In a dramatic turn of events, Ukraine has successfully employed ATACMS ballistic missiles supplied by the United States, ushering in a pivotal moment in the ongoing conflict with Russia.
The operation, known as Operation Dragonfly, unfolded on October 17, proving rumors of Ukraine’s acquisition of the ATACMS missiles true, despite initial reports of failed negotiations.
Upon President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s return from the United States in September, there was skepticism surrounding Ukraine’s ability to secure the much sought-after ATACMS ballistic missiles, which were crucial for deep strikes on Russian forces within Ukraine.
However, in the early hours of October 17, Ukraine’s HIMARS launchers initiated a volley of M39 missiles (MGM-140As), heralding the operation’s success. Launch footage revealed three ATACMS missiles in action, hurtling at velocities surpassing Mach 3 over dozens of miles in just 2 to 3 minutes. Ukraine’s military subsequently shared launch footage of three ATACMS missiles.
The targeted Russian airbases in Luhansk and recently occupied Berdyansk were laden with combat helicopters dispatched daily for sorties against Ukrainian ground forces, situated 70 and 60 miles away, respectively.
While the M39 missiles, produced between 1990 and 1997, lacked GPS guidance and had a shorter range (103 miles) compared to later ATACMS models, their wide area of effect, augmented by cluster bomblets, proved devastating.
The aftermath revealed a scene of considerable destruction, with assessments indicating the confirmed loss of nine helicopters, a number that U.S. military assessments later estimated to be as high as 14.
Satellite imagery specialists Geoconfirmed and Oryx documented 21 or 24 helicopters either destroyed or damaged. While some ‘damaged’ helicopters may be effectively irreparable, it is likely that they were in non-flyable condition by the time satellite images were captured.
This marks the second occasion where Russian helicopter bases in close proximity to the frontline have suffered significant casualties. Back in March of 2022, Ukrainian artillery struck the Chornobaivka base, resulting in confirmed losses of several Ka-52s, Mi-28s, and Mi-8/17s.
Ukrainian sources allege that the Ka-52s experienced particularly severe losses, with a reported 40 units destroyed before the recent ATACMS strike in October. This toll is especially impactful given that the Ka-52 fleet initially comprised roughly 130 airframes at the outset of major hostilities. Since then, it has markedly dwindled. With approximately 59 Ka-52s now either confirmed damaged or destroyed, nearly 44% of Russia’s Alligator fleet, which entered the larger-scale conflict, has suffered harm or been entirely lost. According to Oryx’s calculations, the ATACMS strikes, in a single day, managed to incapacitate or damage 11.5% of Russia’s pre-war Alligator fleet.
Russian military bloggers had previously forewarned of the vulnerability of these forward bases to ATACMS strikes, yet Russia’s response proved inadequate. The attack stands as one of the most significant blows to the Northern Military District since hostilities began in 2022.
Though the success of the ATACMS strikes is evident, there is speculation that their impact could have been even more substantial if deployed earlier in the conflict, particularly during Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the early stages. Russia, on the other hand, swiftly adjusted its tactics, relocating its valuable helicopter fleet further from the frontline to reduce exposure to potential future ATACMS strikes.
The Biden administration’s decision to provide Ukraine with the M39 missiles was a calculated move to disrupt Russia’s military strategy. By supplying these technically expired missiles, the administration aimed to catch Russia off guard and potentially prevent the relocation of critical equipment before they could be effectively used.
As the conflict progresses, both sides find themselves in a tactical and technological race. Ukraine seeks new methods to target Russian helicopter bases while exploring the deployment of mobile frontline air defenses capable of countering the threat posed by advanced Russian helicopters, such as the Ka-52M.
Ukraine’s successful deployment of ATACMS missiles signifies a watershed moment in the ongoing conflict, underscoring the strategic implications of advanced weaponry and its potential to reshape the course of the struggle for control in the region.
The utilization of these formidable missiles underscores Ukraine’s determination to defend its territory and significantly impacts the strategic calculus of the conflict. The world now watches closely to see how both sides will adapt to this new development in the ongoing struggle for dominance in the region.