Ukraine's first ATACMS strike dealt a harsh blow to Russian airpower and other military assets.
Experts say the new missiles, which Kyiv secretly got from the US, now create a dilemma for Russia.
Moscow will have to weigh how to best protect its vulnerable targets without limiting their usage.
After a long and seemingly frustrating wait, Ukraine finally got its hands on high-profile MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems — commonly known as ATACMS — from the US and then used them to hammer Russian airbases and destroy helicopters.
It's been over two weeks since those initial strikes, which later proved to be quite damaging, but the potential for more attacks exists, creating a dilemma for Moscow's military. Important targets Russia needs for its fight within range of Kyiv's ATACMS are very much vulnerable to being hit. Experts say this presents a tremendous challenge for Russia, which must now decide how best to protect and possibly relocate its key assets without significantly reducing their value with respect to combat operations.
Ukraine appeared to use M39 cluster missiles — which Kyiv secretly obtained from Washington — to carry out the October 17 attacks on the Russian airfields, ultimately destroying more than a dozen helicopters, an air-defense launcher, vehicles, and ammunition. This particular ATACMS variant is powerful, has a range of around 100 miles, and is packed with 950 anti-personnel and anti-materiel, or APAM, M74 bomblets — small submunitions that scatter and disperse mid-flight over a large area.
Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at Ukraine's National Institute for Strategic Studies, said the M39 variant is effective against "unprotected targets" like helicopters, air-defense systems, and ammunition depots. He said Russian military leadership will likely now look to pull back vulnerable and prized targets to the rear.
But there "are practical limitations on how much Russian military equipment can be pulled back without leaving front line troops vulnerable," Bielieskov wrote in commentary published on Tuesday by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. One example of this, he pointed to, is Russia's reliance on its helicopters to defend against the Ukrainian counteroffensive that began in early June.
—Brady Africk (@bradyafr) October 30, 2023
"If these helicopters are now pulled out of ATACMS range entirely, this will significantly limit the amount of time they can be deployed in front line action," he said.
Experts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a British think tank, also noted in a recent analysis that unprotected "soft-skinned equipment" like helicopters are vulnerable to the M39 variant, as the fallout from Ukraine's mid-October strikes clearly suggested.
"Since the M39 variant is not effective against hardened targets because of its warhead design, Russia may respond to the transfer by constructing hardened aircraft shelters to protect high-value equipment," Zuzanna Gwadera and Timothy Wright, two researchers at the IISS' Missile Dialogue Initiative, wrote last week.
Russia has not often taken this step, even when threats seem to demand improved force protection. Alternatively, as it has done in other situations, Moscow may push vulnerable assets to locations beyond the range of Ukraine's ATACMS.
"While such moves will likely decrease the vulnerability of Russian equipment to future Ukrainian attacks from short-range ballistic missiles, it will also probably reduce the time on station of Russian rotary- or fixed-wing platforms due to fuel and range limitations," Gwadera and Wright said.
These analyses follow a similar assessment from Britain's defense ministry, which said in an intelligence update a few days after the initial ATACMS strikes that there's a "realistic possibility" Russia will feel pressured to relocate its bases and command and control facilities farther back from the front lines, which could strain logistics.
Moscow has previously taken reactive repositioning measures in response to new Western weapons. The introduction of US-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to the battlefield last year strong-armed Russian forces into moving key assets like air-defense systems beyond the weapon's reach.
American and Ukrainian proponents of the ATACMS, which can be fired from the HIMARS systems Ukraine already has, have argued that the missiles will boost Kyiv's long-range strike capability and lethality, complementing its limited supply of Western-provided cruise missiles that were used earlier this fall to batter Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
Right now, Ukraine reportedly only has a small inventory of ATACMS, but officials have suggested that they will eventually receive more. In any capacity, advocates have asserted that the deadly missiles can help Ukraine put even more pressure on Russia's valuable targets in the rear.
Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, "much of the Russian army has had safe havens in much of Ukraine," Dan Rice, a former special advisor to Ukraine's military leadership and the president of the American University Kyiv, told Insider. "No more. They are all within the crosshairs of the best army in Europe. Ukraine is going to one-by-one take out all the high-value Russian targets in occupied Ukraine."
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