Apr 24, 2024 - Politics & Policy

What to know about the long-range missiles the U.S. quietly gave Ukraine

The launch of an Army Tactical Missile during a U.S. and South Korea joint drill on the east coast of South Korea in  July 2017.

The launch of an Army Tactical Missile during a U.S. and South Korea joint drill on the east coast of South Korea in July 2017. Photo: South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images

The U.S. quietly shipped a new long-range missile system to Ukraine, which used it to bomb airfields in Russian-occupied territory, according to a Pentagon spokesperson.

Why it matters: The transfer of the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) marked a major policy shift within the Biden administration, which has so far been wary of giving Ukraine long-ranged missiles over concerns about escalation.

  • At the same time, Kyiv had repeatedly asked the U.S. and other Western countries for long-ranged capabilities to strike Russian targets in occupied Ukrainian territory.

Catch up quick: The U.S. gave the long-ranged ATACMS to Ukraine last month as part of an unexpected defense assistance package with the caveat that the weapons could only be used inside Ukrainian territory.

  • Ukraine has so far used the long-ranged ATACMS twice, once against a military base in Crimea and another time against Russian forces east of Berdyansk near the Sea of Azov, according to the New York Times.

What they're saying: Pentagon spokesman Maj. Charlie Dietz said the U.S. did not announce the transfer "in order to maintain operational security for Ukraine at their request."

  • "We have new ATACMS coming off the production line and being transferred into military stocks, and, as a result, we were able to move forward with this provision of ATACMS while also maintaining the current readiness of our armed forces," Dietz said.
  • He added that Biden directed the transfer after Russia acquired North Korean ballistic missiles and used them against Ukraine.

Reality check: It wasn't the first time Ukraine has used ATACMS.

  • The U.S. gave Ukraine a shorter-ranged cluster bomb variant of ATACMS, which was first used in October 2023 to target Russian airfields near Berdyansk and Luhansk, two cities in eastern Ukraine occupied by Russian forces.
  • That attack damaged airstrips, nine helicopters, an air defense launcher, "special vehicle" and ammo depots, Ukraine's Ministry of Defense said.

The latest: News of the most recent ATACMS transfer broke hours after President Biden signed a bipartisan foreign aid package that includes billions for Ukraine's defense.

What are ATACMS:

The surface-to-surface missile system, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, has a maximum range of around 190 miles, which is well beyond the capabilities of conventional artillery weapons.

  • Each missile is about 13 feet long and two feet in diameter and can be launched from American HIMARS mobile launchers and British and German M270 launchers — two vehicles Ukraine has been using for years now.
  • The missiles, which are also used by the Marines, come in at least five different variants with distinct capabilities.
  • Some can deliver hundreds of smaller bomblets like the cluster artillery shells given to Ukraine in 2023, while others are single warheads packing hundreds of pounds of explosive material.

The intrigue: The two cluster versions of ATACMS have a range between 15 and 186 miles and can carry either 300 or 950 bomblets. One is guided to targets by inertia like traditional artillery rounds and the other is assisted by GPS.

  • The three single-warhead variants have ranges up to 186 miles and are all guided with the assistance of GPS.

Why did Ukraine want ATACMS:

ATACMS has given Ukraine a new option to strike targets deep behind Russian lines and bolster its finite stockpile of long-range missiles.

  • Ukraine has received other sophisticated long-range missile systems, like "Storm Shadow" cruise missiles from the United Kingdom and France or the HIMARS and M270 MLRS.
  • After receiving HIMARS and M270 MLRS in the summer of 2022, Ukraine destroyed Russian equipment and damaged logistics, command hubs and troop barracks.
  • But since their introduction, Russia's military has moved its main hubs and troop concentrations outside of the launchers' range or in hardened structures, according to the Royal United Services Institute, a United Kingdom-based defense think tank.

Storm Shadow and ATACMS are both long-range missile systems, but ATACMS have important advantages.

  • Storm Shadow missiles have a shorter maximum range than ATACMS.
  • ATACMS are also launched from the ground, while Storm Shadows are launched from jets.

How it works: This means that after a target is chosen, each Storm Shadow strike requires several minutes, if not hours, of preparation and flight time before impact, making the missile only effective for stationary targets.

  • ATACMS are loaded onto mobile HIMARS and M270 MLRS and can be prepositioned near frontlines and be ready to launch and hit targets within minutes.
  • This makes ATACMS effective for both stationary and halted mobile targets, like aircraft parked on a tarmac, trucks offloading supplies, artillery guns or air defense systems.

How many ATACMS does the U.S. have:

It isn't exactly clear how many ATACMS the U.S. has, but Lockheed said in 2018 it had produced more than 3,850 and over 600 had been launched in combat.

What will Russia do if Ukraine receives them:

Russian officials have promised to retaliate if Kyiv receives ATACMS.

  • But Moscow did not significantly escalate the war after making similar warnings over Storm Shadows, anti-tank missiles and other weapons eventually provided by Ukraine's Western allies.

Go deeper: Zelensky visits Washington as GOP remains divided on Ukraine aid

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