite signal correction system. Thus, they have a circular error probable of 225-250 meters.

Another type of ATACMS missile –the ATACMS Block IA or M39A1– contains fewer submunitions (300), but has a range of almost 300 km. There is no reliable indication that these missiles have been provided to Ukraine.

Storm Shadow and SCALP cruise missile can strike at 250 km. What is the advantage of ATACMS?

The UK and France have already provided the Armed Forces of Ukraine with cruise missiles which have a range which is even greater than U.S.-made ATACMS: Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG can reach targets up to 250 km away.

However, these are air-launched cruise missiles, so there are several significant advantages in using ATACMS over them.

First is the ability to launch the missiles inconspicuously. While Storm Shadow and SCALP are launched from Su-24M jets, which is always a risk for Ukrainian aviation or can at least be tracked by the enemy, ATACMS are launched from ground platforms. These include the M270 track-mounted multiple rocket launcher (two missiles) and its lightweight version on a wheeled chassis — the M142 HIMARS (one missile).

Read also: Video footage of Storm Shadow strike on Black Sea Fleet HQ in Crimea

Second, the ATACMS provided to Ukraine have cluster warheads. This increases the target area in comparison to Storm Shadow, which is especially important when striking targets such as airfields, where vehicles are often dispersed. As Militarnyi writes, until now the only means Ukraine possessed of destroying targets spread over a large area was the Soviet-era Tochka-U tactical missile systems. However, ammunition for this system has likely already been exhausted.

Third, ATACMS is a specific "quasi-ballistic" missile with a complex trajectory. It reaches a speed of Mach 3 (approximately 3,675 km/h), while the Storm Shadow is a subsonic cruise missile (Mach 0.8). This makes it much more difficult for Russian air defense systems to intercept ATACMS. In addition, as Military Today explains, ATACMS is often referred to as a "quasi-ballistic" missile. This means that while the ATACMS trajectory does assume a ballistic arc to hit the target, the missile also performs a series of rapid and sudden turns and course corrections en route. This is an intentionally designed function of ATACMS, since this behavior makes it extremely difficult to track or intercept the missile, which is why the U.S. Army also calls ATACMS "maneuverable" missiles.

"To intercept such missiles, it would be necessary to create an echeloned air defense system with S-400/S-300B complexes and the latest versions of BUK systems,” adds Militarnyi.

"At the same time, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation do not have a sufficient number of SAMs to create such defense lines around all important military facilities in occupied territories of Ukraine."

Potential targets: where ATACMS can hit

Which of the enemy’s "critical military objects" can ATACMS reach?

Experts from Defense Express made a map which shows that potential targets: airfields in Dzhankoi (Crimea), Luhansk, Berdyansk, and Mariupol all fall within the 165 km range of the MGM-140A missiles provided to Ukraine. The experts also note that Berdyansk and Mariupol are strategically important ports for Russian military logistics.

In addition, the range of MGM-140A missiles reaches the occupied city of Henichesk, which the Russians have made the "administrative center" of the occupied part of Kherson Oblast. Previously, Ukrainian forces had already struck Russian bases and personnel in this area. Also within the missile’s range is Cape Tarkhankut, where Ukraine previously destroyed an S-400 Triumph air defense system, as well as the northern part of occupied Crimea, including all isthmuses and communication routes with mainland Ukraine.

Read also: ‘Historical achievement’: Russian Black Sea Fleet flees occupied Crimea – Zelenskyy

Earlier, in an interview with The WarZone, Ukrainian Defense Intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov argued for the need to provide Ukraine with ATACMS precisely because most of the Russian command posts and logistics warehouses and bases are now located more than 85 km from the front line.

“The Russians just place command posts and other things beyond those distances so we don't have anything to reach them there [with available MLRS],” said Budanov.

“And the situation is the same with Russian aviation at the airfields. Fighting Russian aviation using air defense systems is very costly and ineffective. Aviation should be taken out at the air bases [in occupied Ukraine].”

It was at the airfields in Berdyansk and Luhansk, located 100 km from the front line, where the first strikes were carried out using these missiles.

As other similar maps demonstrate, potential targets in almost the entire occupied territory Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson Oblasts fall into the 165-km range of these missiles.

If we assume that Ukraine will later receive ATACMS missiles with a range of up to 300 km, then the set of potential Russian targets under threat will expand even more.

This would mean that the entire occupied territory of Ukraine, including the entire area of ​​Russian-held Crimea, will be within range.

Read also: Full fire control over Russian-occupied Crimea is ‘a matter of time’ – Zelenskyy

Potential ATACMS targets could then include Russian airfields in Crimea at Saki, Hvardiyske, Kacha, Belbek, and Kirovske — together with the airfields at Strilkove, Chaplinka, and Dzhankoi which are already within the range of the available 165 km missiles.

In addition, the list of targets of 300-km missiles could include ports where the Russian navy is based like Feodosia, Kerch, and Sevastopol, as well as air defense deployment areas near Simferopol, Kotovskyi, Kerch, and more.

Where ATACMS will not fly

Ukraine has received long-range weapons from the United States, the UK, and France, on the condition that these missiles not be used against Russian territory.

Read also: Up to 800,000 Russians settled in Crimea after occupation, Kyiv says

Thus, although even the 165-km ATACMS can reach Russian air base in Yeisk on the southern coast of the Sea of ​​Azov, as well as a number of other military air bases in Kursk and Belgorod regions, these areas are unlikely to be among the targets of U.S.-supplied missiles.

Ukrainian civilian and military officials have repeatedly assured that they will fulfill their obligations and will use these weapons only against Russian targets in occupied territory of Ukraine, including Crimea.

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