US says Russia’s prized Kerch bridge a fair target for Ukrainian forces

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Days after Russian forces were spotted preparing the Kerch Strait Bridge – which connects mainland Russia to Crimea – for missile attacks, statements by US defense officials reported that the prized piece of Russian infrastructure was a fair target in their minds. The reconnaissance, however, does not change the fact that the Ukrainian army still does not possess a weapon with a long enough range to strike the bridge from unoccupied territory.

During a press briefing held this morning, The war zone asked a senior US official whether or not there were exclusions regarding the use of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, in Ukraine against certain targets. Speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, the official responded by saying that they could not reveal further information on specific targets, but that “the capabilities of Russian forces and logistics nodes in Ukraine are targets absolutely fantastic.” The war zone followed, asking if there were any hesitations in using the HIMARs against the Kerch bridge. The official responded as follows.

“As I said, to my knowledge there is no ban on Ukrainians fighting on their sovereign territory against Russia.”

Marines fire rockets from an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) on Camp Leatherneck. Credit: Sergeant. Anthony L. Ortiz/US Marines

In so many words, the response suggests that carrying out such an attack with American weapons would be at the discretion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces currently defending the country against Russian invaders. As such, if a stand-off missile attack were to be launched from Ukrainian waters or soil and hit the Kerch Bridge, it seems clear that the United States would not oppose it. Remember, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the United States does not recognize it as Russian. However, as strategic and symbolic as the strike on the Kerch Bridge would be, Ukraine simply does not have the right arsenal for it at present. What they have, however, seems to have an effect on the Russian military nonetheless.

Earlier this week, The war zone reported on recent developments at the Kerch Bridge, which cost $3.5 billion to build, noting that Russian forces had been seen both deploying decoy barges with radar reflectors and carrying out screen tests of smoke to envelop the bridge. You can read more about it here, because the article also explains how even the long-range missile systems currently in Ukraine’s possession would not come close to reaching the Kerch Bridge from inside the territory under Ukrainian control.

Kerch Strait Bridge. Credit: Alexxx1979/Wikimedia Commons

For example, the RGM-84 harpoons are not even designed primarily for ground attack operations and do not have the necessary range for such an attack – unless they are fired from inside the territory occupied by Russia or from the Black Sea. HIMARS offers an even more limited range, but is capable of targeting attacks against high-value ground targets. Both systems are not known for their warhead size – the Harpoon carries about a 500 pound warhead while HIMARS’ M31 rocket carries one less than half that size.

In any case, they would have to target the bridge’s weak points with great precision, and probably be used in large numbers, in order to seriously damage the bridge. Yet even a highly symbolic strike would send a message and could temporarily hamper shipments of military and economic supplies crossing the Kerch Bridge to and from Russia and Crimea.

Despite their long-range shortcomings, HIMARS and harpoons still provide Ukrainian forces with much-needed firepower. In fact, a $400 million weapons package signed by President Joe Biden today will see the delivery of four additional HIMARS to Ukraine, bringing the total number of systems supplied by the United States to 12. However, the unnamed US official warned of the potential escalation risks if Ukraine were to use these weapons to strike deep within Russia. That same concern has prevented Biden from transferring longer-range HIMARS ammunition to Ukraine — the US Army’s Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) being the only weapon of that class.

HIMARS is fired from the flight deck of the USS amphibious transport dock Anchoring. Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Matthew Dickinson/US Navy

The short-range ballistic missile can travel 190 miles and strike at high speed with its 500-pound penetrating warhead. ATACMS would be able to reach the bridge and deliver a powerful blow, but bridges are still hard targets to hit and catastrophically damage. Usually these are targets reserved for the more powerful 2000 pound class weapons. In the absence of this, ATACMS could still cause problems for the duration, should the missile be offered to Ukraine. US Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) has expressed interest in supplying Ukrainian forces with longer-range systems like ATACMS, but only on the condition that they are not used to attack Russian territory.

The steady stream of increasingly advanced weapons arriving in Ukraine, and statements by Ukrainian Major General Dmytro Marchenko that the Kerch Bridge is the country’s “number one target,” along with other intelligence (or paranoia ) prompted Russia to start preparing for the worst.

An attack on the Kerch Bridge may not be carried out anytime soon, especially with the limited capabilities Ukrainian forces have, but the US official’s statement certainly confirms that it will not be ruled out.

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