ATACMS Missiles Threaten to Sever Russia’s Crimean Lifeline

Heavy Russian Casualties Mar Slow Advance as Crimea Faces Intensified Air Attacks

Shankar Narayan
8 min readMay 20, 2024

In the entire theater of war, for a very long time, I have considered the Russian Black Sea Fleet to be the most credible threat to Ukraine.

It is through the strength of the Black Sea Fleet and its ability to project power in the Black Sea region that Russia will be able to successfully contain Ukraine. More than 1,200 cargo vessels have passed through the maritime corridor Ukraine established in the Black Sea. Hundreds of thousands of tons of Ukrainian products pass through this vital sea corridor.

If the Black Sea Fleet regains its strength, it will block the Ukrainian maritime corridor. They will suffocate Ukraine by refusing to allow their grains to reach the world. Ukraine will suffer. Ukrainians will suffer. If they don’t make their own money, they will keep pleading on bended knee to their Western supporters.

So, if someone ever asks me what is the one Russian component I want to remove for Ukraine to rise, the answer will be the Black Sea Fleet. After a brief lull, in back-to-back attacks, Ukraine has destroyed the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s Kovrovets Natya-class minesweeper and the missile carrier Tsiklon.

As reported by Ukrainian General Staff

Both are highly painful losses for the Black Sea Fleet. However, losing both ships is only a small part of the problem, which we will address later in the story. But before we get there, we need to take a look at something that is going to become a huge problem for the Black Sea Fleet. If these reports are true, Russia cannot keep any of its ships in Crimea anymore.

According to data reviewed by the ISW and released by a prominent Russian military blogger, an unknown vessel was struck at the Sevastopol naval base by three ATACMS missiles on 19th May. Ukrainian military bloggers claim that the ATACMS sunk the Tsiklon missile carrier. Some say it was the other ship. It does not matter whether it was the minesweeper that was sunk by the ATACMS or if it was the missile carrier.

I didn’t spend a lot of time reviewing the value of the Russian ships, but ended up dedicating a significant amount of time trying to figure out the weapon Ukraine used to destroy them.

It looks like it was the ATACMS missiles.

There are several types of ATACMS that the United States possesses. On multiple occasions in April, Ukraine utilized the ATACMS (M39), capable of dispersing hundreds of bomblets (cluster) over a small area, to target and destroy Russia’s air defense systems and aircraft parked on airfields.

A cluster bomb dropped in South Korea. Credit: South Korean Army

However, the M39 ATACMS is not suitable for destroying ships. Dropping bomblets over a ship may cause damage to the upper deck, but it is unlikely to be sufficient to sink the vessel. Unless you can deliver a substantial payload in a confined area, sinking a ship is unlikely. The M48 and M57 ATACMS missiles are the only ones capable of delivering such significant damage to a ship.

M48 (MGM-168A ATACMS Block 1A): Carries a 500-pound (230 kg) WDU-18/B penetrating high-explosive blast fragmentation warhead, adapted from the US Navy’s Harpoon anti-ship missile.

M57 (MGM-164A ATACMS Block 2): The M57 carries a similar warhead but offers improved accuracy compared to the M48.

If Ukraine possesses either of these two missiles, and it appears they do, the success of the weekend attack renders Crimea an absolute no-go area for the Russian navy. This effectively means that Russia can forget about the Sevastopol naval base in Crimea and its only dry dock in the region.

A dry dock (sometimes drydock or dry-dock) is a narrow basin or vessel that can be flooded to allow a load to be floated in, then drained to allow that load to come to rest on a dry platform. Dry docks are used for the construction, maintenance, and repair of ships, boats, and other watercraft.

U.S. Navy submarine USS Greeneville. The Los Angeles class attack submarine is dry-docked to assess the damage and perform necessary repairs following a Feb. 9 collision at sea with the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru off the coast of Honolulu, Hawaii. Image in public domain

Without the Sevastapol naval base in Crimea, the Russian Black Sea Fleet cannot perform repairs.

The only way Russia can respond to this ATACMS threat to its Black Sea Fleet is by enhancing its air-defense coverage in Crimea. However, Ukraine has been extremely active in the past four weeks, systematically destroying one air-defense system after another in Crimea.

If the Russians deploy another set of air-defense systems to Crimea, which is precisely what Ukraine desires, then Ukraine will likely retaliate by firing the M39 ATACMS missiles to destroy them. Alternatively, they may use their Storm Shadow missiles or even modified homemade Neptune missiles for the same purpose.

After that, they would likely launch the M48 or M57 ATACMS missiles at any naval targets present in Crimea. The Novorossiysk port stands as the sole location where the Black Sea Fleet can harbor its ships, as it lies beyond the range of ATACMS missiles.

Screenshot from DeepstateMAP. I added the sketch to show the naval bases in Sevastapol and Novorossiyk.

Ukraine will be more than happy to see the Russians stick to the Novorossiyk port and stay away from Crimea, as it adds another layer of protection to their maritime corridor. For Russia to gain access to Ukraine’s shipping corridor, they must first regain control over Crimea.

Then another issue arises. If it was indeed the M48/M57 ATACMS missiles that sunk the Russian ship, it indicates that their accuracy is sufficient to target the Kerch bridge.

The width of the Natya-class (Project 266M) minesweeper is 10.2 meters (33.8 feet). A 4-lane highway bridge will probably have a width of 20 meters.

Ukraine has the weapon to bring down the Kerch bridge.

If confirmed and if M48/M57 ATACMS have been used, it would indicate a substantially lower CEP than the unclassified data implies. Such precision would also render the Kerch bridge a viable target for M48/M57 ATACMS strikes. — Fabian Hoffmann, Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oslo

The United States has already given the green light to Ukraine’s decision to use the ATACMS missiles on Russian assets located in Crimea.

Given the significant pressure they’re already facing due to their decision not to permit Ukraine to target Russian troops stationed in Northeast Ukraine within their borders, I believe the American administration, which aims to avoid Ukraine losing but also doesn’t want them to win outright, will likely turn a blind eye if Ukraine decides to take down the Crimea bridge.

However, I still believe that using the valuable ATACMS missiles on the bridge right now would not be a wise decision. Despite its shrinking military significance, the bridge holds considerable informational value. While it may become strategically valuable again in the future, I believe there are currently better targets for Ukraine than the bridge in the current stage of the war.

Ukraine must escalate its deep strikes further to divert Russian resources away from the frontline. The last four weeks have been a significant headache for the Kremlin.

As Ukraine launched its largest salvo of drones on Krasnodar Krai, attacking a refinery and several Russian assets near the Novorossiysk port, they also conducted a special operation in which they destroyed an “unspecified number of vertical fuel tanks at the Vyborg oil depot in Leningrad Oblast using three explosive devices”.

Ukraine is not only targeting refineries to reduce production capacity but also facilities that store oil. On April 24th, they destroyed two Rosneft-owned oil depots in Russia’s Smolensk region. On May 19th, they destroyed an unknown number of vertical storage tanks at the Vyborg oil depot.

These attacks are costing the Russian army in a big way:

As a result of systematic and successful Ukrainian drone attacks on Russian oil refineries, Moscow faces a fuel shortage and has turned to Belarus for help. According to Ukraine’s National Resistance Center (CNR), Minsk is now actively increasing fuel supplies to Russia.

This assertion is supported by local reports, that Belarusian oil refineries have seen a surge in the production of aviation jet fuel which is being supplied to Russia on rail shipments.

According to the CNR, fighters from the Wagner private military company along with a Russian Interior Ministry security battalion have been engaged to provide security for the consignments.

From a purely war perspective, without these attacks, Russia would be able to concentrate all of its efforts on the frontline. However, due to these attacks, they are now forced to import oil from Belarus, incurring additional costs. To top this off, they have deployed Wagner mercenaries to protect the shipments. As a result, their resources are being diverted away from the frontline.

The impact of these deep attacks launched by Ukraine will continue to accumulate over time. Although the effects may not be immediately apparent, they will eventually manifest themselves on the frontline. This may not occur tomorrow or even in the next few weeks, but it will inevitably affect Russian performance on the frontline.

When provided with the appropriate weaponry, Ukraine has consistently demonstrated its ability to deliver significant blows to the Russian war machine. While the exact number of ATACMS missiles provided by the United States remains unknown, it is clear that they did not limit the spread of this highly valuable asset on the battlefield.

Ukraine possesses two types of ATACMS:

  1. Unitary warhead (M39): This variant is capable of targeting high-value, heavily fortified enemy targets, including enemy command and control centers, bunkers, bridges, and infrastructure.
  2. Cluster variant (M48, M57): This type of ATACMS is utilized against dispersed enemy forces or equipment, such as enemy troop concentrations in open terrain, vehicle convoys, logistics hubs, airfields, staging areas, and ammunition depots.

The Biden administration has stated that ATACMS missile production is back on track. They have repeatedly cited the lack of sufficient quantities of ATACMS as the reason for not providing this weapon to Ukraine. However, I am skeptical of this explanation. They have claimed that the production line is now operational and they have an adequate supply to continue sending missiles to Ukraine.

Over the past four weeks, Ukraine has fired fewer than 50 ATACMS missiles. However, considering the significant reduction in combat effectiveness experienced by the Russian army at a cost of just $30 million to $65 million, the impact of ATACMS is substantial. It would be prudent to continue supplying Ukraine with 50 or even 100 ATACMS missiles per month.

That ought to do for Ukraine to drive the invaders back to their home.

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Shankar Narayan

He didn't care what he had or what he had left, he cared only about what he must do.