It is now quite clear that Ukraine has been bombing Russia as part of its defensive campaign. As Russia’s wider war against Ukraine enters its second month, Ukrainians have launched at least four Tochka ballistic missiles at military targets on the Russian side of the Russia-Ukraine border.
The most recent action likely occurred in the early hours of Sunday. A pair of oil deposits in Bryansk, in western Russia, 110 kilometers from Ukraine, exploded and burned the next day.
While it is always possible that the flames were the result of industrial accidents, it is telling that the two explosions took place almost simultaneously, miles apart.
The Tochka attacks are just one of Kiev’s methods of disrupting Russian operations across the border. It also appears that Ukrainian attack helicopters have crossed the border to attack Russian oil infrastructure. And then there are the unconfirmed reports of saboteurs targeting railway lines leading to Ukraine.
Tochka’s attacks are the safest for Ukrainian forces and potentially the most sustainable. Kiev started the current war with a sizeable arsenal of around 90 Tochka launchers and up to 500 missiles with 250-pound warheads. There is no evidence that the Russians destroyed any of the launchers.
For all its eyebrow-raising effect in the conflict, the Tochka is an ancient and unsophisticated weapon. The Soviet Union developed the surface-to-surface missile system starting in the late 1960s. Successive generations of the rocket were the main long-range deep attack weapon of the Soviet army.
Soviet army groups deployed their approximately 1,200 Tochka launchers to bomb NATO command posts, railroad terminals, oil depots and troop staging areas in order to stop enemy forces before they reached the front lines.
There is another method of doing this, of course: airpower. Bombers and fighter-bombers are more accurate and flexible than a ballistic missile, but also easier to shoot down – and more expensive, for starters.
“Tactical ballistic missiles are much more important to Russia than they are to the US/NATO,” explained Lester Grau and Charles Bartles in their definitive The Russian Way of War. “In general, Russia believes that the US/NATO will maintain air superiority and has therefore invested heavily in missile technologies to fill a niche that airpower fills for the US/NATO.”
This, of course, helps explain why Ukraine favors Tochka. While the Russian air force has struggled to maintain air superiority across Ukraine, it still employs more – and better – fighter jets than the Ukrainian air force and can prevent large-scale attacks across the border by Kiev’s fighting air arm.
But the Russians, without significant ballistic missile defenses, cannot count on a Tochka to be shot down. Nor can they block it, as the rocket relies on inertial guidance that does not require external data. Tochka knows where it launches from and where it needs to go. Built-in gyroscopes help you adjust your course.
Ukraine inherited a significant number of Tockha launchers when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. After Russian forces attacked on February 23, Ukrainian rocket launchers quickly swung into action. On 25 February, a Ukrainian Tochka battery hit the Russian airbase at Millerovo twice, about 100 kilometers east of the line of control between Ukrainian and separatist forces in separatist-controlled Donbas.
This attack destroyed at least one Russian Su-30 fighter on the ground.
Tochka’s next major apparent attack took place in March 24, when an Alligator-class landing ship belonging to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet burst into flames while on the docks in Russian-occupied Berdyansk in southern Ukraine. Saratov sank quickly. 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 32 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, near Kharkiv. In the days before the explosion, videos circulated online showing Russian S-300 air defense batteries apparently attacking Tochkas.
Despite also having more modern surface-to-ground missiles, such as the Iskander, Russia still has its own Tochkas and apparently used them in Ukraine, in particular along the Donbas. Remains of a Russian Tochka were found at Kramatorsk railway station after an explosion killed 59 civilians trying to flee fighting in Donbass.
But the Tochka is more valuable to Ukraine, which, in addition to saboteurs and daring helicopter attacks, lacks a reliable means of hitting Russian targets inside Russia. The bad news for Kiev is that its Tochka batteries can hit targets just 120 kilometers away. The good news is that much of Russia’s military logistics — air bases, ammunition and oil depots, and rail terminals — are within reach.