To knock out Russian vehicles, Ukrainian teams lie in wait along roads — sometimes for days — before firing their missiles and sprinting away to their own vehicles for a quick escape.
That’s the basic tactic the Ukrainians have worked out as Russia’s wider war in Ukraine enters its sixth week. Ukrainian missileers packing foreign-supplied anti-tank guided missiles, such as the American Javelin, as well as locally made ATGMs such as the Stugna-P and Corsar, have plunked at the Russian invasion force, knocking out a vehicle here and a vehicle there until the losses have become unsustainable for the Kremlin.
The exact numbers are impossible to pin down, but Ukraine’s fast-moving ATGM teams undoubtedly have taken out hundreds of tanks and other vehicles. Missile ambushes probably account for a significant proportion of the roughly 2,200 major pieces of hardware that outside analysts can confirm Russia has lost since widening its war in Ukraine starting on the night of Feb. 23.
The laser-guided Stugna-P has proved particularly effective—a development that should surprise no one. At just $20,000 per set, the 71-pound, three-person weapon is cheaper than the $178,000-per-system Javelin. It’s made in Ukraine and paid for in local currency, so the Ukrainian army has been able to acquire thousands of them — reportedly 2,500 in 2018 alone.
As the Russia-Ukraine crisis escalated, Kyiv diverted to its own forces Stugna-Ps that originally were bound for export customers, potentially including Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. That’s evident in videos of Stugna-P ops in Ukraine. Many of the consoles in the videos still display Arabic script.
The Stugna-P boasts an important feature. The operators can fire the tripod-mounted missile remotely via a rugged television control unit. Remote launch protects the crew, which must keep a laser beam pointed at the target until the missile hits … or misses. The pricier Javelin is a “fire and forget” weapon with its own, internal guidance.
Stugna-P operators can set up the 130-millimeter-diameter missile along a likely avenue of travel for Russian units—and launch and monitor any attack from a separate location. If the Russians return fire, they’re likely to target the puff of dust marking the launch site. The crew, however, could be 50 yards away.
That’s not to say Stugna-P ambushes aren’t extremely dangerous for the attackers. Yes, the missile can range up to three miles out. But closer is better for accuracy. It’s not for no reason that the missileers have learned to get close, wait patiently — then run.
A Ukrainian army lieutenant, who gave only her last name Chornovol, in mid-March told The New York Times that she and her Stugna-P team, traveling in her Chevy Aveo hatchback, have waited three days for a single shot at a Russian convoy. “We look for firing positions where we can see a stretch of road,” she said. “We know a column will drive on the road.”
A Ukrainian ATGM team armed with smaller Corsar missiles—which also are laser-guided—revealed its own, similar tactics in a video that appeared online around March 30.
With a commercial-style drone apparently flying overwatch, the four-person team fired its Corsar from a treeline, waited for the impact then, without hesitating, grabbed firearms, launcher and spare missiles and sprinted across a field to a civilian pickup truck parked in a nearby hamlet.
It’s important to view the ATGM raids in context. Hit-and-run attacks by Ukrainian missileers can sap the strength of a Russian battalion tactical group, but the small, lightly armed missile teams can’t hold ground—and generally don’t try to do so.
ATGM teams are vulnerable to sweeps by enemy squads. One big reason the Ukrainians have been so successful with their missiles is that the Russians went to war with far too few infantry.
Defending or retaking a town from the Russians still requires infantry with tank and artillery support. Forces that don’t have to retreat after they’ve fired once.