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It’s about time: ATACMS and F-16 deliveries shift dynamics on the Ukrainian front

Since Russia launched it’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, two particular weapon systems have arguably dominated the discourse around western military aid more than any other. They are the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and the F-16 fighter jet. Mentions of ATACMS could be found in Tweets posted during the opening days of the invasion, as Russia’s own equivalent 9K720 Iskander-M quasi-ballistic missiles struck Ukrainian targets. The Ukrainian Air Force (PS ZSU) was publicly requesting F-16s as early as May 2022. In August 2023 those requests were finally met, when the Denmark & the Netherlands announced their intention to provide Ukraine with up to 61 jets, with Norway later joining with a commitment of up to 10. In October, the first reports of Ukraine using the ATACMS system emerged. Will this lead to a breakthrough in the balance of power? Independent analyst Colby Badhwar is convinced that the delivery of these armaments will significantly change the rules of the game, and more importantly, such a substantial reinforcement of Ukrainian defense may signal a shift in NATO's strategy from cautious reaction to taking the initiative.  

ATACMS missiles are true gamechanger

On October 17th, Russian Telegram channels lit up with reports that airbases in Berdyansk and Luhansk had been hit with ATACMS. Videos of the missiles being launched were subsequently released by the Ukrainians, and then pictures of missile body debris from the Russians conclusively proved that they had been fired. Open-source analysis of satellite imagery and media recorded from the ground suggests that a total of 21 Russian helicopters may have been damaged or destroyed.

The term “game changer” has been debated extensively prior to this moment, with more skeptical analysts downplaying the potential impact that ATACMS could have. I simply offer Merriam-Webster’s definition: “a newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way”. The loss of 21 helicopters in 1 day, which were previously thought to be safe behind the frontline, certainly fits this criterion. Even if Ukraine received no additional missiles, and the Ukrainian government has stated explicitly that they will in fact have an ongoing supply, the mere threat of future strikes forces Russia to take serious counter measures to mitigate potential loses.

US Army

Helicopters need to be relocated further away, reducing their responsiveness to close air support requests from the battlefield, and limiting their ability to loiter near the front before running out of fuel. Surface to air missile batteries too need to keep their distance, and ammunition depots & logistics nodes once thought safe are now in peril. These are not trivial impacts that can be dismissed.

Moreover, Ukraine conducted this strike with M39 (Block I) missiles, the first and oldest variant, with a range of 165km and only an inertial navigation system to guide it, which lacks precision. One of the missiles fired was 27 years old, twice beyond it’s official shelf life of 13 years, and yet it still successfully evaded Russian S-300V anti-ballistic missile batteries and dispersed 950 M74 Anti-Personnel Anti-Material (APAM) cluster bombs over the targeted airbase. The US Army has in it’s inventory, approximately 1200 missiles of different variants which are technically beyond their official expiry date as well, but likely in operational condition, owing to their younger age than the ones just expended at Berdyansk airbase.

One of the missiles fired was 27 years old, twice beyond it’s official shelf life of 13 years, and yet it still successfully evaded Russian anti-ballistic missile batteries

The question of impact will therefor be determined by how many of those missiles are provided to Ukraine, and how quickly. ATACMS are not a war winning weapon, but this is just a strawman to be held up by the same skeptics who dismissed their ability to change the game. For most of the war, western military aid has been entirely responsive to Russian actions. We sent anti-tank missiles to destroy their initial armored assault, artillery guns to even the disparity in fires, air defense systems to protect Ukrainian cities, and armored vehicles to help protect their infantry as they assault Russian fortified positions.

The provision of long-range precision missiles: Storm Shadow & SCALP-EG from the UK & France and now ATACMS from the United States, has allowed Ukraine to take the fight to previously safe Russian targets and has forced them to adapt. It’s also worth adding that for all the fears about how Russia might respond to this “escalation”, the reaction so far from Putin has been to downplay the significance of what just happened.

F-16: What matters is the ammunition, not the aircraft

Returning to the F-16, assessing what impact the jets will have similarly depends on the extent to which the coalition is willing to push the envelop and provide capabilities that Russia must adapt to. A fighter jet is only as useful as it’s armament, radar and sensors enable it to be. If the small number of aircraft that are expected to become operational in April are only equipped with the munitions already provided to Ukraine, such as the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), then they will have minimal impact on the war. On the other hand, if the US works with the donor nations to ensure the aircraft can have new munitions integrated for them, then Ukraine will gain meaningful capabilities.

The two that they need the most are the AGM-84H/K Standoff Land Attack Missile-Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) and the AGM-88E Advanced Antiradiation Guided Missile (AARGM), an upgraded variant of the HARM. SLAM-ER is necessary as a replacement for Ukraine’s existing supply of Storm Shadow & SCALP-EG air launched cruise missiles, which are finite due to the limited ability to produce new ones. It has the benefit of an active production line in the US, with only one existing customer, Saudi Arabia, and several hundred missiles in the inventory of the US Navy which are available for drawdown to Ukraine. AARGM would enable the Ukrainian Air Force to go beyond their current ability to conduct very limited operations to Supress Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) but to actually Destroy Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD).

AARGM would enable the Ukrainian Air Force to go beyond supressing enemy air defenses by actually destroying them

HARM lacks any sort of active seeker, which means that Russian radar operators can simply turn their units off and relocate the to avoid being hit. AARGM solves this with a new multi-mode active seeker to ensure that it remains on target in the event of enemy radars being shut down. This presents a new problem for Russian air defense and counter battery radar units. Even a small number of missiles could force a change in behavior and reduce the enemy’s combat effectiveness.

The impact of HARM & AARGM, as well as all the other precision guided munitions (PGMs), can also be improved by providing Ukraine with targeting pods (TGPs). As the name suggests, targeting pods help aircraft identify enemy targets and assist in guiding PGMs onto them. There are many different models of TGPs but the most sensible ones that should be provided to Ukraine are the AN/ASQ-213 HARM Targeting System (HTS) and the AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod.

HTS is of course a TGP designed to improve the effectiveness of anti-radiation missiles. Sniper can also improve SEAD/DEAD targeting but also brings a much broader spectrum of capabilities. It is a very ubiquitous system as well, operated by many US allies, so the available supply of pods that could be donated to Ukraine is quite large. Both of these TGPs are compatible with the F-16s Ukraine will receive and although HARM & HTS are not operated by any of the donor countries, some of them do operate Sniper. The US itself can of course provide them too, and their issuance of a re-export permit would be required even if they don’t.

It’s important that the impact of these systems is not overstated though. The F-16s that Ukraine will receive, no matter the munitions and TGPs provided, will not change the overall picture of the air war. The Russian Air Force (VKS) remains much larger and much more technologically advanced. A small number of older model F-16AM/BM Block 20 Mid-Life Upgrades are not adequate for conducting offensive air to air missions. Their AN/APG-66(V2) radars are outmatched by those on Russia’s newer fighter jets. Their inadequate effective detection range would prevent them from taking advantage of the maximum range of the new AMRAAM C8s that Ukraine will receive in the future. In the air-to-air role, F-16s can supplement Ukraine’s existing fleet in conducting defensive counter air (DCA) missions against Russian cruise missiles and one way attack unmanned aerial systems, like the Shahed/Geran.

The F-16s that Ukraine will receive will not change the overall picture of the air war

The US could change this though, by offering some of it’s own F-16s. Ukraine will realistically not receive enough aircraft to match the VKS, but the more they receive, the more aggressive they can be in conducting joint DEAD missions with Ukrainian artillery units.

M39 & M39A1 ATACMS with their APAM payloads are designed to destroy enemy air defenses and other soft, area targets. The combined impact of those ATACMS, the M30A1/A2 Alternative Warhead Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) rockets they have been using for over a year, and new AARGMs will be a potent threat to Russian air defenses. Putting holes in their Integrated Air & Missile Defense (IAMDS) network gives the PS ZSU more flexibility to provide air support to frontline units and loft Joint Direct Attack Munition Extended Range (JDAM-ER) equipped bombs onto targets further behind the front.

American F-16s would also provide Ukraine with much more meaningful air-to-air capabilities. Even the oldest in the US fleet: F-16C/D Block 25s, are much improved over the jets on offer from the European states, thanks to their AN/APG-68 radars. The increased detection range provided by the radars will allow the F-16s to engage Russian aircraft with AMRAAMs at much further distances. This variant is also what Ukrainian pilots being trained in Arizona are likely learning on. Any of the newer F-16 variants would provide even more benefits, but the US Air Force will be least reticent to give up its oldest aircraft.

The US Air Force will be less reticent to supply Ukraine with the oldest F-16 aircarft, but they are still superior to European fighters

The most important thing is a change in the approach to military aid for Ukraine

Neither ATACMS or F-16s are war winning weapons, but they are key, must have capabilities which fit into the broader puzzle that needs to be assembled to enable Ukrainian victory. There remains great asymmetry in Russian & Ukrainian capabilities. Ukraine needs to have parity or even supremacy in as many categories as possible in order to bring the war to a swift and decisive conclusion. Additional artillery & mortar ammunition, more tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, trucks; the list goes on.

Most importantly though, the whole approach to providing aid to Ukraine must change in western capitals. We need to stop responding to Russia’s actions and stop making decisions based on our own perception of what Ukraine’s immediate battlefield needs are. We must be proactive in supplying systems that put Russia on the backfoot. NATO has a much stronger hand of cards than they do, it’s time we played it.

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