The U.S.-provided Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, has already demonstrated significant value for Ukraine, which employed the system for the first time on Tuesday. But unless Kyiv receives more of these missiles, it will likely soon run out.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian forces struck two Russian helicopter bases in the occupied cities of Berdyansk and Luhansk, located in southern and eastern Ukraine, respectively. Ukraine’s General Staff initially said Ukrainian missile troops had destroyed two Russian helicopters and an ammunition depot. But Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces later claimed the strikes destroyed a total of nine helicopters along with an ammunition depot, an anti-aircraft missile launcher, and other equipment.
Video footage and satellite imagery confirmed that both airfields were hit. While it is unclear exactly how many helicopters were damaged or destroyed, nine is more than plausible. After the strikes, Russian Telegram channels shared pictures showing the remains of M39 Block I missiles and the M74 anti-personnel/anti-materiel bomblets they carry.
The M39 is the oldest ATACMS variant. It has a maximum range of 165 kilometers, uses inertial guidance, and delivers a warhead containing almost a thousand M74 submunitions. By contrast, modern ATACMS variants have a 300-kilometer range, employ both inertial and GPS guidance, and carry unitary warheads.
The M39’s cluster warhead is well suited for destroying soft-skinned targets, as Tuesday’s strikes demonstrated, although it is ineffective against targets like bridges and hardened command posts. As a ground-launched ballistic missile system, ATACMS is highly survivable and responsive. Ukraine can use it to attack fleeting targets, provided its targeting cycle can move quickly enough.
American officials said the United States had delivered the missiles in recent days. Although the Biden administration sent them in secret to avoid tipping off Moscow, the Russians had weeks to prepare thanks to prior press leaks. Nevertheless, Russia failed to adapt proactively, much like with its belated response to Ukraine’s receipt of Western rocket artillery systems in summer 2022.
At Berdyansk, the Russians did space out their helicopters and build revetments for equipment. This mitigated against potential strikes by Ukraine’s Western-provided air-launched cruise missiles, which have unitary warheads. But Russia failed to build hardened shelters or relocate its helicopters in preparation for the M39’s cluster warhead.
Kyiv’s strikes at the Berdyansk and Luhansk airfields could facilitate its offensive operations in southern Ukraine and around Bakhmut, respectively. Particularly in the south, Russian Ka-52 attack helicopters have helped thwart Ukrainian armored and mechanized attacks. As the spokesman for Ukraine’s Air Force noted, ATACMS could render Russian close air support less effective by forcing Moscow to move its helicopters farther from the front line.
After Berdyansk, Yeysk Air Base in Krasnodar Krai is probably Russia’s next-best option for supporting its troops south of Orikhiv, Zaporizhzhia Oblast — the main axis of Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Yeysk lies within the M39’s range but is off-limits for ATACMS strikes, as Kyiv has promised not to use the system on Russian territory. Yeysk is about twice as far from the front line as Berdyansk.
Indeed, the White House decided to send Ukraine ATACMS precisely to help Kyiv’s struggling counteroffensive, according to U.S. officials. Yet although the National Security Council reportedly began reviewing this issue back in July, the administration reportedly took two months to approve the missile transfer. Kyiv now has precious little time before the fall muddy season inhibits vehicle movement. Many Ukrainian units rely on Western-donated wheeled vehicles, ill-suited for the mud.
But perhaps the more immediate problem for Ukraine is the small size of its ATACMS arsenal. According to The New York Times, two Western officials said the United States gave Kyiv just 20 or so missiles. Officials told the Associated Press that Ukraine had received fewer than a dozen within the last few days. Ukrainian forces appear to have expended at least 11 during Tuesday’s strikes alone.
On Wednesday, Ukraine’s foreign minister said Washington had committed to send more. But it remains unclear how many the United States will provide and when it will deliver them.
In addition to providing more M39s, Washington could replenish Kyiv’s arsenal by sending the M39A1 Block IA. Like the M39, the M39A1 has a cluster warhead. But it has a range of 300 kilometers rather than 165. The Pentagon reportedly signed off on sending Ukraine the M39 because it is not written into U.S. war plans, as the missile’s warhead is inconsistent with the department’s cluster munitions policy. Presumably, the same goes for the M39A1. As of August 2023, the U.S. military reportedly possessed a total of 364 ATACMS with cluster warheads.
The M39 has given Ukraine a valuable capability to complement its other Western-supplied missiles. But to retain this capability, Kyiv will need a steady supply of missiles. Whether Washington will deliver remains to be seen.