The battle for the airport of Donetsk is a tragedy in which the actors know their parts too well. Perhaps the Ukrainians should adopt a variant of the Polish national anthem, Poland is Not Yet Lost. Belying the title, the purpose is supposed to have been to buck up Polish soldiers, two years before the country was erased from the map.
According to CNN, Russian troops have entered Ukraine. Quoting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk , “Tanks, GRAD multiple rocket systems, BUK and SMERCH systems…”
The BUK is an effective anti-aircraft missile system, which was last present in the Ukraine when Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down. The GRAD and SMERCH are descendants of the Katyusha rocket truck of World War II.
Since the Donetsk airport is important in the establishment of political boundaries, and untenable for the Ukrainians to hold, it is a reasonable calculation by the Russians to seize it by direct action. From their point of view, the sanctions cannot get much worse. The decay of Western cohesion on the isolation of Russia will be “date stamped” by the last significant Russian incursion. So their unspoken mantra is something like, “What more can they do to us? Let’s get it over with.”
Perhaps the Russians would have preferred to use tanks, which, though heavy weapons, don’t present quite the logistical challenge of a procession of rocket trucks. But there has been mention of transfer of U.S. TOW missiles to Ukraine. The TOW is a sophisticated weapon that can make assault of a strong point by tanks a bad proposition for the attacker.
But brief comments by soldiers stationed in the airport give the impression that the defenses have not been hardened. For a soft target, the GRAD is ideal. It is a simple, optically aimed but unguided system with an incredible rate of fire. It is driven to a suitable launching point, where the entire battery is emptied in about 30 seconds. It then leaves before counter-battery fire can commence. If it does, all that is lost is one empty truck.
The GRAD rockets themselves have small warheads with little penetrating power, but Russia has hundreds of trucks. The Ukrainians slaughtered, Russian tanks have temporary use as ramparts while the rebels dig in. The SMERCH is a heavier rocket, but sheer economics suggests it will be used sparingly.
While the Ukrainians know their part well, and play it with Shakespearean perfection, the Russians are improv players. They’ll be playing Goldfinger to the hilt.