Is the ATACMS Tactical Missile Already in Ukraine?

If Ukraine gets the scarce supplies, Taiwan must wait even longer; meanwhile, Russian response remains to be seen.

Russian defense sources say that an ATACMS tactical ballistic missile was launched from Kulbakino Air Field in Ukraine. If the Russian report is correct then the Washington debate about sending tactical ATACMS missiles to Ukraine is fake, as they already are there.

The Russian report has not been confirmed. What is clear is that the Ukrainians used missiles to attack Sevastopol on September 21st, targeting Russia’s Black Sea headquarters.  The historic HQ building was hit.

Reports say that President Biden told Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky that he agreed to send a “small number” of ATACMS missiles to Ukraine. Apparently Biden acted against Pentagon recommendations. Biden had been warned that ATACMS would be a war escalation. He was also told that there were not many ATACMS in inventory.

ATACMS has a range of around 300km.  It is ground launched.

Kulbakino is the home of the 299th Ukrainian Tactical Air Brigade. It is located in Mykolaiv Oblast. It supports a number of aircraft – most importantly the Su-24M fighter-bomber, which has been modified to fire the Stormshadow cruise missile.

ATACMS is typically launched from the M270 MLRS (multiple-launch rocket system).  It can also be launched from a HIMARS platform.

The M270 is a tracked, armored vehicle that supports launch tubes for missiles. It is based on the Bradley fighting vehicle chassis. It can fire one ATACMS missile and then the platform needs to be reloaded.

The M142 HIMARS is based on the Army’s MTV truck frame.  Like the M270 MLRS, it can fire one ATACMS missile.

HIMARS already is in Ukraine so delivery of the missiles will not require any significant field modifications.

The US has only small stocks of HIMARS currently available. The US Marines, who operate HIMARS, need ATACMS in order to blunt any Chinese attack either on the Senkaku islands or aimed at Taiwan. The Marines have carried out joint exercises with Japan, where Japan test fired the M270 in a demonstration. However, with ATACMS in short supply, the Marines operated the vehicle but only simulated firing the missile.

Taiwan has also requested HIMARS from the United States, equipped with the accurate ATACMS system to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion. Taiwan has ordered 28 launchers and 864 missiles. These are supposed to be delivered between 2024 and 2027. However, if Ukraine gets the supplies instead, Taiwan will be forced to wait even longer.

Because of Biden’s decision the Germans will not be able to hide behind the US as an excuse not to provide the German-Swedish Taurus KEPD 350. Taurus, a joint product of MBDA Deutschland and Saab Bofors, is a long range cruise missile with a range of 500 km.  It is launched by aircraft. Most likely, if Taurus cruise missiles are delivered to Ukraine, they will be operated by Ukraine’s Su-24s, although these are also in short supply. The systems on the Su-25 in Ukraine probably are not modern enough to support the Taurus.

Taurus has a range of 500km after launch.  It carries a 481 kg MEPHISTO (multi-effect penetrator highly sophisticated and target optimized) warhead.

ATACMS has different types of warheads and it is not clear what will be sent to Ukraine. Originally the missiles had cluster munition warheads, but later that was changed to so-called unitary warheads.

The Russians understand that both Taurus and ATACMS are threats to Russian territory, exposing its cities, air bases, nuclear power plants and defense installations to heavy attack.

Most of what Ukraine has so far launched into Russian territory have been small drones.  While drones have done some damage, many of them have been shot down. Russia does have layered air defenses, although they do not appear to be well integrated, and there are considerable coverage gaps.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, interviewed by ABC News, was asked, “Are you OK if Ukraine uses those missiles [ATACMS] to strike deep into Russia?” He replied: “Their decision, not ours.” Blinken knows very well that Ukraine needs support from US overhead intelligence for long-range strikes, something the Russians also understand very well.

The Russians have made clear that delivering these missiles to Ukraine is a significant escalation by NATO and the United States. It remains to be seen exactly how and in what ways Russia will respond.

Originally published by Asia Times


Stephen Bryen

Senior Fellow


EDITORS NOTE: This Center for Security Policy column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

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