The Strategic Shift: Ukraine’s Use of ATACMS Missiles

Christian Baghai
4 min readApr 18, 2024

In a significant development on the battlefield, Ukraine has employed long-range US-provided ATACMS missiles, marking a pivotal shift in the ongoing conflict. This move represents a substantial enhancement in Ukraine’s military capabilities, allowing its forces to engage targets at greater distances and with increased safety.

A Game-Changer in the Arsenal

The ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) has indeed been a game-changer for Ukraine, significantly altering the dynamics on the ground. These precision-guided missiles have a range of up to 300 kilometers, allowing Ukrainian forces to conduct strikes deep within enemy lines while maintaining a safe distance. The recent operation in Crimea is a prime example of their effectiveness. The ATACMS missiles were used to target the Russian base at Dzhankoy, causing significant damage and showcasing the enhanced capabilities of Ukraine’s military. This operation also highlighted the strategic value of Western military support, which has been crucial in bolstering Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression.

Legislative Support and Strategic Decisions

The role of the U.S. House of Representatives, particularly under the leadership of Speaker Mike Johnson, has been pivotal in this strategic shift. The Ukraine aid bill, which proposes a substantial $60 billion in assistance, is a testament to the U.S.’s commitment to supporting Ukraine’s defense. Notably, this bill includes the mandated transfer of ATACMS missiles to Kyiv, reflecting a significant policy change by the Biden administration. This legislative support comes at a critical time when Ukraine is making use of these advanced weapons to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Dzhankoy Airfield Strike

On April 17, The Sun reported a significant strike by the Ukrainian Defense Forces using American ATACMS missiles on the Dzhankoy airfield, located in the temporarily occupied Crimean Peninsula. This strategic move resulted in serious damage to the Russian base, showcasing the precision and extended reach of these missiles. The operation has been hailed as a demonstration of Ukraine’s growing military prowess and the effectiveness of the ATACMS system in combat scenarios. Further reports indicate that the strike may have resulted in up to 30 Russian personnel casualties and left another 80 wounded. The Dzhankoy airfield, being a major military hub, is key for supporting Russian forces on the mainland, and its incapacitation could represent a significant setback for Russian military operations in the region.

The Biden Administration’s Calculated Move

The Biden administration’s decision to supply Ukraine with ATACMS missiles was a calculated move, made with the intention of surprising Moscow and preventing the relocation of Russian military assets out of the missiles’ effective range. This decision, initially met with hesitation, reflects a shift in the administration’s policy and a commitment to supporting Ukraine’s defense capabilities. Recent reports suggest that the administration had been considering this move for some time, with discussions dating back to mid-2023 when concerns were raised about the effectiveness of Ukraine’s counteroffensive efforts. The supplied variant of the ATACMS carries cluster munitions capable of striking targets up to 100 miles away, providing Ukrainian forces with a new and destructive ability to hit Russian targets well behind the front lines. The administration’s discreet approach in providing these missiles underscores the ongoing efforts to maintain a delicate balance of power and to avoid further escalation of tensions with Russia.

The Modified ATACMS Variant

The ATACMS missiles supplied to Ukraine, while having a reduced range to mitigate the risk of escalating the conflict, have been a significant addition to Ukraine’s military capabilities. The variant delivered, known as the MGM-140A, has a striking distance of about 100 miles (160 km), which is less than the maximum range of newer ATACMS versions that can travel more than 300 kilometers (186 miles). Despite this limitation, the missiles carry cluster munitions, which release numerous small bombs from the air, providing a wide area of effect against enemy targets, as opposed to a single warhead.

This strategic decision to provide a modified version of the ATACMS reflects a careful balance between bolstering Ukraine’s defense capabilities and maintaining a cautious approach in the geopolitical landscape. The use of cluster munitions, while controversial due to their potential to cause harm long after hostilities end, has been defended by the fact that neither Russia, Ukraine, nor the United States are signatories to the international treaty banning such weapons.

In conclusion, the introduction of the modified ATACMS missiles into Ukraine’s military operations marks a critical juncture in the conflict. These missiles have not only enhanced Ukraine’s defensive and offensive capabilities but also demonstrated the unwavering support of Western allies. As the situation continues to evolve, the strategic implications of this development will undoubtedly influence the course of the conflict and the broader dynamics of international relations. The careful calibration of the missile’s capabilities underscores the complex considerations at play in international military support and the ongoing efforts to prevent a further escalation of the war.