While the world focuses on Gaza, and Putin visits his allies in China, we may be missing one of the most significant developments in the nearly two years of war in Ukraine.
Some weeks ago, the US Government confirmed that long-range precision artillery – the “Army Tactical Missile System”, or ATACMS – would be making its way to Ukraine’s armed forces.
Reports are now coming in of what appears to be a significant Ukrainian strike deep into occupied territory. Russian military bloggers are gloomily reporting that “one of the most serious blows of all time” has been dealt to the country’s air-force. If the strike – and the use of ATACMS – is confirmed, it will be a major development.
The airfields that have reportedly been targeted are deep behind the front-line, supposedly safe from attack. But the ATACMS system can strike targets with pinpoint accuracy at a range of up to 300kms. Not so safe after all.
We’ve already seen the havoc wreaked by the British Storm Shadow precision missile. Its range of 180kms has made the Black Sea fleet all but irrelevant, as it has had to scuttle back to ports deep in Russia. ATACMS now means that Russia will have to move its key air assets far back from the front lines. Its attack helicopters, which have done so much damage to the Ukrainian armoured forces, may now be out of range entirely.
Likewise, command posts will have to move so far back from the front-lines that they may become entirely ineffective in controlling the close battle. If the untrained, poorly armed and underfed conscripts in the trenches felt isolated before, their leaders will now be so far away that – to use the British army adage for absent commanders – they will have to send their washing forward.
Soldiers without leaders are rabbles, and these Russian rabbles don’t even want to fight. Without their leaders forcing them at gun point, they may not – particularly if they don’t have air cover and artillery support.
It won’t just be helicopters and jets receiving gifts this Christmas courtesy of ATACMS. Russian artillery and its precision guided missile systems may all now be in range. If the flow of battlefield intelligence from the US, UK and Nato continues, we can expect a long string of successful attacks on high value Russian targets.
This won’t just be a morale boost for the Ukrainian military. It could well take the brakes off the counter-offensive. If the Ukrainian tanks don’t have to worry about attacks from the air, they can push on with greater urgency, break through the remaining Russian lines, and steam into Crimea.
As Putin schmoozes with President Xi, and makes himself out as the “honest” broker in the Middle East, he may find that he needs to focus instead on saving his own skin. There have been many claims of “game-changers” in this most dreadful and unnecessary conflict, and of course no single piece of military hardware ever is. But the sum of the parts can change the game, and ATACMS is a very large and important piece in this nearly finished tactical jigsaw.
Without air superiority, Russian forces will be unable to manoeuvre, and without effective artillery they will be unable to continue to slow the advance of the Ukrainian tank formations. It may well be now that the “silver bullet” – the arrival of F-16 fighter jets – may not be required to defeat the Russian hordes, but instead to keep them on the Russian side of the border where they belong.
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