By now it’s pretty clear that Ukraine has been bombarding Russia as part of the former’s defensive campaign. As Russia’s wider war on Ukraine enters its second month, the Ukrainians at least four times appear to have lobbed Tochka ballistic missiles at military targets on the Russian side of the Russia-Ukraine border.
The latest possible strike took place in the early morning hours Sunday. A pair of oil depots in Bryansk, in western Russia 70 miles from Ukraine, exploded and burned through the following day.
While it’s always possible the blazes were the result of industrial accidents, it’s telling that the two explosions occurred nearly simultaneously, miles apart.
The Tochka attacks are just one of Kyiv’s methods of disrupting Russian operations on the far side of the border. It also seems Ukrainian attack helicopters have slipped across the border to attack Russian oil infrastructure. And there are the unconfirmed reports of saboteurs targeting rail lines leading toward Ukraine.
The Tochka attacks are the safest for Ukrainian forces and potentially the most sustainable. Kyiv began the current war with a sizeable arsenal of around 90 Tochka launchers and as many as 500 missiles with 250-pound warheads. There’s no evidence the Russians have destroyed any of the launchers.
For all its eyebrow-raising effect on the conflict, the Tochka is an old, unsophisticated weapon. The Soviet Union developed the surface-to-surface missile system starting in the late 1960s. Successive generations of the rocket were the Soviet army’s main, long-range battlefield deep-strike weapon.
Soviet army groups deployed their roughly 1,200 Tochka launchers to bombard NATO command posts, railheads, oil depots and troop-staging areas in order to disrupt enemy forces before they reached the front line.
There’s another method of doing so, of course: air power. Bombers and fighter-bombers are more accurate and flexible than a ballistic missile is, but also easier to shoot down—and more expensive, to boot.
“Tactical and theater ballistic missiles are far more important for Russia than for the U.S./NATO,” Lester Grau and Charles Bartles explained in their definitive The Russian Way of War. “In general, Russia believes that the U.S./NATO will maintain air superiority, and so has heavily invested missile technologies to fill a niche that air power fills for the U.S./NATO.”
That of course helps to explain why Ukraine favors the Tochka. While the Russian air force has struggled to maintain air superiority across Ukraine, it still deploys more—and better—fighters than the Ukrainian air force does and can prevent large-scale raids across the border by Kyiv’s struggle air arm.
But the Russians, lacking significant anti-ballistic-missile defenses, can’t count on shooting down a Tochka. Nor can they jam it, as the rocket relies on inertial guidance requiring no external data. The Tochka knows where it launches from and where it needs to go. Internal gyros help it to adjust its course.
Ukraine inherited a significant number of Tockha launchers when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. After Russian forces attacked on Feb. 23, the Ukrainian rocket-launchers quickly went into action. On Feb. 25, a Ukrainian Tochka battery twice struck Russia’s Millerovo air base, around 60 miles east of the line of control between Ukrainian and separatists forces in separatist-controlled Donbas.
That attack destroyed at least one Russian Su-30 fighter on the ground.
The next major apparent Tochka strike occurred on March 24, when an Alligator-class landing ship belonging to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet burst into flames while pier-side in Russian-occupied Berdyansk in southern Ukraine. Saratov quickly sank. A pair of landing ships moored nearby also suffered damage and casualties.
Six days later on March 30, an ammunition depot exploded in Belgorod, just 20 miles from the border with Ukraine near Kharkiv. In the days prior to the blast, videos circulated on-line depicting Russian S-300 air-defense batteries apparently engaging incoming Tochkas.
Despite also possessing more modern surface-to-surface missiles such as the Iskander, Russia still has its own Tochkas and apparently has used them in Ukraine, in particular along the Donbas. Remains of a Russian Tochka were found at the railway station in Kramatorsk after an explosion killed 59 civilians trying to flee the fighting in Donbas.
But the Tochka is more valuable to Ukraine, which aside from saboteurs and daring helicopter raids lacks a reliable means of hitting Russian targets inside Russia. The bad news for Kyiv is that its Tochka batteries can strike targets only around 75 miles away. The good news is that a lot of Russia’s military logistics—air bases, ammo and oil depots and railheads—are within range.