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Devastating Ukrainian Attack Hits Airbase in Russian-Occupied Crimea

On Tuesday, a Russian airbase located in the occupied territory of Crimea was torn apart by massive explosions. The base was located 165 miles away from Odesa which is the closest Ukrainian-controlled territory. The Russians claim that there is nothing to be seen but a normal explosion of ammunition. The Ukrainian claim is more obscure, “a device exclusively of Ukrainian manufacture was used.”

It is also the biggest Airbase in Crimea and is the location of numerous missions launched to fight Ukrainian forces. Satellite images from prior to the attack revealed more than 20 aircraft based there.

A new video shows two or perhaps three wrecked Su-24 Fencer all-weather attack aircraft, however it does not give any assessment of the damage caused by the explosions.

The blast damaged several buildings that were a mile from the site of the blast.

There is a report of a huge traffic jam that is forming on the Kerch Bridge that spans the Kerch Strait separating Russian territory from the occupied Crimea. 

What caused the explosions?

I believe it's safe to exclude any “industrial accident” scenario such as the ones the Russians are attempting to make up. There have been incidents similar to these (see Texas City and Port Chicago) in the past, however the nature of the explosions suggest that they were intentionally caused.

It is possible that the simultaneous explosions and the place and type of target bring about the possibility of being able to be able to enter and exit numerous ammunition storage facilities without fear of a “close encounter of the worst kind.”

A strike by air using precision-guided munitions is a possibility, however highly unlikely. The air defense area in the region around this air base and the other military installations in the Crimea's occupied Crimea is tense. There were no missiles fired in defense and there was no jet aircraft noise. The likelihood of non-stealth planes being close enough to be able to carry out this attack and not being detected or engaged seems to me to be extremely remote.

If we're talking about a precise attack by missiles, the area is limited to available systems that have the distance to execute this attack. Two missile systems that are capable of carrying out this type of attack, the Hrim 2 short-range ballistic missile and the Korshun cruise missile, are still not in service.

Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS)

We know that as of now, ATACMS is not in theater, but it's launched by the M-270 M-270 MLRS and M-142 HIMARS, which has led to speculation that it was fired. Ukraine requested the missile, but it was not granted. There have been a lot of reports that claim it was an ATACMS strike. An ATACMS strike could look much like this. The only thing that can be argued against ATACMS is the fact that it was not activated by air defence systems. 

An alternative could be one of the OTR-21 Tochka, which is known to NATO as the SS-21 Scarab. It's a ballistic missile, however the strike was within its operational range. The simultaneous strikes are feasible with the Tochka. What's missing is sound. An incoming Tochka has a substantial sound signature. Similar to the ATACMS, the arrival of this system should have caused air raid alerts and was a target for surface-to-air missiles. The S-400 technology, which functions similar to the Patriot, is theoretically capable of engaging the missiles.

The Neptune cruise missile took off on the global scene in April when it was blamed for sinking the Russian flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva.

 The original design was for it to be an anti-ship missile, however the missile has been improved to extend its range and has an inertial guidance program has been added which allows it to be used in a land-based attack mode. Its range is about 180 miles.

Three elements suggest that Neptune was employed. The simultaneous impact is an indication of cruise missiles being used. Neptune's flight trajectory is approximately 15 feet above the ground and is unlikely to have activated air defense systems. In addition, there is the assertion of the unidentified Ukrainian source that the missile was developed in Ukraine.

We'll have to wait for a couple of days before we know how the situation plays out. We'll be able to learn more about the harm that was done when the commercial satellites pass by again. This could be the largest single-day loss of aircraft in the years since World War II. The Russian response so far has been mixed. The official response from Moscow declares that it happened by accident. Russian social media and entertainment figures disagree.

The political implications of what follows are important. If Russia does not acknowledge the attack even when its propagandists do, it will have weakened its credibility. If it accepts the attack but doesn't take action in response, the country has essentially endorsed expanding the war theater to include Ukraine and has acknowledged that Crimea isn't actually a part of Russia.

It's going be an exciting couple of weeks.

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