The Biden administration is contemplating the supply of long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS, to Ukraine, a US official told ABC News.
A second official confirmed that the supply of missiles is “on the table” and likely to be included in an upcoming security assistance package. However, no decision has been made, and it could be months before Ukraine receives the missiles, according to the official.
MGM-140 ATACMS is conceptually analogous to the Russian Iskander-M Tactical Ballistic Missile, but certainly not as capable. It has a range of up to 300 km and can be launched from HIMARS and M270 MLRS, already available to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Past Reservations Forgotten
In the past, the US has brushed aside strong pressure from Ukraine for the supply of ATACMS rocket shells for the HIMARS systems, citing the escalatory effect of such supply on the conflict in Ukraine.
The ATACMS will give Ukraine the ability to strike deep into Russian territory, possibly triggering a runaway escalation of the conflict. As such, it’s likely that the US supply will be made conditional to an undertaking by Ukraine not to use the rockets to strike targets within Russia.
It’s likely that the UK supplied its Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine and France its Storm Shadow analog Scalp under the same condition.
It may be noted here that there have been no Storm Shadow or Scalp strikes or reported shootdowns since Russian forces launched a massive 3-wave missile strike on Starokonstantinov airbase on the night of August 6.
Starokonstantinov is the home base of Ukrainian Su-24 fighters that have been modified to launch the Storm Shadow missiles.
On August 25, there were reports of a new batch of British Storm Shadow and French SCALP cruise missiles having been delivered to Starokonstantinov airfield. There were also reports that a fresh shipment of the missiles was destroyed during the course of a Russian attack on an ammunition carrying train.
The number of missiles that either the UK or France can spare for use by Ukraine is known to be limited.
One reason why the US is considering the supply of ATACMS now, after withholding them from Ukraine for so long, could be Ukraine’s loss of long strike capability because it has either run out of Storm Shadow missiles or its launch platform – Su-24M.
ATACMS vs. Storm Shadow
An ATACMS missile, priced at $1.5 m, is considerably cheaper than a Storm Shadow missile, costing approximately $3.2m.
The HIMARS launch platform of the ATACMS is much cheaper than the Su-24M launch platform of the Storm Shadow. The HIMARS can launch an ATACMS from just about anywhere. The Su-24M operates from an airbase that can be easily located and struck with more certainty than a mobile HIMARS.
M270 HIMARS that launch ATACMS feature only one launch tube, but they do not look any different from the 6-tube M142 HIMARS launchers already supplied to Ukraine.
An ATACMS launch container has a lid patterned with six circles like a standard MLRS rocket lid but contains only one missile. The subterfuge makes it more challenging for enemy intelligence to single it out as a high-value target.
The ATACMS features a 230 kg warhead, which is much smaller and less destructive than the 450 kg warhead of the Storm Shadow. The 300 km range of the ATACMS is much less than the 550 km range of the Storm Shadow.
ATACMS use GPS-aided inertial navigation guidance to strike their targets. They have no seeker to accurately home to their target. The Storm Shadow features an optical seeker for terminal homing that can see and recognize its target. As such, a Storm Shadow missile is more accurate.
The ballistic trajectory of the ATACMS is predictable. Therefore, an ATACMS is much more easier to intercept than a Storm Shadow. Russia has had a fair amount of success in intercepting HIMARS rockets. It is likely that it will have much better success in intercepting ATACMS.
Notwithstanding the cons listed in the above comparison, the supply of ATACMS to Ukraine will pose a big challenge to Russian forces because ATACMS launchers are very difficult to detect and destroy.
It’s likely that Ukrainian forces will leverage the longer range of the ATACMS not to strike deep behind the battlefront but to strike all along the battlefront!
Just four M270 HIMARS with ATACMS will be able to cover the entire 1000 km battlefront. Wider coverage will take precedence over deeper coverage.
Leveraging space and air-based ISR capabilities of the US and NATO, Ukrainian forces will be able to detect any accumulation of Russian soldiers or equipment along the entire battlefront and destroy it in quick time with ATACMS launches.
Positioning artillery guns or MLRS within range to attack the accumulation takes much longer. Russia’s ability to mount a counter-offensive against Ukraine may well be completely compromised.
Russia’s vaunted air defense systems will be forced to move back to stay out of ATACMS range to an extent where it will likely not be possible for Russia to exercise air dominance along the battlefront.
The pushback will allow Ukrainian attack fighters and helicopters to operate closer to the battlefront and provide close air support to Ukrainian troops, something that they cannot do now.
Russian armed helicopter operations along the battlefront, which have been critical in thwarting the Ukrainian counter-offensive so far, will lose effectiveness because they will have to operate under the threat of missile attacks from Ukrainian fighters. Russia’s air dominance may completely disappear when Ukraine operationally deploys its F-16s.
Russia will be forced to move its supply depots and field headquarters deeper behind the battlefront to keep them out of ATACMS range. In turn, Russian supply lines will become more vulnerable to attack by Ukrainian barreled and rocket artillery, attack helicopters, FPV, and loitering kamikaze drones.
A lot will, of course, depend on the number of M270 launchers and ATACMS supplied to Ukraine. It’s likely that the numbers that the US can spare are limited. Also, Russian forces have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to adapt to any new infusion of US technology without losing the plot in any way.
- Vijainder K Thakur is a retired IAF Jaguar pilot. He is also an author, software architect, entrepreneur, and military analyst. VIEWS PERSONAL
- Follow the author @vkthakur