After 15 months of the West refusing to send long-range missiles to Ukraine for fear of escalation, comes an announcement: Britain has sent Storm Shadow cruise missiles. Perhaps not coincidentally, it comes as Ukraine prepares to unleash a counteroffensive despite doubts among its allies that it has the capacity to achieve a decisive breakthrough against entrenched Russian defenses.
Published information suggests Storm Shadow is a potent cruise missile with some stealth features: launched from an aircraft, flies low to the ground at 500 miles per hour, and then climbs abruptly before diving onto the target with a 700-lb bunker-buster warhead. Russia said on May 13 that the missiles have been used against two targets in occupied Ukraine.
The problem with Storm Shadow is that too much may be expected from it. First, the missile has been labeled a long-range weapon. But long-range relative to what? A Minuteman ICBM has a reach of 6,000 miles, and a Tomahawk cruise missile 1,000 miles.
Storm Shadow has a range of just 155 miles. That’s more than the 50-mile range of the HIMARS multiple rocket launcher but less than the 190-mile-range ATACMS rockets that the US has refused to send to Ukraine. Though Tomahawk and Storm Shadow are both cruise missiles, the latter seems more like a longer-range version of HIMARS.
After their ammunition depots and headquarters were ravaged by HIMARS rockets last year, Russia partially countered the threat by moving installations out of range. Storm Shadow will extend the size of that threat zone, and force Russia to disperse and harden facilities even more, which will complicate battlefield logistics. But this is more of an incremental effect unless Ukraine chooses to risk a political — or even nuclear — firestorm by sending Storm Shadow-equipped aircraft on deep-penetration missions far into Russian territory.
British Defense Minister Ben Wallace stated that Storm Shadow would only be used “within Ukrainian sovereign territory.” He was also careful to note that Storm Shadow had a fraction of the range of cruise missiles that Russia has already launched at Ukraine, including Kalibr missiles with a reach of 1,250 miles.
But as the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said in a May 15 report: “Even if targets in Russia are not to be engaged, the Russian military cannot proceed on that assumption, and so this will create new requirements for Russian air and missile defense, spreading resource and expertise across more sites and thereby necessarily thinning the protection of key targets on the strike list.”
Russia has partly neutralized HIMARS rockets by jamming their GPS guidance systems. With its combination of inertial guidance, GPS and terrain-following radar, Storm Shadow will be harder to jam, while its stealth features and ground-hugging flight path will make it difficult to shoot down.
The limitation for Ukraine may be how many missiles the West can send it. Storm Shadow began as a Franco-British project for a standoff cruise missile that would allow launch aircraft to stay out of reach of enemy air defenses. It is already fielded by nine nations, including Egypt, Greece and Italy, but mostly in small quantities of 100 to 200 missiles. A big purchaser has been Britain, with up to 1,000 missiles, according to British media reports in the late 1990s.
Britain hasn’t said how many Storm Shadows it is sending. But it is unlikely to be the entire stockpile. One lesson of the Ukraine war has been that cruise missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, guided artillery rounds, and other smart weapons are used at an enormous rate. Consumption is running so far ahead of production capacity that Ukraine will have to ration its Storm Shadows for a protracted conflict.
As RUSI says, the missiles will have to be used with great care: “But if they are used judiciously to create gaps, enhance uncertainty, and shape opportunities, the UK will have just given Kyiv a powerful tool to contribute to the liberation of Ukrainian lands.”
Russia has complained that Storm Shadow is an escalation and that it had already shot some down. Whether this is true or not, the Kremlin cannot be pleased with Ukraine getting yet another advanced Western weapon. The missile cannot therefore have a decisive impact on the war, but insofar as it opens doors to the supply of other advanced Western weapons this may mark a significant moment.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.