Why Ukraine probably has long-range missiles

·12 min read

KYIV, Ukraine — It all started on Aug. 9 with an attack on Saki Air Base in Russian-occupied Crimea, at least 140 miles behind the Russian front line. Satellite imagery released the next day revealed a scene of utter devastation, with at least nine Russian warplanes completely destroyed and many others rendered not airworthy. One Western intelligence official later claimed the attack had "put more than half of Russia's Black Sea Fleet naval aviation combat jets out of use," which would raise the total number of destroyed or damaged aircraft to at least 13, as there were 26 aircraft at the base prior to the attack.

The second confirmed hit took place exactly one week later, on Aug. 16, when a Russian munitions depot exploded dramatically near Dzhankoi, in northern Crimea, some 120 miles behind the front line. An electricity substation in the same area was also targeted and destroyed.

Kyiv has been ambiguous about the provenance of these attacks.

At first, the Ukrainian government refused to officially confirm that its military was behind the explosions, mocking Russian claims that Saki Airbase went up in smoke due to an "accident," perhaps related to cigarette smoking in the vicinity of combustible materials. (The Ukrainian defense ministry's Twitter account has continued to lampoon that explanation.)

A cloud of smoke is seen from a beach.
Rising smoke can be seen from the beach at Saki after explosions were heard from the direction of a Russian military airbase in Crimea, territory seized from Ukraine in 2014. (UGC via AP)

On background, however, a host of anonymous Ukrainian officials have claimed responsibility and leaked disparate explanations to Western reporters. One told the New York Times on the day of the Saki strike that a "device exclusively of Ukrainian manufacture was used," without specifying what this may have been: a drone, a missile, or some remote-detonated bomb. The next day came the suggestion that Ukrainian Special Forces were responsible; not necessarily at odds with the first accounting, but more suggestive that whatever struck Crimea was not a missile fired from hundreds of miles away.

Finally, on Aug. 20, Ukrainian Defense Secretary Oleksii Reznikov told the Washington Post that the attacks in Crimea were the result of a new strategy to degrade Russian forces by striking deep in the enemy rear. A cadre of saboteurs, a "resistance force," as Reznikov termed it, had been cobbled together in January and were now working in conjunction with Ukrainian Special Forces, targeting ammunition depots, fuel warehouses and Russian command centers.

"For our American partners it's an absolutely convenient situation, because we didn't use American weapons," Reznikov told the Post.

Yet former U.S. Special Forces operatives and military analysts doubt that ground forces planted the explosives, based on the publicly available evidence of the Saki aftermath.

"The craters visible in satellite photos are 10 meters across," Chuck Pfarrer, the former squadron leader of Navy SEAL Team 6, told Yahoo News. "And each is consistent with the explosion of at least 500 pounds of C-4. No Special Forces team is going to drag a ton of C-4 to a target when two ounces would be sufficient to destroy an aircraft."

The simultaneity of the explosions also casts suspicion on the claim that timed devices were used to blow up an airfield, Pfarrer added. "Timers are good, but they're not that good."

A missile being launched.
South Korean military forces launch a missile using the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, during a military exercise. (South Korea Defense Ministry via AP)

Another problem with the Special Forces theory is that no gunfire was reported by either unofficial or official Russian sources, or heard on the numerous civilian-shot videos of the airbase attack. Then there was the timing of the attack: at 10 a.m. on a weekday, such that Russian holiday-makers at a nearby beach witnessed the explosions and skedaddled anxiously from their bungalows. Special operations are usually carried out at night, under the cover of darkness to avoid detection by the enemy (think: the SEAL Team 6 raid on Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad).

"This was a missile strike," another former U.S. Special Forces operative, who asked to remain anonymous, said. "Could partisans or special operators have been on the ground reconnoitering the targets for artillery? Sure. But nothing in those images tells me Ukrainians were setting things off at the scene."

But what kind of missile could it have been? That's the question that has preoccupied open-source intelligence sleuths and weapons experts for a fortnight.

Despite several promising systems currently in development, the Ukrainians are not known to have anything in active service that can fly hundreds of miles. The longest-range munition in their arsenal is the Tochka-U tactical ballistic missile, which has a maximum range of around 115 miles, around 25 miles short of Saki Air Base.

Moreover, there's nothing with that range in the publicly disclosed weapons packages provided by the United States or its NATO allies. The most advanced Western-supplied artillery system, the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), has been supplied with M31 GMLRS rockets, which have a maximum range of about 50 miles.

A soldier opens a door on a military vehicle.
A Ukrainian soldier shows the rockets on a HIMARS vehicle in Eastern Ukraine on July 1. (Anastasia Vlasova for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

One likely culprit that could have been used for the Saki attack, according to experts, is the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). A Lockheed Martin-manufactured tactical ballistic missile, it can be fired from the M142 HIMARS or the M270 MLRS, both platforms Ukraine now possesses. With an even longer range than the M31 GMLRS rockets, the ATACMS would place any target within a 190-mile range of the launcher within striking distance for the Ukrainian military — including one in Crimea.

The ATACMS is also more destructive against a single target than M31 GMLRS rockets. As a larger single munition, it takes up an entire "pod" in the launcher, as compared with six M31 GMLRS. The ATACMS also concentrates all 500 pounds of its warhead on a lone target, traveling at a supersonic speed of Mach 3.5. That makes it all but impossible to intercept with air defenses or capture on video. An ATACMS strike is only visually discernible after impact when whatever it hits explodes.

Given its range, speed and power, the ATACMS is a probable culprit for the Saki Air Base strike, except for one important thing: Washington has publicly denied sending it to Ukraine.

At the Aspen Security Forum in July, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that President Biden wasn't prepared to send ATACMS, citing fear of escalation with Russia. The U.S. has been especially hesitant about providing weapons that could strike targets on Russian soil, although theoretically an assault rifle or Javelin antitank missile could do that if fired close enough from the border. So far, the Ukrainians have been remarkably disciplined about not using U.S.-supplied artillery to hit outside of their own territory; Crimea, as the U.S. has repeatedly stated, is sovereign Ukrainian land and therefore fair game. Nevertheless, Sullivan said, American security assistance must "ensure we do not end up in a circumstance where we're heading down the road toward a third world war."

But a lot can change in the space of a single month, especially in a war that has only gone on for six. Security assistance to Ukraine has evolved more quickly than many would have anticipated when the Russians first rolled in on Feb. 24.

A rocket launcher parked near an airport.
A U.S. M142 HIMARS rocket launcher is parked on the tarmac at the 2021 Dubai Airshow. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images)

An early "shopping list" compiled by Ukraine's Ministry of Defense in April, seen by Yahoo News, contained weapons that at the time many Western military analysts thought would never find their way onto the battlefield. Either these platforms were seen as too provocatory, as per Sullivan's jitters of starting World War III, or it was believed that Ukrainians couldn't be trained fast enough and manage the logistical nightmare of maintaining the systems on the war's front lines. (Ukrainians have consistently defied these expectations by demonstrating a remarkable absorption capacity for NATO-standard armaments.)

The shopping list included everything from NASAMS air defense batteries to Harpoon anti-ship missiles to the now much-beloved HIMARS. Everything on it has since been publicly given to Ukraine — with the lone exception of ATACMS.

Could it be that the United States has covertly supplied these missiles, or perhaps invented an artful workaround solution to allow a third party to supply them, thus creating plausible deniability?

As of June, Romania had received 54 ATACMS missiles. Turkey, an early and bold supplier of Ukraine's Bayraktar TB2 drone fleet, is also known to possess them. Poland is also thought to have received ATACMS in advance of receiving HIMARS platforms. All three are NATO members, but the stipulation in receiving these U.S.-made weapons is that Washington's approval is needed to pass them along to another government.

For the last week and a half, Yahoo News has reached out to a host of Ukrainian military and intelligence officials, asking directly if Ukraine's military now possesses ATACMS. Responses have been uniformly cagey. "Sorry, I'm not ready to discuss this," one senior official said. "We are limited by our official position," answered another.

A destroyed military vehicle.
A destroyed Russian self-propelled artillery vehicle on Independence Square during an exhibition of destroyed russian military vehicles in Kyiv. (Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Perhaps this is merely a psychological game designed to prompt exactly this sort of speculation about Ukraine's newfound artillery capability — and set nerves atremble in Kremlin military bases within range of such attacks. Or perhaps the Ukrainians are now firing something they've been instructed by their supplier not to disclose.

American security assistance has evolved both openly and clandestinely since the war began. Some weapons platforms have migrated to Ukraine under the radar, as it were, most notably the AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles, which the Pentagon was compelled to admit sending to Ukraine only after wreckage started appearing on the battlefield and on Russian social media channels.

Washington has also been obliquely creative in how it has dispatched new warplanes to Ukraine, especially after the well-publicized early debacle surrounding Poland's canceled decision to donate MiG-29 fighter jets to its next-door neighbor. In spite of the Pentagon's insistence that it hasn't sent any new combat airframes to Ukraine, Foreign Policy reported that a team in Eastern Europe connected to European Command "has helped disassemble Soviet-era Su-25 'Frogfoot' aircraft and Mi-17 helicopters so they can be shipped to Ukraine." Often, what isn't said is more revealing than what is. In the latest announced $775 million U.S. security package for Ukraine, the Pentagon readout simply stated: "Additional ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS)." It did not name the type of ammunition.

Now comes the first piece of visual evidence suggesting that Ukraine may well be using ATACMS or another unacknowledged Western-supplied munition.

A video posted to Twitter on Aug. 19 appeared to show a Ukrainian Army HIMARS with a mounted launch pod that appeared to look significantly different from previously sighted vehicles, known to be carrying M31 GMLRS rockets. (Yahoo News independently geolocated the position of the vehicle to southern Ukraine.)

Smoke is seen in the distance.
Smoke rises over the site of an explosion at a Russian ammunition storage site near the village of Mayskoye, Crimea. (RU-RTR Russian Television via AP)

According to Thomas Theiner, a former member of the Italian Army's Alpine Troops Command and an artillery specialist, the ammunition for HIMARS and M270 MLRS platforms come in two different pods. The first is the Launch Pod Container (LPC) which contains six GMLRS rockets — the pod Ukrainians have been seen toting around the battlefield for weeks. The second is the Enclosure Assembly Launch Pod (EALP), which houses one ATACMS missile, which, up until now, Ukraine has not been shown to deploy.

"EALPs are deliberately camouflaged to hide their valuable contents," Theiner told Yahoo News. "They come from Lockheed Martin's Camden facility with glued-on plastic covers on the front and back of the pod, which are painted black and sport six glued-on fake GMLRS launch tube covers. To further improve operational security, troops can simply conceal the back of an ATACMS by placing a solid plate onto the rear of their M142 HIMARS. What we see in this video is the latter."

On Aug. 19, Alexey Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, gave an interview to Politika, a Ukrainian news outlet, confirming that Ukraine does indeed have long-range artillery. Arestovych claimed these were not ATACMS but "another missile" that is both smaller and faster.

There are only two known missiles that fit that description.

The first is the ER-GMLRS, which is a longer-range, more sophisticated version of the M31 GMLRS rockets currently in Ukrainian service. The second is the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), a more accurate, harder-to-intercept replacement for the ATACMS, which is capable of flying up to 400 miles at an even faster speed. The ER-GMLRS doesn't require the disguised maskirovka technique of transportation; the PrSM does because it's an ATACMS on steroids, only smaller, allowing two missiles instead of one to be housed in a single HIMARS pod.

In any event, Ukraine now looks to be firing longer-range missiles it wasn't using before. And they all but certainly came from another country. According to one former CIA official, "That would be the textbook definition of Western covert action assistance."