Ukraine hits Belbek Airbase with a longest range ATACMS

The air base is located 230 kms from the frontline in Southern Ukraine

Shankar Narayan
7 min readMay 15, 2024
Belbek Airbase

From the time the Biden administration announced that it has given ATACMS to Ukraine, two questions kept lingering in the background:

  1. How many missiles did the United States give Ukraine? If the count is in the double digits, it won’t make a huge difference. However, if it reaches even the lower end of the triple digits, it will significantly alter the course of the war.
  2. What is the range? The range of ATACMS starts from 145kms and goes all the way to 300kms. If Ukraine was given the ATACMS in the 165kms range, then it will allow the Russian armed forces the space to hide their military assets within Ukrainian territory they occupied. They will move their depots further behind and continue their destruction business as usual.

The answer to the first question is something we should never get immediately. We should arrive at that number after many months and after observing the results from the battlefield.

However, the second question should not require that much wait time. We have confirmation now that the Biden administration did not withhold its ATACMs with maximum range.

A few hours ago, Ukraine launched a flurry of ATACMS missiles into the Belbek Airbase in Crimea. This airfield is located more than 225 km from the frontline. Reports from Russian military bloggers, most of them are ultranationlists, indicate the damage was a little heavy.

According to them,

  • 1 MiG-31 (a supersonic interceptor aircraft) was destroyed
  • 3 Sukhoi-27s were damaged
  • Two S-300/S-400 air defense systems were destroyed

I find these early reports hard to dismiss because one of the spots where the ATACMS landed was where the fighter jets were parked. You can observe this in the third image with the red circle and compare it with the NASA fire map.

Belbek Airbase: Image on the left is from Deepstate, Image on the right is NASA Fire Maps

There are two reasons why I started attaching the NASA fire maps along with the reports on ATACMS attacks. First, the Russian defense ministry regularly claims that they repelled the attacks and that the fires were caused by falling debris. The fire map will tell us the truth. Second, we will be able to clearly see the spot where the ATACMS landed.

The Belbek airbase hosts the Russian Aerospace Forces’ 38th Fighter Aviation Regiment, which operates advanced fighter jets like the Su-27 and Su-30SM. This airbase was previously out of range for the Ukrainian armed forces. The only way to reach it was either by using Storm Shadow missiles fired from their old Soviet-era jets or through Ukraine’s home made Neptune anti-ship missiles.

In March this year, as part of a large attack on Sevastopol, Ukraine targeted multiple sites near Sevastopol area, inlcuding the Belbek airbase. Four ships of the Black Sea fleet along with two figther jets were hit. That was the first time Ukraine attacked this airbase. But Ukraine used its Neptune missiles to attack.

Today marks the first time they have used the highly accurate and much heavier ATACMS missiles to mount an attack. They most probably used the ATACMS missiles with cluster munitions that drops hundred of bomblets over a small area. Neptune missiles are a great weapon to target ships.

If you want to destroy a large number of assets in a confined space, ATACAMS are the best option. Compared to the Neptune missile attacks, the ATACAMS attack will deliver better yield.

Ukraine’s strategy of corrosion

There are five airbases the Russian military uses in Crimea:

  1. Saky Air Base
  2. Kacha Air Base
  3. Gvardeyskoye Air Base
  4. Dzhankoi Air Base
  5. Belbek Airbase

These airbases in Crimea are vital to Russian operations in Southern Crimea and also for protecting vital military assets dispersed all over Crimea. The fighter jets must share some responsibility with the air defense systems to stop Ukrainian missile and drone raids. At the very least, they should protect their own command posts.

Thanks to the supply of ATACMS, Ukraine is now launching direct attacks on these airbases. However, these attacks by Ukraine have not escalated to their full potential. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated in one of the press conferences earlier this month that the United States delivered a significant number of ATACMS missiles to Ukraine. I believe it is either 100 or above hundred units.

I haven’t seen half of those missiles dropped onto Russian positions. So there is plenty in stock. Ukraine recieved 39 HIMARS launchers that can fire the ATACMS missiles. Of this, Russia had destroyed 1 unit early in the war and two more were destroyed this year.

For a long time, Russia faced challenges in identifying and eliminating the HIMARS units. However, they have notably improved their detection and response capabilities. The two HIMARS units that were destroyed were positioned near the frontline. They were spotted by a drone, their coordinates swiftly relayed, and an Iskander missile promptly deployed. Ukraine must undertake measures to mitigate the escalating attacks. It is highly likely that they will withdraw further from the frontline.

The German administration quickly moved in to fill up the HIMARS stock. They placed a direct order for three units with the Biden administration. It is highly likely that they were already delivered to Ukraine.

Screenshot from Kyiv Independent

So Ukraine has the ATACMS launchers, they have the ATACMS missiles, and they have the longest-range ATACMS. However, these attacks are still spread out, and the intensity has not reached its full potential. Therefore, Ukraine is spacing out these attacks and keeping the Russians in a considerable state of anticipatory pain.

The targeted hits on Air-defense:

The weakening air defense is starting to hurt Russian operations in Crimea. In the second half of last year, Ukraine mounted daring commando raids on Crimea to target and destroy surveillance systems and S-400 air defense units located in Southern Crimea. This occurred in September last year. Then came the Storm Shadow attacks on the naval bases and warships. Following that, there was another strike on the S-400 systems.

In the last four weeks, Ukraine has stepped up its targeting efforts. As you can see from the list below, they are very clearly going after Russia’s long range air-defense systems and missile launchers.

Each hit on the air defense system or its associated surveillance units renders the network weaker than before. The sporadic hits that Ukraine delivered in 2023 were more than enough to instill fear in the Black Sea fleet and drive them out of Crimea. Russians were half blind and they had to relocate their black sea fleet. This year, the Russians are gravitating closer and closer to full blindliness.

When Ukraine intensified its pursuit of fighter jets and escalated attacks on airbases in Crimea earlier this year, Russia responded by extending the coverage area of their A50 surveillance aircraft. In retaliation, Ukraine successfully brought down two of these crucial aircraft. The Ukrainian intelligence chief emphasized that Russia is perilously close to losing the capability for round-the-clock patrols with just one more hit on an A50.

The Russian military life is under pressure from all directions.

But why so much focus on Crimea?

Ben Hodges the former commanding general of United States Army Europe, says it is extremely important to keep Crimea under pressure:

“Crimea is what we would call the decisive terrain of this board. Whoever controls Crimea is going to be the winner here.

In the meantime, just isolating Crimea by destroying supply lines would reduce pressure on Ukrainian forces, he added. Russian missile and drone attacks emanating from the peninsula would ease, and Russian troops in the occupied south would face logistics issues.

It will clearly have a broader effect other than just getting the Russians out of there. It’ll have an effect across the theater, psychologically as well as logistically and physically.”

Ukraine will not be operating the F16s all over its territory initially. They will have to start with a small cross-section and then expand. By seriously weakening the air defense in Crimea, they will have the space and the little bit of freedom that they badly need to begin operating their prized jets.

So, taking out the surveillance and air defense assets not only leaves Crimea exposed, impedes their operations in Southern Ukraine, slows down their missile attacks, it will also allow the F16s to operate with a bit more freedom.

Crimea used to be the backbone of Russian operations in Southern Ukraine. Little by little, Ukraine is chipping away at that status in Crimea.

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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.