ATACMS missiles won’t change the game in Ukraine

9:44 09.05.2024 •

America’s ATACMS long-range missiles were a potential ‘game changer’ to the war in Ukraine to some, a potential source of escalation to others. Now, with no real sense that either has proved true following Zelensky’s confirmation they were used for the first time, what does that tell us? – writes Mark Galeotti, a head of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence and an honorary professor at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies at ‘The Spectator’.

The MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) undoubtedly offers Kyiv new capabilities. It can deliver a 500-pound warhead or hundreds of cluster bomblets very accurately to a range of up to 190 miles. Unlike the Anglo-French Storm Shadows already in use, the two-ton missile is fired from a tracked HIMARS launcher rather than an aircraft and thus can respond very quickly to strike even mobile targets.

These missile systems were first used on 17 October, when as many as 18 may have been launched at Berdyansk and Lugansk air bases in Russian-occupied territory, destroying or damaging nine attack helicopters and an ammunition store. This was a significant blow, as Russia’s helicopter gunships have been very effective.

However, this is not the fabled ‘game changing moment’ in this war. As is, most of the ATACMS appear to have been intercepted, decoyed or otherwise not hit the target: only three definitely got through. In practice, although the Russians have proven surprisingly poor at pre-emptive preparation – knowing that Ukraine was likely to be receiving these missiles, optimised for hitting airfields, why were they still parking helicopters out in the open? – they have demonstrated a rough and ready capacity to adapt to each new capability Kyiv acquires, from long-range missiles to naval drones.

Once, it was HIMARS launch systems albeit with shorter-range GMLRS rockets that were heralded as the ‘game changers’. They certainly forced the Russians to disperse and pull back their ammunition dumps and command centres, increasing the difficulty of maintaining their operations, but not making them by any means impossible.

Since then, it has been longer-range missiles like the Storm Shadow and ATACMS, and next F-16 fighters. All of them matter – but none of them are decisive.


read more in our Telegram-channel