The Ukrainian army knew exactly where to aim its newly-delivered, American-made M39 missiles on Monday night or early Tuesday morning: the northern apron at the airfield outside Russian-occupied Berdyansk.
That’s where the Russian air force had been parking some of the attack helicopters it had deployed for operations over southern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian rocketeers punched the coordinates into their High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems’ fire-controls. Three M39s lanced into the nighttime sky and, a few minutes later, scattered nearly a thousand submunitions apiece across the apron.
The result was “one of the most serious strikes of all time” in Russia’s 21-month wider war on Ukraine, according to Fighterbomber, a popular Russian Telegram channel. The Ukrainian military claimed it destroyed a combined nine helicopters in the Berdyansk attack and a simultaneous raid on a facility in Luhansk, farther to the east.
Ukrainian analysis team Frontelligence Insight compared high-resolution Planet Labs satellite imagery from September with lower-resolution imagery from Wednesday broadly to confirm the military’s claim.
Frontelligence Insight scrutinized imagery from Sept. 29 and pinpointed four Kamov Ka-52 and one Mil Mi-24 helicopters parked on the northern apron at the Berdyansk base. The group then scrutinized imagery from Oct. 17—and found scorch marks where those five helicopters should have been.
As for the other four ‘copters Kyiv claimed it destroyed: maybe they were in Berdyansk, maybe they were in Luhansk. “Additional signs of destruction exist on the airfield” in Berdyansk, Frontelligence Insight noted. “However, we haven’t included these details in this report due to the challenge of properly identifying objects and assessing the extent of their damage.”
The damage Frontelligence Insight was able to confirm stretches across a roughly 400-yard length of the apron. That the Ukrainians precisely could strike that specific swathe of the airfield underscores the fundamental soundness of the M39 missile.
The M39 Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, is a two-ton, 13-foot ballistic missile with a solid rocket motor and a warhead containing 950 grenade-size submunitions. Fired by a tracked or wheeled launcher, the 1990s-vintage missile ranges as far as 100 miles under inertial guidance.
An M39 usually should strike within 50 yards or so of its aim-point. This isn’t super-accurate by modern standards, but it’s accurate enough considering that the M39 is an area weapon. As the missile plummets toward its target, it spins and pops open, scattering its steel-and-tungsten bomblets across an area of potentially tens of thousands of square feet.
A submunition warhead is perfect for striking large installations crowded with unprotected equipment. An airfield, for example, with its fragile airplanes, helicopters, fuel bowsers and support equipment.
It’s not for no reason that, when it tested the M39, the U.S. Army aimed the missile at a mock airfield where the service parked old helicopters and trucks. Footage of the test depicts submunitions tearing into the vehicles.
Given the size of the Berdyansk airfield, it still was necessary for the Ukrainian rocket battery to aim its ATACMS at specific corners of the target—and count on the rocket’s accuracy and area effects to do the rest.
It worked. And now the Russians must make some difficult choices in order to protect their surviving rotorcraft from follow-on ATACMS raids.
“The impact of this devastating attack is undeniable,” Frontelligence Insight noted. “It will likely disrupt helicopter operations in the south of Ukraine for some time, compelling the Russians to adjust their logistics and the operations of nearby helicopter bases.”