Ukraine Might Finally Get ATACMS. Here’s What That Means.

Media reports suggest Washington may soon grant Kyiv’s longstanding request for the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS. While not a silver bullet, ATACMS would provide Ukraine with valuable additional capability and capacity to attack high-value Russian military targets in occupied territory.

ABC News, citing U.S. officials, reported last week that the Biden administration will likely soon send Ukraine ATACMS. According to Politico, Kyiv is pushing for a final decision before the U.S. and Ukrainian presidents attend the UN General Assembly next week. But U.S. officials reportedly say the White House’s verdict will almost certainly come after that meeting.

Kyiv has been asking Washington for ATACMS for well over a year. The White House initially explained its refusal by citing the risk of Russian escalation. More recently, the administration has contended that America simply has no ATACMS to spare.

However, two U.S. officials told ABC News that the Pentagon has found more ATACMS in its inventory than it originally assessed, although their serviceability and variant remains unclear.

Lockheed Martin has produced a handful of different ATACMS variants. Modern versions carry a 500-pound unitary warhead and can hit targets up to 300 kilometers away. By contrast, the earlier variants were less accurate and carried warheads containing hundreds of Anti-Personnel/Anti-Materiel (APAM) bomblets. The oldest version had a maximum range of just 165 kilometers.

A Reuters report published on Monday suggests Ukraine may receive an APAM-carrying variant. This would be particularly useful for targeting Russian air defense systems. The U.S. military employed these missiles to great effect against Iraqi air defense systems during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Biden administration could also provide other ATACMS variants to Ukraine. The versions with unitary warheads would be more useful for striking Russian command posts and logistics nodes such as the Crimean Bridge, which connects the peninsula to Russia. While Ukraine has pledged not to use Western missiles to strike inside Russian territory, targets in and around Crimea — including the bridge — are fair game.

Russia uses that bridge to transport equipment and supplies to southern Ukraine, where Kyiv’s forces are attempting to claw back territory as part of their ongoing counteroffensive. Kyiv hopes that degrading Russian logistics will help Ukrainian troops break through Russian defenses and then push south toward the coast.

By itself, taking out the Crimean Bridge probably will not cause the Russian defense to collapse. Russia would still have other, albeit less efficient, ways to supply its troops. During Ukraine’s counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast last year, Russian forces held out for months despite a tenuous supply situation.

Still, the fewer mines and artillery shells that Russia can deliver to the front, the better Ukraine’s chances. Constraining Russian logistics will become especially important as Western deliveries of artillery ammunition dwindle over the fall and winter.

Although Ukraine has received Storm Shadow and SCALP-EG air-launched cruise missiles from the United Kingdom and France, respectively, the Crimean Bridge lies at the ragged edge of their maximum effective range — around 250 kilometers. Kyiv has yet to target the bridge using those missiles, presumably because doing so would put Ukrainian pilots at unacceptable risk. Ukraine’s Su-24M/MR aircraft would have to fly right up to the front line, braving Russia’s formidable air defense systems and long-range air-to-air missiles. Those Ukrainian aircraft, meanwhile, also face the threat of periodic Russian missile and drone strikes targeting their airbases.

ATACMS would be more survivable. They are ground-launched, fired by the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), both of which Ukraine already operates. These vehicles can quickly displace after firing. To date, Russia has not managed to destroy a single M142 or M270. ATACMS missiles themselves are also difficult to shoot down, thanks to their rapid descent.

Moreover, ATACMS would provide Ukraine with an all-weather capability that can respond quickly to time-sensitive targets. Whereas cruise missile strikes are generally too slow to destroy mobile Russian air defense or surface-to-surface missile systems, ATACMS perhaps could — assuming Ukraine can acquire and relay the intelligence quickly enough.

The Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB), a newly developed system that Washington plans to deliver sometime this fall, will provide similar benefits in terms of survivability and responsiveness. Critically, the GLSDB is also relatively cheap, meaning Ukraine can use it to strike targets on which it cannot afford to expend a more expensive and scarce missile. But the Crimean Bridge and most of the peninsula itself lie beyond the GLSDB’s 150-kilometer range.

Other than ATACMS, Ukraine is also asking for the German-made Taurus air-launched cruise missile. It has a maximum range of 500 kilometers, meaning it could easily hit the Crimean Bridge. Berlin continues to equivocate on whether it will give Kyiv the missile, although a U.S. pledge of ATACMS might ease German anxieties.

Another potential option is the newly developed land-attack variant of Kyiv’s Neptune ground-launched anti-ship cruise missile, which Ukraine has twice used to strike Russian S-400 air defense batteries in western Crimea. In late August, a Ukrainian official claimed the missile carries a 350 kilogram warhead and has a maximum range of around 400 kilometers. If true, it could also hit the Crimean Bridge (although Ukraine notably has yet to attack that target using the Neptune).

However, Ukraine has produced just “a couple of dozen” of these missiles, the official said. Crippling a large, sturdy structure like the Crimean Bridge would require a significant number of missiles, and keeping it offline will probably necessitate repeated strikes.

ATACMS would offer much-needed additional capacity — particularly useful as Kyiv’s limited stocks of Storm Shadows and SCALP-EGs dwindle. This could free up Neptune missiles to attack targets within Russia. Alternatively, Ukraine could use ATACMS against targets in occupied territory that would have been assigned to the Neptune, then use the latter to strike the Crimean Bridge. The Neptune’s terminal guidance system — something ATACMS lacks — might make it better suited for multiple strikes against a single weak spot on the bridge.

Exactly how much additional capacity Ukraine will get remains unclear. The Biden administration has not clarified how many ATACMS it might send. According to The Wall Street Journal, plans under review would see Kyiv receive a limited number of missiles.

Also unclear is when exactly Ukraine would receive them. A U.S. official told ABC News that it may be months. “I hope we’ll get [ATACMS] in autumn,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Sunday, adding that Ukraine must avoid a “pause” in its counteroffensive. Before the missiles reach the battlefield, Ukrainian troops will need to undergo expedited training. Ironically, the United States will also have to reverse earlier hardware and software modifications it made to Kyiv’s M142 launchers to prevent them from firing ATACMS. Ukraine’s M270 launchers may also require software upgrades if they will be used with ATACMS.

Ukraine may be on the verge of crossing a key item off its wish list. While ATACMS will not be a silver bullet, it will add an important weapon to Kyiv’s arsenal of long-range precision-strike capabilities.

John Hardie is the deputy director of FDD’s Russia Program and a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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