October 17, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Ukraine fires newly acquired US ATACMS at Russian airfields in occupied Ukraine, destroying nine helicopters

Institute for the Study of War

Ukraine used US-provided ATACMS long-range missiles to strike Russian targets in occupied Ukraine for the first time on October 17. The Wall Street Journal and other Western media outlets confirmed on October 17 that the US “secretly” provided Ukraine with ATACMS with a range of 165km in recent days and reported that Ukrainian forces already used ATACMS to strike Russian-controlled airfields in occupied Berdyansk, Zaporizhia Oblast and Luhansk City, Luhansk Oblast. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also stated in his nightly address on October 17 that ATACMS “have proven themselves” but did not directly confirm ATACMS were used in these strikes, and multiple Russian sources claimed Ukrainian forces used ATACMS in the Berdyansk strike. Various Russian sources amplified images reportedly of ATACMS M74 cluster submunitions found at the site of the strike in Berdyansk. The US likely transferred the ATACMS systems in secret to provide Ukrainian forces operational surprise, and the overall shock in the Russian information space suggests that Ukraine achieved the desired effect. Ukrainian Special Operations Forces Command did not specify that Ukrainian forces used ATACMS in the strikes but stated that the strikes destroyed nine Russian helicopters of various models, other unspecified special equipment, an anti-aircraft missile launcher, an ammunition warehouse, and damaged runway infrastructure. Footage reportedly from the Berdyansk airfield shows heavy fires and explosions due to the continued detonation of ammunition in an ammunition depot. NASA Fire Information for Resource Management (FIRMS) data from October 17 also confirms heat signatures following explosions in Berdyansk but has not yet confirmed heat signatures at the Luhansk airfield.

The Ukrainian ATACMS strikes on operationally significant Russian airfields in Ukraine will likely prompt the Russian command to disperse aviation assets and withdraw some aircraft to airfields further from the frontline. Russian forces notably operated rotary-wing aircraft from the Berdyansk airfield in the early months of the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive in western Zaporizhia Oblast to great effect against large mechanized Ukrainian assaults. Previous satellite imagery of the Berdyansk airfield showed that Russian forces dispersed aircraft across the airfield, and Ukrainian forces were likely only able to conduct strikes on individual aircraft with previously available long-range missiles. The cluster munition–armed version of the ATACMS long range missiles will allow Ukrainian forces to conduct strikes on Russian airfields that can more widely destroy Russian aircraft and other assets. Russian milbloggers immediately drew parallels between the Ukrainian strikes on the Berdyansk and Luhansk City airfields and a series of Ukrainian HIMARS strikes on the Chornobaivka airfield in Kherson Oblast during the 2022 Kherson counteroffensive. The arrival of Western-provided HIMARS allowed Ukrainian forces to conduct repeated strikes on the Chornobaivka airfield, which caused significant Russian aviation losses, and Russian command withdrew military equipment and aviation from the airfield due to their inability to combat Ukrainian HIMARS strikes. Russian milbloggers noted that Russian forces adapted their airfields to Ukrainian long-range strike capabilities but that ATACMS are a new missile threat which will similarly force the Russian command to adapt once again. The Russian military has consistently shown it can adapt to new Ukrainian strike capabilities — but only after suffering initial and pronounced losses from Ukrainian capabilities Russian commanders realistically should have prepared for.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukraine used US-provided ATACMS long-range missiles to strike Russian targets in occupied Ukraine for the first time on October 17.
  • The Ukrainian ATACMS strikes on operationally significant Russian airfields in Ukraine will likely prompt the Russian command to disperse aviation assets and withdraw some aircraft to airfields further from the frontline.
  • The Russian military has consistently shown it can adapt to new Ukrainian strike capabilities — but only after suffering initial and pronounced losses from Ukrainian capabilities Russian commanders realistically should have prepared for.
  • The arrival of ATACMS long-range missiles also presents a significant threat to Russian ammunition depots in rear areas and will likely force the Russian command to choose between fortifying existing depots or further dispersing depots throughout occupied Ukraine.
  • The Russian information space expressed widespread fear over the use of ATACMS, and Russian concerns over the possibility of future strikes will likely impact Russian decision-making beyond the current Ukrainian ability to sustain regular ATACMS strikes.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations and advanced near Bakhmut and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) reportedly issued an informal warning to a prominent Russian milblogger who is often critical of the Ministry of Defense’s conduct of the war on October 16 for discrediting the Russian military.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast, and advanced in certain areas of the front.
  • Russia continues to take steps to codify the inclusion of volunteer formations within Rosgvardia.
  • The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) continues efforts to consolidate control of orthodox diocese in occupied areas of Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin held bilateral negotiations with Hungarian President Viktor Orban and Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh in Beijing on October 17.
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