Ukraine’s M39 Missiles: A Potential Game-Changer Against Russian Air Defences
The Ukrainian military has recently acquired its initial batch of M39 missiles from the 1990s era. In a bold move, they launched three of these missiles at a Russian helicopter facility in Berdyansk, located in southern Ukraine. This night raid dispersed numerous grenade-sized submunitions over the airbase, leading to the destruction of an estimated nine helicopters.
Now, envision these steel-and-tungsten submunitions targeting an air-defence unit comprising delicate radars, accompanying vehicles, launch pads, and missiles. As U.S. Army Major Carter Rogers highlighted in his 1991 U.S. Army Command and General Staff College thesis, the ATACMS (of which the M39 is a type) can effectively neutralize or diminish various targets, notably air defence systems and radars.
Weighing two tons and spanning 13 feet, the M39 is a ballistic missile powered by a solid rocket motor. Its warhead houses 950 submunitions. Deployed from either tracked or wheeled launch systems, the missile can reach destinations up to 100 miles away using its inertial guidance.
The M39’s intended purpose for neutralizing enemy air defences is evident in its design. A missile designed for targets like bunkers would usually carry a singular, large warhead instead of numerous submunitions. Notably, during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the U.S. Army’s maiden combat use of an M39 targeted an Iraqi S-75 air-defence unit, posing a threat to coalition aircraft. As Major Rogers observed, the ATACMS strike was effective, demonstrating the system’s precision and lethality, despite its relatively new and unproven doctrine.
Currently, Ukrainian forces deploy a diverse range of weapons for the Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) mission. These include the 40-mile range M30/31 rockets launched by M270 tracked systems and wheeled High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), which also launch the longer-range M39 missiles. In their arsenal are also explosive-laden drones with first-person views and Sukhoi Su-27 and Mikoyan MiG-29 jets that deploy American AGM-88 radar-seeking missiles. For deeper SEAD operations targeting advanced S-400 systems in Crimea, Ukraine has employed modified Neptune anti-ship missiles.
The M39, in a SEAD role, bridges the gap between smaller drones and the potent anti-ship missiles. While a drone attack is considered opportunistic and causes limited damage, a Neptune missile strike is more strategic, planned, and devastating. The M39, when launched from 100 miles away, can target segments of the Russian air defence infrastructure located significantly behind frontline areas without necessitating a large-scale, specialized operation for its suppression.
In many respects, the M39’s capabilities might parallel the air-launched AGM-88. However, one key distinction is the relative safety of deploying an ATACMS missile compared to an aerial SEAD mission. While Russian forces have downed many of Ukraine’s pre-war fleet of Su-27s and MiG-29s, none of Ukraine’s army-operated M270s and HIMARS launchers have been destroyed thus far.