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A Strategic Strike Campaign
Ukraine Strikes Back - Farther and More Often
In the past few hours, reports have emerged of strikes conducted in multiple regions across Russia and occupied Crimea. Today’s attacks are a demonstration of the evolving sophistication and capability of Ukraine’s conduct of strike operations. The Ukrainians are not only conducting strikes on an expanding list of targets but doing it at longer range.
Back in May, I published an article that explored Ukrainian adaptation and how the Ukrainian Armed Forces had continuously learned and evolved their conduct of strike operations throughout this war. Today, I offer an updated version of that earlier piece, taking into account the events of the past 24 hours as well as the array of other Ukrainian strike activities that have occurred since the middle of 2023.
As I noted in May, throughout the war the Ukrainian Armed Forces have undertaken a range of adaptations to their force posture, structure and processes to enhance their operational effectiveness. Their development of more complex, long-range strike capabilities stands out.
Ukraine Strikes Back - Farther
Long range strike has been a key evolution for the Ukrainians since the beginning of the Russian invasion. While this has principally been founded on ground-based rocket launchers, armed drones, cruise missiles from the UK and France (and hopefully soon from Germany), and uncrewed maritime strike vessels have also expanded the reach of the Ukrainian Armed Forces since February 2022. This is a logical next step. These long-range strikes are not just military operations, but a political necessity.
From the middle of 2022, the Ukrainian Armed Force have demonstrated the ability to absorb and use very precise, long range rocket systems against the Russians. The High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), an American truck mounted rocket launch platform, began to be deployed to Ukraine in June 2022. It is a lighter, more deployable version of the tracked M270 Mobile Rocket Launch System (MLRS) that was used during the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars. However, after the arrival of the HIMARS, several nations such as the United Kingdom and Germany also provided MLRS platforms to Ukraine.
The HIMARS and MLRS, because of their long range and precision, are weapons for attacking targets deep behind the front line of fighting. This makes them more of an operational level tool than a tactical one, where artillery is still the predominant form of fire support. These rockets fired by the HIMARS and MLRS, almost exclusively the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS), have been used to destroy critical Russian communications nodes, Russian Army headquarters and command posts, locations where reserve Russian troops are housed, and important logistics facilities.
Perhaps the most important impact of these long-range rocket launchers is that they permitted the Ukrainians – after a bloody campaign in the Donbas in mid 2022 - to return to fighting the Russians at a distance. This was a critical Ukrainian adaptation in the east, because the Russians had changed tactics to concentrate their forces in single large, high-attrition offensive. The Russians used their advantage in firepower in the Donbas and forced the Ukrainians into an attritional battle for the Donbas. The introduction of HIMARS changed the battlefield calculus in the fight for Ukraine.
A key target was command and control nodes, command posts with senior Russian commanders. These were not large targets and were outside the range of Ukraine’s existing 155mm and 152mm artillery systems. The ability to rapidly target these, once detected, and use the accuracy of the HIMARS rockets to inflict maximum destruction was vital. Additionally, many Russian supply depots, located close to railways, were proximate to civilian towns and cities The greater precision of the HIMARS missiles allowed the Ukrainian army to minimise collateral damage in their attacks against high-value Russian targets.
This change in Ukrainian capability also had a psychological effect on the Russians. More of the invading Russian force was at threat of attack from the longer range and more precise GMLRS rockets. Russian soldiers saw its impact firsthand, and on social media. The Russians had to quickly adapt, and disperse their already tenuous logistic system, making them even less efficient.
Beyond Ground Based Systems
But these ground-based systems have not been the only new long range strike weapons deployed by the Ukrainians. In 2023, their ability to strike the Russians was enhanced with long range aerial weapons. Initially, the Ukrainians modified old Soviet-era Tu-141 Strizh surveillance drones to conduct strike operations. The Strizh looks more like a cruise missile than a traditional reconnaissance drone. It is rocket launched from a trailer and flies a predetermined course at transonic speed. After some modification by the Ukrainians, these stop-gap cruise missiles were then used in long range strikes on the Engels and Dyagilevo Air Bases inside Russia in December 2022.
The Ukrainians, as they have done throughout this war, learned, and adapted. It has informed their long-range strike planning and execution. This came in very useful when more sophisticated and modern long-range weapons because available to the Ukrainian armed forces in 2023.
In 2023, a newer aerial long-range strike capability entered the Ukrainian inventories. The provision of the UK-built Storm Shadow missile was announced by the British Prime Minister in May 2023. The Storm Shadow is a stealthy missile launched from fighter aircraft and able to hit targets over 250 kilometres from its launch point. The Storm Shadow is designed to strike high value targets with its 400-kilogram penetrating explosive warhead. The missile extends the ability of the Ukrainian armed forces to strike operational level Russian targets and has forced adaptation from the Russians to disperse and defend their high value headquarters and logistics nodes.
Ukraine has also been developing indigenous solutions to its long-range strike requirements. Ukraine, in attempting to narrow the chasm between its long-range capabilities and those of Russia has expanded its array of indigenous drone programs for reconnaissance and attacking enemy fixed targets, vehicles and other drones. One Ukrainian company, AeroDrone, has stated that one of its models, called Enterprise and based on the frame of a light aircraft, can fly over 3,000 kilometres. Notwithstanding the provision of Western longer-range strike missiles such as Storm Shadow, it is likely that Ukraine will continue to develop its own strike drones as the war continues.
And, in the last week of August, President Zelenskyy announced that Ukraine had developed and deployed an indigenous long range strike weapon. Few details were provided other that it had a range of at least 700 kilometres, and that it had been developed by the Ministry of Strategic Industries. The weapon apparently made it debut during a strike on an airport in western Russia.
Over the past few months, these new systems as well as simpler commercial drones, have been used to attack strategic targets across the breadth of Russia. Multiple attacks have been executed on targets in Moscow, in May, July and August this year. Not only have physical targets been damaged but drones have forced multiple closures at Moscow airports. These attacks have avoided civilian casualties but have generated massive media attention – and probably a massive political headache for Putin and his military staff.
The Kerch Bridge has also suffered multiple attacks, including in July and August this year. This is a target with both political and military utility. It is a legitimate military target because of amount of military traffic that uses it to resupply Russian occupation forces in Crimea. It is also a political target because it was project personally overseen (and opened) by Putin. Attacking the bridge is attacking Putin. You can read more about the Kerch Bridge attacks here.
Finally, airfields have increasingly been targeted by the Ukrainians. While this campaign against Russian airfields began in 2022, it has broadened in the past few months. One of the most spectacular was the attack on 22 August this year which resulted in the destruction of a Tu-22M strategic bomber at Russia’s Soltsy-2 airbase. Most recently, Australian-made cardboard drones were used to attack an airfield in Kursk. And, of course, we have the overnight attacks which appear to have targeted the Pskov military airfield where Russia has its Il-76 equipped 12th Military Transport Aircraft Division based.
These airfield attacks, which target aircraft as well as airfield infrastructure such as fuel installations, have military utility. Not only does it destroy capability, the attacks force a Russian reassessment of their air defence resources. Importantly, it could force redeployment of Russian air force assets further from Ukraine, limiting their utility.
Finally, it appears that a major producer of microelectronics – SILICON EL in Bryansk – was also struck in last night’s attack. This represents a further expansion of Ukraine’s target set for its strategic strike campaign. Given such products are used in an array of military systems, it is a legitimate target. Russia has been striking Ukrainian defence industry since the beginning of the war.
Another development that has allowed the Ukrainians to strike further is their continuous development of semi-submersible attack systems for the maritime domain.
Into the Maritime Domain
Perhaps the most spectacular achievement of the Ukrainians in the maritime domain was the sinking of the Russian Navy cruiser Moskva, flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, in April 2022. In an operation that involved Ukrainian drones as well as Neptune missiles, the ship was struck by two missiles around 8pm on 13 April 2022. It sunk on 14 April 2022.
But although the Russians have evolved their naval activities to make them less vulnerable to such strikes by land-based maritime strike weapons, the Ukrainians have also adapted. They have not given up on their intentions to strike Russian naval vessels, and at the minimum, restrict their freedom of movement in the Black Sea.
In October 2022, the Ukrainians conducted a surprise attack on the Russian Black Sea Fleet with up to seven uncrewed surface vessels, supported by eight uncrewed aerial vehicles. An Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate and a Russian Navy mine countermeasure (MCM) ship were reportedly attacked by the Ukrainian kamikaze boats. In the wake of the attack, the Russian Ministry of Defence acknowledged only that there had been minor damage to the mine countermeasures vessel.
Subsequent attacks were conducted in March, April and May 2023, although there is believed to have been little damage caused by the Ukrainian kamikaze boats in these attacks. Another attack was conducted against a Russian naval ship in August, as well as an attack on a Russian tanker the same month.
The Ukrainians have developed at least three uncrewed surface vessels. The first is a five metre long, surface vessel that looks much like a covered speed boat. With an explosive warhead of up to 200kg, and an operational radius of nearly 400km, these USVs were the ones involved in the October 2022 attack at Sevastopol. A second USV developed by Ukraine is a semi-submersible vessel, which is smaller than the larger surface USV used in the October Sevastopol attacks. A third vessel is the Toloka Armed Uncrewed Underwater Vehicle (UUV). A vessel with a tubular body and a large keel and horizontal stabilizers amidships, it was revealed in April 2023. Designed as a family of one-way kamikaze submersibles for attacking Russian warships, the Toloka’s have a range from 100 to almost 2000 kilometres depending on the variant.
A great resource on this evolving Ukrainian capability is H.I. Sutton, “Ukraine’s Maritime Drones (USV): What You Need to Know”, published at his excellent Covert Shores website. You can read it here. The site also provided a more recent update on this capability, which now includes the Marichka Underwater Drone. This is a large, autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) about 6 metres long. There are few other details yet on its design or employment.
This series of maritime strike vessels is an exemplar of the Ukrainians adapting their strategy to embrace an indirect approach against a conventional navy. With almost no likelihood of developing its own conventional naval fleet to fight the Russians, the Ukrainians have developed uncrewed capabilities. While ostensibly designed to sink or damage Russian surface warships, they are also intended to have the psychological effect of dissuading the Russian ships from putting to sea. Given that many of the missile attacks aimed at Russia originate from warships in the Black Sea, Ukraine is hoping to reduce the effectiveness of the Russia Black Sea Fleet.
A Strategic Strike Campaign
All this points to a growing sophistication in the Ukrainian strike capability. Indeed, we might now observe these operations as a separate strategic strike campaign, which is designed to generate political and strategic military effects for the Ukrainian conduct of the war. It plays an important part in degrading Russian military capability, forcing the redeployment of air defence radars and other systems, while also demonstrating to Ukraine’s supporters that it is serious about winning the war.
This strategic strike campaign is designed to influence public opinion in Russia. As President Zelenskyy has recently noted after a drone attack on Moscow:
Today is the 522nd day of the so-called 'Special Military Operation', which the Russian leadership thought would last a couple of weeks. Gradually, the war is returning to the territory of Russia - to its symbolic centres and military bases, and this is an inevitable, natural and absolutely fair process.
With the winter months approaching (watch for my article on this tomorrow), these strategic strike operations will only grow in importance and visibility. It is a way to keep fighting when ground maneuver becomes difficult in the wet, cold season. And it is a way to project progress in the war to Ukraine’s supporters during a period of low tempo in other operations.
I would offer a note of caution, however. While the long-range strike campaign being conducted by the Ukrainians is vital, it is not a silver bullet and will not in itself win the war. Military forces are complex organisations with many different capabilities in function, range, scale and impact. As such the evolving Ukrainian strategic strike campaign is just one part of a complex and highly networked system of humans, machines and information that Ukraine needs to win this war.
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