The US was widely expected to transfer ATACMS missiles to Ukraine sometime this fall.
But the Russians still appeared surprised when Ukraine fired ATACMS at air bases in October.
Repeated failures to anticipate the arrival of new weapons have cost Russia heavily during the war.
In theory, supplying long-range weapons to the Ukrainians should allow them to disrupt the Russian military's operations by forcing it to disperse and protect its troops and installations.
But what if the Russians are simply willing to accept losses rather than change their plans?
A case in point: the destruction of an estimated 14 Russian helicopters — including precious Ka-52 attack choppers — during an October 17 strike by Ukrainian forces using US-made ATACMS missiles on airfields in eastern Ukraine.
The obvious question is why Russia parked helicopters within the 190-mile range of ATACMS when it was widely known that Ukraine was about to receive these weapons.
"Even though this was the most leaked and telegraphed transfer of capability that I'd seen in some time, I honestly think that if we sent them the exact time and date and location of the first strike, they wouldn't have moved the helicopters anyway," Michael Kofman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, said during an October 18 episode of the "War on the Rocks" podcast.
"The Russian pattern has been to first take it on the chin and then begin adapting, rather than taking anticipatory or preventive measures," Kofman added.
Kofman said he believed the Russian airfields were hit by the cluster-bomb version of ATACMS, which only has a range of about 100 miles but is designed to "destroy manpower, equipment, material out in the open, and time-sensitive targets."
Russian jets have played a marginal role in the war, kept at bay by Ukrainian air defenses. This has put the burden of air support on Russian attack helicopters.
When Ukrainian strike brigades, equipped with Western-supplied armored vehicles, launched a counteroffensive in June, they suffered losses from Russian helicopters that picked off vehicles that were stuck in minefields or had advanced beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.
Bases in Berdyansk and elsewhere in Luhansk "are very well known, very well established, with revetments and helicopters dispersed across them," Kofman said on the podcast. "That's where a lot of these Ka-52s and Mi-28s have been flying from that have been a big issue for Ukrainian forces."
Of about 900 helicopters that Russia's military had at the start of the war, about one-third had been lost as of June, Ukraine's military said. Even if those losses are exaggerated — open-source trackers put the tally at a little more than 130 Russian helicopters lost or damaged — attack helicopters, in particular, are much too valuable to be left exposed.
This is not the first time that Russian forces in Ukraine have been smacked by Western-supplied weapons. The US-made Javelin and British-Swedish-designed NLAW anti-tank missiles wreaked havoc on Russian armored columns driving toward Kyiv in the opening days of the invasion in February 2022.
In the weeks after US-made HIMARS rockets were supplied in the summer of 2022, they destroyed Russian ammunition depots and command posts. British-made Storm Shadow cruise missiles, supplied earlier this year, have damaged vital bridges to Crimea and other valuable hardware on the peninsula.
Despite the buzz about these wonder weapons and their initial impact, they soon lost much of their luster. Russia jammed GPS-guided munitions such as HIMARS and moved supply depots farther from the front, taking them out of rocket range at the expense of logistical efficiency.
The real issue isn't military technology, which is inevitably nullified or copied by the other side, but adaptability, either in responsiveness to intelligence about the arrival of a new weapon or in changing tactics once that weapon is encountered in combat.
The classic example is the Israel Defense Forces in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. In the first days of the conflict, Israeli tanks were decimated when they recklessly charged Egyptian infantry units that were heavily armed with Russian-made Sagger anti-tank missiles and RPG-7 anti-tank rockets. But within a week, the IDF adopted combined-arms teams of tanks, infantry, and artillery, which enabled Israeli tanks to operate effectively.
What's significant about the October strike on the Russian helicopter bases is that despite having ample warning about ATACMS and painful experience with Ukraine's other Western-made weapons, Russia did not protect its vital attack helicopters, which it could have moved to bases farther from the front rather than leaving them parked at exposed forward airfields.
Learning the hard way from mistakes is an inevitable part of life. For Russia, it seems to be a way of war.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on X/Twitter and LinkedIn.
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