Ukraine Used Prized ATACMS Missiles To Strike Unique Cold War-Era Space Communications Station

Ukraine struck the NIP-16 Deep Space Communications site in Vitino, Crimea on Saturday, one of two attacks it carried out on the occupied peninsula over the weekend.

Those strikes were carried out by U.S.-made Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) short-range ballistic missiles, Russian and Ukrainian sources claim.

The first attack over the weekend struck a space communications facility where there about 20 antenna dishes, with some arrays packing eight dishes combined in giant fixtures. Low-resolution satellite imagery obtained by The War Zone shows that it was indeed attacked. However, the quality of the images makes it is hard to determine the exact extent of the damage. One was taken on June 22, before the attack, and the other after on June 24.

Satellite imagery captured before and after the Ukrainian attack on a Russian space satellite tracking site near the town of Vitino in Crimea. PHOTO © 2024 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

The after image shows new scorch marks in an open area of the facility as well as near an array of eight antenna dishes a short distance to the east. Additional scorch marks can be seen just to the north and east of that array. It is hard to say for sure, but if these were cluster-munition ATACMS variants, the dishes could be riddled with shrapnel. We just don’t know the extent of the damage at the moment.

Videos emerged on social media overnight of a large-scale fire reportedly at the space tracking site.

NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) confirms fires were burning there.

NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) confirms fires at the satellite tracking site in Crimea. FIRMS screencap

The site is now officially known as the 40th Separate Command and Measurement Complex and it is part of the Titov Main Test and Space Systems Control Center of the Russian Aerospace Forces, according to the Ukrainian Militanaryi news outlet

It was originally built during the Cold War-era to track Russian space launches. You can get a better sense of what it looks like now in this image below.

There are about 20 antenna dishes, including two large arrays of eight each, at this Russian space communications facility in Vision, Crimea. Google Earth image

Construction on the facility began in March, 1960 by 5,000 Russian naval conscripts, according to Russian

“The facility performed its real duty for the first time in February 1961, supporting the mission of the Venera-1 spacecraft,” the publication explained. “The center then played a critical command and control role in all Soviet planetary missions to the MoonVenus and Mars. From 1967 to 1975, the Yevpatoria site served as the USSR’s main mission control center.”

Control operations for manned missions were moved in 1975, to a newly built facility in Podlipki, near Moscow, just meters away from the campus of NPO Energia, the USSR’s prime developer of manned spacecraft, according to Russian Since then, “it became a backup center for manned space flight.”

One of the antenna dishes at the NIP-16 Deep Space Communications site in Crimea. Wikimedia Commons

After it was seized by Russia following the 2014 takeover of Crimea, it was turned over to its Aerospace Forces, which began the modernization of the facility, the Ukrainian Defense Express news outlet reported.

“As of 2017, reports stated the center had received 10 new systems and the upgrading was still proceeding,” the publication continued. “The initial plan was to spend 1.8 billion rubles on the reconstruction of one radio telescope alone: at the exchange rate of that time, cost about $28 million.”

It is now being “used by Russia for ballistic missile early warning looking towards the Middle East, Africa and Southwest Asia,” the Kyiv Post reported.

However, Fabian Rene Hoffmann, a Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oslo, suggested a different use.

“I haven’t found anything that indicates that it would serve as a downlink for space-based early-warning satellites, so I assume it plays no role in ballistic missile defense,” he told The War Zone on Monday. 

Instead, he suggested that “a plausible explanation appears to be that the site is used for maintaining and controlling Russian satellites, including GLONASS [GLObalnaya NAvigatsionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema in Russian] satellites,” the Russian version of the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS).

“This makes sense to me and also explains why it would be a priority target for Ukraine.”

Whatever it is being used for, Ukraine clearly thought it was important enough to Russia’s fighting capabilities, or to them just as a strategic asset, to spend precious ATACMS missiles trying to put it out of action.

Last month, we reported that Ukraine attacked a Russian strategic early warning radar site in the southwestern end of the country. It was substantially damaged in a reported Ukrainian drone attack. It appeared to be a first-of-its-kind attack on a site linked to Russia’s general strategic defense.

“As such, it points to a new and worrisome dimension to the conflict, especially when it comes to the potential use of nuclear weapons,” we wrote at the time.

A satellite image taken on May 23 that The War Zone obtained from Planet Labs of the Armavir Radar Station in Russia’s southwestern Krasnodar Krai shows significant debris around one of the site’s two Voronezh-DM radar buildings.

A satellite image of the taken on May 23. Significant damage to the southwest-facing Voronezh-DM early warning radar at the site and associated debris are clearly visible. PHOTO © 2024 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

That attack was met with consternation from the Federation of American Scientists, which you can see below.

In the second attack on Russian facilities in Crimea over the weekend, the occupation governor of Sevastopol said at least four people were killed, including two children and 82 hospitalized in a strike that vacationers scrambling from a crowded beach.

The Russian Defense Ministry (MoD) blamed the U.S. for the attack on Sevastopol, a frequent target of Ukraine.

“…a terrorist missile strike by five U.S.-made ATACMS operational-tactical missiles equipped by cluster warheads was deliberately delivered at Sevastopol,” the Russian MoD stated on Sunday. “The alerted air defense units intercepted four U.S.-made ATACMS missiles. The explosion of the fragmentation warhead of the fifth U.S.-made missile in the air led to high number of casualties among peaceful residents of Sevastopol.”

U.S. “specialists input all flight tasks in the U.S.-made ATACMS operational-tactical missiles on the basis of data of the U.S. satellite reconnaissance,” the Mod complained. “That is why Washington is mostly responsible for the deliberate missile strike at peaceful residents of Sevastopol by delivering this weaponry to Ukraine, as well as the Kyiv regime, from the territory of which the strike was launched.”

“Such actions are not going to be left unanswered,” the MoD threatened.

The Pentagon dimissed the acccusations.

“Ukraine makes its own targeting decisions and conducts its own military operations,” Maj. Charlie Dietz, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Monday.

U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy was summoned to the foreign ministry and faced accusations that Washington was “waging a hybrid war against Russia and has actually become a party to the conflict,” Reuters reported The attack, Russia told Tracy, would “not go unpunished. Retaliatory measures will definitely follow.”

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Monday called the strike “barbaric” and accused the US of “killing Russian children,” the BBC reported.

He pointed towards comments by President Vladimir Putin, who recently vowed to target countries supplying weapons to Ukraine

Ukrainian officials meanwhile blamed the deaths and injuries on a Russian air defense missile.

Meanwhile, Kyiv scoffed at Russian complaints that its civilians were targeted.

“Crimea is also a large military camp and warehouse, with hundreds of direct military targets, which the Russians are cynically trying to disguise and cover with their civilians. Which, for their part, are civilian occupiers,” said Advisor to the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Mikhail Podolyak.

In the coming days, we will learn more about the damage at the antenna site. Ukraine has been steadily striking Russian air defenses and radar systems on Crimea. This included an S-400 Surface-to-Air (SAM) system taken out last year near the space tracking site. That area of the western Crimean coast is of high strategic value as it provides an ideal place from which to monitor the western Black Sea and the airspace above it that flows into Ukraine. Blinding sensor and air defense systems in this area give long-range drones and missiles a far better shot at reaching their targets.

In response to Ukraine’s long-range ballistic missiles supplied by the U.S., Russia has now reportedly deployed an S-500 anti-ballistic missile-capable system to southern Crimea. With ATACMS still clearly getting through, it appears Ukraine is overcoming the S-500’s capabilities, exploiting its limitations, or striking just outside of its effective anti-ballistic missile range.

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Howard Altman Avatar

Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard’s work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.