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Ukraine destroys two Russian airbases using ATACMS missiles for first time

Ukraine has employed MGM-140A ATACMS ballistic missiles for the first time. On the night of October 16, units from the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces (SSO) and the Armed Forces carried out precision strikes targeting two key Russian airbases in Berdiansk and Luhansk. President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed the use of these advanced, U.S.-supplied missiles in both successful operations. Debris from the missile and unexploded M74 APAM submunitions conclusively verify that the MGM-140A variant was used in these strikes.
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Ukraine seems to have received first-generation ATACMS (MGM-140A, 1,650 missiles produced) with a range of “only” 165 kilometers and equipped with a warhead containing 950 M-74 submunitions (Picture source: Russian social media)

The operation involved the use of the MGM-140 ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System), marking its first application in this particular conflict. This development occurred after extended discussions between the Ukrainian government and the Biden administration, resulting in a limited supply of these missiles being delivered in late September. The targeted airbases serve as important hubs for Russia's advanced helicopters, such as the Ka-52 and Mi-24, which are integral to ongoing military activities.

The MGM-140 ATACMS missile (for Army Tactical Missile System) is a surface-to-surface missile whose range and warhead vary depending on the variants. Unlike the other versions, Ukraine seems to have received first-generation ATACMS (MGM-140A, 1,650 missiles produced) with a range of “only” 165 kilometers and equipped with a warhead with 950 M-74 submunitions.

Unexploded M74 APAM submunitions, only used on first-generation ATACMS. Highly explosive, they are used for anti-personnel and anti-material purposes.

The use of cluster munitions has specific advantages in the context of the destruction of enemy material. These weapons are designed to disperse large numbers of submunition over a wide area, allowing them to inflict considerable damage on a variety of targets, including armored vehicles, artillery installations, and other military equipment. This ability to cover a large area makes submunitions particularly effective against dispersed or moving targets. Additionally, saturation of an area with multiple submunitions can hamper the repair and recovery of damaged equipment, thereby contributing to a decrease in enemy operational capability.

The missile system can be launched from multiple platforms, including the M270 MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) and the M142 HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), both of which are in service with the Ukrainian armed forces. The M270 HIMARS can fire an ATACMS missile but the United States announced at the time of their delivery that it had restricted the launchers, the ATACMS being a red line at the time. To see therefore if HIMARS has been re-modified or if unmodified M270 MLRS launchers (carrying two ATACMS) have been used by the Ukrainian military.

The ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) family includes multiple variants armed with submunitions: the MGM-140A, known as the earliest version with a range of 165 km and equipped with 950 M-74 submunitions; the MGM-140B/ATACMS Block IA, which extends the range to 300 km and carries a warhead containing 300 submunitions; the MGM-164A/ATACMS Block II, equipped with 13 anti-tank guided P31 BAT submunitions and having a range of 140 km; and the MGM-164B/ATACMS Block IIA, featuring 6 guided P31 BAT submunitions and a 300 km range.

According to official statements, the Ukrainian strikes resulted in the destruction of at least nine Russian helicopters, a Pantsir anti-aircraft missile system, and an ammunition depot. The runways at both airfields were rendered unusable, causing significant logistical challenges for Russian forces.

It should be noted that Berdiansk is an important area for the Russian Forces: in addition to the airport, the port allows the arrival of cargo ships or landing ships, making it easier to supply the front. However, the port had already been the target of a Tochka-U missile attack, destroying an Alligator-class LST in March 2022.

The integration of MGM-140 ATACMS missiles into the Ukrainian arsenal marks a significant turning point in the conflict. These surface-to-surface missiles offer Ukraine increased range, up to 165 kilometers for the MGM-140A variant, thus allowing deep strikes into enemy territory. This extended range is particularly useful for targeting Russian logistics and infrastructure behind the front, which could disrupt the operations and supply of Russian forces. Additionally, the ability to launch these missiles from remote positions reduces the risk to Ukraine's own artillery batteries, which can remain under cover while still carrying out effective strikes. The use of ATACMS therefore allows not only to target strategic installations at a greater distance but also to exert additional pressure on the enemy's supply and communication lines, making these weapon systems an additional value to Ukraine's military capabilities.

If you would like to know more about ATACMS and cluster bombs, do not hesitate to consult the Army Recognition article dated July 7, 2023.


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