Ukrainian forces attacked two key Russian air bases behind enemy lines on Tuesday, using American-made long-range missiles known as ATACMS, a U.S. official said.
By David E. Sanger, Lara Jakes, Marc Santora, Constant Méheut and John Ismay
October 17, 2023
The New York Times
Ukraine’s forces used newly supplied American long-range missiles against Russia for the first time on Tuesday after President Biden overcame his longstanding reluctance to providing the weapons, permitting the Pentagon to deliver them covertly in the last few days, American officials said.
The decision to send the missiles represented a shift by the Biden administration at a time when the Ukrainian military is struggling in a counteroffensive in the country’s south and east. Mr. Biden had worried that sending the more powerful weapons could escalate the conflict with Russia.
Ukraine used the missiles, called ATACMS, to strike two air bases in Russian-occupied territory on Tuesday, according to an American official familiar with the assault. Ukraine’s special operations forces said the attack damaged runways and destroyed nine helicopters, an ammunition depot, an antiaircraft missile launcher and military equipment. Those claims could not be independently verified.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine confirmed the use of the missiles. “Today I am especially grateful to the United States,” he said in his nightly address to the nation. “Our agreements with President Biden are being implemented. And they are being implemented very accurately — ATACMS have proven themselves.”
It is unclear how much of a difference the missile system will make on the battlefield; other Western-provided weapons, including tanks, have provided only a marginal advantage in a war that has bogged down for months. And the version of the missile sent by the United States, the last major system Ukraine had sought from the United States, is limited in range.
Still, officials said that it was sufficient to reach almost all of the main bases that Russia has used for air support and for supplying their troops in Ukraine. One of the conditions put on the Ukrainians is that the ATACMS — for Army Tactical Missile System, and pronounced “attack ems” — may not be used to attack inside Russian territory, one official said.
After many reports that a decision had been made to supply the weapons, their delivery was carried out in secrecy, out of concern that they could be attacked by Russia as they were shipped into the country. In addition, Ukraine wanted to try to catch the Russians off guard. Two Western officials said the United States had sent about 20 of the missiles to Ukraine.
The version of the ATACMS missile sent to the Ukrainians, in what officials said were small numbers, is a cluster munition that dispenses 950 small bomblets that can do damage over a wide area. Weapons of that type are banned by an international agreement that the United States has not signed.
The ATACMS missiles are the second type of cluster weapon the U.S. is known to have provided to Ukraine. In July, the Biden administration began supplying Ukraine with 155-millimeter artillery shells that each contain 72 smaller submunitions designed for destroying armored vehicles and enemy soldiers.
The missiles were older weapons that, because of the international ban, the Pentagon said it could not imagine using in a conflict involving American forces and so they agreed to provide them to Ukraine. Newer versions of the ATACMS have a single explosive charge in their warheads, and the U.S. concluded that its own stockpile of those was so small that it could not afford to give them up.
For more than a year after the beginning of the war, the White House deflected Mr. Zelensky’s demands for the weapons. Part of the concern was that Ukraine could use the longest-range version missiles to strike targets deep inside Russia, and for a while American officials believed the use of ATACMS could cross one of the “red lines” that would lead Russia to escalate. But that thinking has now changed, prodded at least partly by the fact that similar long-range missiles were provided by Britain and France earlier this year, and their use in battle had not prompted much of a Russian reaction.
Mr. Biden told Mr. Zelensky during a visit to the White House in September that he had reversed his view and agreed to provide the missiles, albeit a version limited in range, according to officials familiar with the conversation.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister, said that the deployment of the ATACMS comes at a critical time in Ukraine’s counteroffensive, during which Ukraine’s military has struggled to make significant progress against stiff Russian defenses. “Their importance is huge,” Mr. Zagorodnyuk said in an email. “This will allow us to hit substantial logistics and command posts at all operational depths of today’s front.”
The guided missiles that the United States delivered can hit targets 100 miles away and are launched from vehicles that can quickly move and hide after firing to avoid a Russian counterattack. The weapons with the longest range that are available to Ukraine are the French SCALP and British Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile; these have been used to hit Russian targets, including in Crimea. But to launch those cruise missiles, Ukrainian warplanes may potentially expose themselves to Russian surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, the French-made cruise missiles are believed to have a maximum range of approximately 340 miles.
Now that the American missiles have arrived, Germany will be further pressed to donate its Taurus missiles systems. Like Mr. Biden, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany has resisted giving Ukraine his country’s long-range missiles, partly to avoid escalating the conflict. The Taurus has
a range of more than 310 miles and would be the newest and most sophisticated long-range missile yet for Kyiv.
Ukraine has pledged to not fire the American ATACMS into Russia’s internationally recognized borders, assurances it also gave when Britain and France donated their long-range missiles.
The American ATACMS was designed toward the end of the Cold War for what the military calls deep-strike missions on priority enemy targets. In a pre-GPS era, the missile was a rare ground-launched guided weapon on the battlefield of the 1980s and 1990s, built to be fired from the Army’s M270 launch vehicle, which could carry two at a time. By comparison, the smaller HIMARS vehicle, which the Pentagon provided to Kyiv last year, can only carry a single ATACMS at a time.
One photo taken at the scene at one of Tuesday’s strikes appears to show an unexploded M74 submunition — a small bomblet about the size of a baseball, which is carried by the oldest versions of the ATACMS missile, called the M39.
Once released from the missile, the bomblets spin rapidly upon hitting the air, and become armed once they have reached a speed of about 2,400 revolutions per minute. They are designed to detonate on impact, but a significant quantity will fall as hazardous duds that can remain dangerous for decades if left in place.
In the attacks on Tuesday, Ukraine used the long coveted missiles in an operation code-named Dragonfly, striking an air base by the Sea of Azov — as deep inside mainland Ukraine as Russia can base its operations — and another in the eastern Luhansk region that is critical to its fight on the eastern front.
In a relatively rare comment on ongoing military operations, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, released a statement confirming the use of the ATACMS along with a video of their being launched into the sky in the dark of night. The video could not be independently verified.
Russian air superiority has posed a difficult challenge for Ukrainian forces for months, with attack helicopters routinely strafing their positions and Russian fighter jets targeting them with powerful guided bombs. The attacks from the air have complicated Kyiv’s efforts to mass a significant number of forces along any single line of attack and played a key role in slowing their offensive operations.
The strikes on the air bases were widely reported by Russian military bloggers loosely affiliated with the Kremlin, who described them as a significant setback for the Russian military. Rybar, one of the bloggers, said ATACMS had been used, referring to photos of the unexploded submunition. He wrote that an ammunition depot had been hit in the attack, and that several helicopters had been damaged. “One of the most serious blows of all time” in the special military operation, Fighter Bomber, another blogger, wrote on Telegram, the messaging app, using the Kremlin’s denomination for the war in Ukraine. “If not the most serious.”
Fighter Bomber said similar strikes would “happen again as long as there is a war. You have to be prepared for it.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.
David E. Sanger is a White House and national security correspondent. In a 38-year reporting career for The Times, he has been on three teams that have won Pulitzer Prizes, most recently in 2017 for international reporting. His newest book is “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age.”
Lara Jakes is a foreign correspondent focused on the war in Ukraine. She has been a diplomatic and military correspondent in Washington and a war correspondent in Iraq, and has reported and edited from more than 60 countries over the last 25 years.
Marc Santora has been reporting from Ukraine since the beginning of the war with Russia. He was previously based in London as an international news editor focused on breaking news events and earlier the bureau chief for East and Central Europe, based in Warsaw. He has also reported extensively from Iraq and Africa.
Constant Méheut has covered France from the Paris bureau of The Times since 2020.
John Ismay is a Pentagon correspondent in the Washington bureau and a former Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer.