Hudson Institute

Ukraine Military Situation Report | September 27

Senior Fellow (Non-Resident)
A serviceman launches a drone during a press tour to demonstrate the integration of AI into the process of humanitarian demining in the Zhytomyr Region, northern Ukraine, on September 20, 2023. (Kirill Chubotin/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
A serviceman launches a drone during a press tour to demonstrate the integration of AI into the process of humanitarian demining in the Zhytomyr Region, northern Ukraine, on September 20, 2023. (Kirill Chubotin/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

This report first appeared as a part of Hudson's Re: Ukraine newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.

Below Hudson Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers a military situational report about the war in Ukraine.

Executive Summary

  • Ukrainian mechanized units in the south have been spotted beyond the first layer of the Surovikin Defensive Line, where Russia’s elite airborne troops are fighting to prevent an unexpected setback.
  • Since the Kremlin’s withdrawal from the grain deal, the Russian military continues to target port infrastructure in Odesa.
  • Washington may soon provide Kyiv with ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles, a potentially game-changing long-range strike deterrent.
  • Meticulous planning has paid off for the Ukrainian Air Force’s recent Storm Shadow strikes against the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

1. Promising Developments in the Ukrainian Counteroffensive

This week has seen important tactical developments in Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive. Previous editions of this report have described Ukrainian units pressing toward Russian forward lines in the Robotyne bulge. Imagery intelligence and geolocation data suggest that for the first time Ukrainian mechanized combat formations have pushed beyond Russian anti-tank obstacles and dragon’s teeth located near Verbove. 

Weapons systems identification efforts spotted Ukrainian servicemen rolling into Russian-occupied territory with American Stryker and German-transferred Marder infantry fighting vehicles, hinting at the presence of the newly deployed, Western-trained 82nd Air Assault Brigade. This brigade also operates the British-transferred Challenger-2 main battle tanks within the Ukrainian Armed Forces, which suggests that the Challenger-2 could soon be spotted beyond the first layer of the Surovikin Defensive Line. Open-source intelligence indicates that the 82nd Air Assault Brigade has already lost one Challenger-2 from its stockpile of 14, so the unit might be cautious before sending the rest of its tanks into the breaching operation. 

The Ukrainian counteroffensive has also intensified around Novopokrovka, a town of particular importance, as it sits on the highway leading to the city of Tokmak, where Russian forces have a command-and-control node. For Russian commanders, it is important to impede the thrust of Ukrainian combat formations before Ukraine translates tactical achievements into strategic gains. Russia has fielded elite airborne troops from the 7th Air Assault Division and the 76th Air Assault Division to hold the line against the Ukrainian push in the southern sector. British military intelligence has also reported that the Russian General Staff has dispatched the 25th Combined Arms Army, three months before its expected deployment, to rapidly augment defensive combat operations in the south. These moves suggest that while Ukrainian advances at present remain tactical, the Russian General Staff is worrying about a quick collapse of the front—a potential echo of Ukraine’s Kharkiv victory in the fall of 2022.

Despite these positive developments for Ukraine, the recent Ukrainian assault is tactical in scale, and does not currently suggest drastic changes in battlefield geometry. As Ukraine’s defense intelligence chief General Kyrylo Budanov recently emphasized, the lethal combination of anti-tank mines, heavily concentrated artillery systems on the frontline, and supplies of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) possessed by both sides makes large-scale armored breakthroughs difficult to achieve.

At the time of writing, the Russian military has continued to pound critical port infrastructure in the Ukrainian Black Sea city of Odesa, as it has since Moscow’s withdrawal from the grain deal. Russia frequently uses Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 and Shahed-131 drones in these salvos. 

2. The United States to Send ATACMS Tactical Ballistic Missiles to Ukraine

The Biden administration is moving closer to transferring ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) missiles to Ukraine. This critical move marks a milestone in the ongoing war.

ATACMS derives its tactical potency from its ability to strike targets well beyond the range of conventional artillery and rocket systems. The weapon possesses pinpoint accuracy, an operational range of 300 kilometers, and a state-of-the-art guidance kit, and it can be used in burst mode to boost combat efficiency against targets spread over a wide area. ATACMS pursues a quasi-ballistic trajectory that stresses enemy air defenses.

While the exact number of ATACMS Washington provides will likely be classified, Kyiv will not receive unlimited quantities—at most, it can expect to receive slightly over one hundred. This makes the Ukrainian concepts of operations (CONOPS) even more important. With a limited arsenal, Ukraine’s military leadership should refrain from using its ATACMS merely to make headlines against newsworthy targets. The most efficient and effective way to use the missiles is to unleash them in salvos, ideally at the outset of a large-scale counteroffensive, to decisively strike Russia’s command and control architecture. Another concept of employment could involve hitting Russia’s reserve formations and core logistics bottlenecks in the divisional and army rear areas, while mechanized units simultaneously run breach operations ramming the front lines. ATACMS will also offer Kyiv attractive tactical options for striking occupied Crimea.

Once in Ukraine, ATACMS will provide a high-value target for the Russian military—not just on the battlefield, but also in Russia’s efforts to wage political warfare against Kyiv’s Western backers. Russia has several options in its arsenal to deploy against Ukrainian ATACMS, the most notable of which is the Lancet loitering munition. For some time, Russian forces have used the Lancet against high-value targets. Recently, a Lancet hit a Ukrainian MiG-29 fighter aircraft at Kryvyi Rih airport, some 65 kilometers away from the closest Russian combat formations

Therefore, protecting its soon-to-be combat deployed ATACMS launchers should be a priority for the Ukrainian General Staff. Implementing this priority will likely require using organic, mobile air defenses, such as the Avenger and Flakpanzer Gepard, to accompany Ukraine’s ATACMS crews.

3. Ukraine Bombards the Russian Black Sea Fleet

On September 22, the Ukrainian Air Force dispatched Sukhoi Su-24M frontline bombers to fire British-transferred Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles into the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in occupied Crimea. Ukrainian Defense Intelligence (GUR) claims that the commander of the fleet was killed in the attack.

The incident marked the second sensational achievement for the Storm Shadow in Ukraine. Previously, the Ukrainian Air Force also used Storm Shadow to target the Black Sea Fleet’s dry docks, eliminating Russia’s Improved Kilo-class submarine Rostov-on-Don, which had been equipped with Kalibr naval-launched cruise missiles.

A retrospective military assessment reveals the skillful strategic planning behind Ukraine’s Storm Shadow operations. By the summer of 2023, the Ukrainian military began to attack Russia’s S-300 and S-400 strategic surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems in the south, including in Crimea. At the same time, Ukraine also targeted—and destroyed—many of Russia’s critical radar systems, such as the Podlet. This was of particular significance, as the Podlet is critical to Russia’s air-defense edge against the overmatched Ukrainian Air Force, with field reports suggesting that Russia has used it in tandem with the S-400 to score multiple long-range kills against Ukrainian combat aircraft flying at low altitudes. After destroying many of Russia’s Podlet systems, special forces from GUR then recaptured the Boyko Towers oil platforms in the Black Sea, where Russia had deployed critical sensors to conduct wide-area surveillance. These efforts demonstrate how Ukraine has meticulously laid the groundwork for this week’s successful Storm Shadow strikes.

Germany could play a critical role in helping Kyiv sustain its current frequency of advanced air-launched cruise missile attacks. Due to production limitations, the United Kingdom and France cannot maintain their delivery levels of Storm Shadow and SCALP-EG missiles, respectively. Ukraine’s arsenal of French SCALP-EGs, roughly half the size of its British Storm Shadow stockpile, is at risk of dwindling. Germany, on the other hand, operates a large number of Swedish-German joint-manufactured Taurus KEPD-350 air-launched cruise missiles that possess similar capabilities. Unfortunately, the German defense ministry recently signaled that it may be some time before it makes a decision on whether to provide Ukraine with these missiles.

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