ATACMS Missile System: Can It Win the War for Ukraine Against Russia?

ATACMS Missile for Ukraine
April 25, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ATACMSMilitaryDefenseRussia-Ukraine WarMissilesRussiaUkraine

ATACMS Missile System: Can It Win the War for Ukraine Against Russia?

The U.S. has secretly delivered long-range MGM-14 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) to Ukraine, enhancing Kyiv's military capabilities against Russian forces.


Summary: The U.S. has secretly delivered long-range MGM-14 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) to Ukraine, enhancing Kyiv's military capabilities against Russian forces.

-These missiles, which can reach speeds of Mach-3.0 and have a range that includes the southern parts of the Crimean Peninsula and even parts of Russia, were used immediately by Ukraine to strike strategic targets in Crimea and southeastern Ukraine.


-The ATACMS, first used in Operation Desert Storm, come in several variants, including those that deploy cluster munitions or a unitary warhead, allowing for diverse and effective tactical uses. This support reflects a significant policy shift by the Biden administration, indicating a continued escalation of U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

ATACMS To the Rescue in Ukraine? 

The United States secretly delivered long-range ballistic missiles to Ukraine this month. According to a National Security Council spokesperson, MGM-14 Army Tactical Missile Systems were sent to aid Kyiv’s defense efforts undercover for operational security reasons. While the White House has previously offered a different version of ATACMS, the new system provided to Ukraine has a much greater range.

Kyiv deployed its new ballistic missiles as soon as it received them, using them to strike a Russian military airfield in Crimea and another enemy garrison in the country’s southeast last week. These long-range weapons are among the latest major military systems that Kyiv has received—ones the Biden administration was initially reluctant to provide. The White House’s policy reversal indicates that U.S. aid for Ukraine will not slow down anytime soon. 

ATACMS surface-to-surface missiles were originally designed in the late 1980s to give operators the immediate firepower to “win the deep battle,” as manufacturer Lockheed Martin likes to say. The formidable weapon was first deployed in combat during Operation Desert Storm and later during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Several variants of ATACMs have emerged over the years, all retaining distinct capabilities that make the platform versatile.

ATACMS missiles have a flight ceiling of 160,000 feet and a top speed of Mach-3.0 (i.e., three times the speed of sound) and weigh just under 3,700 pounds each. The older Block 1 variant has a range of roughly 103 miles and can carry a single warhead of up to 1,250 pounds.

As the standard service version of the missile system, Block I is designed to strike high-value targets, including airfields, supply areas, and surface-to-air missile sites. The subsequent Block 1A variant can deploy a single 160 kg warhead, which can be equipped with up to 300 M74 submunitions. This variant functions like a cluster bomb, which ejects smaller submunitions over a target area.

ATACMS Block 1A Unitary is a unitary warhead variant of the Block 1A missile, using either a warhead from the AGM/RGM-84 Harpoon or the warhead from the SLAM-ER missile.

This version is designed to minimize collateral damage once launched, as detailed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. A tank variant of ATACMs was also developed but ultimately canceled in the early 2000s.

How can ATACMs be used in Ukraine?

Both cluster munitions and a high explosive unitary warhead can be used effectively by Ukrainian forces to strike entire Russian command and control elements/other targets. The initial rounds of ATACMS delivered to Kyiv were capable of reaching nearly all of Russian-occupied Ukraine.

Equipped with the longer-range variant, Ukraine can now target the southern parts of the Crimean Peninsula, in addition to portions of Russia.

Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, noted in a statement that the long-range ATACMs proved “that Ukraine can notch battlefield victories when given the right tools.”

The senator also added, “Ukraine can put a target on every Russian asset in Crimea, including critical ammunition and fuel depots. Imagine if they had these missiles two years ago.”

About the Author: Maya Carlin 

Maya Carlin, National Security Writer with The National Interest, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.