By SÉBASTIEN ROBLIN
MAY 11, 2023
Despite extensive military assistance to Ukraine, transfers of two types of military hardware have remained taboo for Ukraine’s allies: modern Western-designed jet fighters, and long range land-attack missiles.
But as of today, you can scratch the second one off the list. On Thursday morning, British defense secretary Ben Wallace told the House of Commons that the U.K. had broken the long-range taboo by transferring “a number” of Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles, seen as a “proportionate response” to Russia’s sustained air attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine. Storm Shadow is officially advertised as having a range “exceeding 250km,” or 155 miles, with other figures (including some given by the president of France) suggesting it has a maximum range of 250, or even 350, miles.
It’s unclear whether Ukraine has received fully capable Storm Shadows, or a reduced range model so as to adhere to the MTCR arms control regime, which ordinarily discouraged export of missiles with a range exceeding 190 miles.
While not fast like Russia’s Kinzhal aerial ballistic missile, the five-meter-long Storm Shadow is noted for its high degree of stealth, AI-driven image-matching terminal guidance system, and bunker-busting two-stage warhead (as further detailed below). Because it’s entirely pre-programmed for its targets prior to takeoff, it should be easier to integrate onto Ukraine’s Soviet warplanes than other advanced Western guided weapons.
Western governments feared Ukraine might use long-range missiles for attacks on Russian soil deemed politically provocative, which could incite escalatory retaliation. That, along with limited inventory, has most notably kept the U.S. from donating 190-mile range ATACMS ballistic missiles that are ordinarily compatible with the HIMARS and M270 rocket artillery systems donated to Ukraine.
Wallace stated that the Storm Shadows were supplied with assurances from Ukraine that they would only be used for strikes on Russian-occupied parts of the country, such as logistical centers in Starobilsk and Melitopol.
But the real bullseye falls on Russia’s extensive military infrastructure on the Crimean Peninsula, including airbases and much of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Russia had leased bases in that area from Ukraine for two decades, only for Putin to invade the entire peninsula in 2014.
Given that the donation from the UK sounds like it was in limited quantity (“a number”), the UK’s Storm Shadow may effectively be more a political play than a military one, much like when the country donated Western-designed main battle tanks.
Though the latter quantity was relatively small—14 Challenger 2 tanks—it may have helped end hesitation for much larger subsequent donations of Leopard 2 and M1 tanks from the U.S. and continental Europe. The UK has been less concerned by the ‘but how will Putin react?’ factor than France or Germany.
Fortunately for Ukraine, Storm Shadow donations are more likely to be scalable than the UK’s rare Challenger 2 tanks, as the missiles are also in France’s inventory—under the designation SCALP-EG—and Italy’s. Both are major donors to Ukraine. The French Navy also uses a longer-range ship-launched variant called the MdCn.
Western governments might see whether Middle Eastern Storm Shadow clients (Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) are amenable to quietly selling back missiles in exchange for newly-built replacements later. Those sold to the Middle East are believed to be a downgraded variant with 180-mile range sometimes dubbed the Black Shaheen—still potentially useful for Ukraine’s purposes.
Not to be confused with the G.I. Joe villain of the same name, Storm Shadow/SCALP is a French-U.K. joint venture built by European missile-maker MBDA and based on the Apache runway-cratering missile. It and Germany’s KEPD-350 air-launched cruise missile are the most numerous European-built equivalents to the U.S.’s arsenal of Tomahawk land-attack missiles, which have much longer range and are primarily (but not exclusively) sea-launched.
Storm Shadow doesn’t use any input from the carrying aircraft before or after launch. Instead, it’s pre-programmed on the ground to follow waypoints to the target area autonomously using inertial and GPS navigation—usually skimming at just 100-130 feet above the ground to further reduce radar detectability. Supported by pop-out wings, it flies just below the speed of sound powered by a small TRI 60-30 turbojet engine and boasts a low radar-cross section due to its non-reflective geometry.
Once near the target, the missile lunges upwards–tossing off its pointy nose cone and exposing the infrared sensor within—and uses its elevated vantage to scan the ground below, searching for anything that resembles preloaded satellite images of the target using an early AI-driven technology called DSMAC (Digital Scene Matching Area Correlator.)
If the missile can’t find the target, it can be assigned a crash point so as not to risk collateral damage. But on finding a match, it swoops down and, just before impact, discharges the pre-cursor charge of its nearly half-ton (992-pound) BROACH warhead.
The armor-penetrating precursor blasts a hole into the target’s surface, allowing the larger main charge to pass inside the targeted structure before detonating—making BROACH effective against hardened targets like underground storage facilities and bunkers.
And while a Storm Shadow can go further and has a much larger warhead than a GMRL rocket, it’s also 4-5 times more expensive, so Ukraine will receive a far smaller number. That means each shot will have to count, and there won’t be an indefinite resupply of missiles, making avoiding interception even more pertinent.
Storm Shadow was first used in combat during the 2003 invasion of Iraq by now-retired British Tornado jets. France’s SCALP-EG missiles followed in 2011, deployed by Mirage 2000Ds and carrier-based Rafale-M jets in the campaign to overthrow Qaddafi in Libya. In the mid-2010s, the UK and France also employed the missiles against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and in strikes punishing the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons.
Storm Shadow/SCALP is designed to be lofted from aircraft, and has been integrated into Sweden’s JAS-39 Gripen fighter, France’s Mirage 2000 and newer Rafale fighters, and Tornado jets and newer Eurofighter Typhoons built by Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
But because Storm Shadows don’t require fire control instructions from the launching fighter, they should be comparatively easy to add onto the Ukrainian Air Force’s Soviet warplanes.
Ukraine has already managed to mount AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles on its MiG-29 jets, a modification likely enabled by the fact the HARM has a built-in seeker. Due to Storm Shadow’s considerable size and weight, it may seek to mount it on large-but-fast Su-24 Fencer bombers or Su-27 fighters.
Due to Storm Shadow’s considerable range, Ukrainian jets could release the missile from relatively safe airspace. That said, to delay/avoid detection by Russian ground-based radars and attack from an unpredictable angle, Ukraine may opt for launch from low altitude—even if that reduces the maximum range and requires getting closer. There may therefore still be some need to dodge patrolling Russian MiG-31 interceptors, and Su-35 fighters scanning from above and primed to launch very-long-range R-37M missiles.
Theoretically, Ukraine could also cobble together means to ground-launch Storm Shadows, accepting a significantly reduced range.
Like most long-range cruise missiles, Storm Shadows are not cheap—probably costing around $1 million per shot. And most operators have inventories in the low-to-mid hundreds, not thousands, limiting how many they’re inclined to donate. Still, if the UK’s donation breaks the taboo on transferring long-range missiles to Ukraine, then multiple donors may help make up numbers—to an extent.
When, in the summer of 2022, Ukraine began using Western-supplied HIMAR systems to launch GMLR precision-guided rockets out to a range of 56 miles, it resulted in a succession of spectacularly destructive attacks on Russian HQs, airbases, and ammo depots.
Those spectacles declined in frequency after a few months, as the Russians learned their lesson and pushed vulnerable support structures back outside of HIMARS range—accepting a loss of efficiency for better survival odds. Russia also began employing GPS-jamming to throw off the aim of HIMARS and SDB glide bombs given to Ukraine.
In theory, then, Storm Shadow and similar weapons could give Ukrainian planners a second “happy period,” as Russian depots and HQs again fall into convenient precision-strike range—potentially devastating if timed to coincide with Ukraine’s anticipated 2023 counteroffensive.
And this time, those depots and command centers might have to relocate all the way to Russian soil to escape the Storm Shadow’s reach. That could especially threaten Russian forces in southern Ukraine, most distant from the Russian border.
But there are important differences to keep in mind. While Russian air defenses struggled to shoot down supersonic HIMARS rockets, Storm Shadow is a subsonic cruise missile—a class of weapon that Ukraine’s own air defense system has become efficient at shooting down.
Storm Shadow’s success—versus Russia’s technically superior air defenses—will depend in part on its stealth characteristics. Because the missile relies on image-matching instead of GPS for terminal guidance, it should at least be less degraded by Russian GPS jamming than HIMARS rockets.
Mena Adel, who writes on military aviation for Scramble magazine, told Popular Mechanics that tactics practiced by France and the UK using SCALP/Storm Shadow against Syria’s Soviet-built air defense systems offer a relevant model for Ukraine:
“The U.S., France and UK attacked with a sweeping attack by 4 different types of missiles, including [non-stealth] Tomahawk missiles which formed the largest part to disperse the Syrian air defense thereby reducing the chance of intercepting stealth missiles. All while monitored by Russian air defenses in Syria. It is certain that future attacks will be planned using different types of missile approach from different directions to deceive the Russian systems so that the desired targets are hit with great accuracy and a minimum interception rate. Stealthiness is not enough, success will depend on planning and deception.”
As Ukraine will not have nearly as many cruise missiles available, Adel suggested Ukraine might instead launch concerted attacks with drones and SDB glide bombs (both ground- and air-launched) supported by electronic warfare systems to confuse and overwhelm Russian air defenses.
Ukraine’s promise not to strike Russian soil with Western-supplied missiles could also inspire a false flag attack making it appear it has done so—a well-established tactic in Putin’s playbook. As Ukraine is sporadically attacking targets in Russia (mainly airbases, oil depots and electrical infrastructure) using agents and domestically-built drones and missiles, there could be grounds for confusion and misinformation.
Overall, Storm Shadow is a potent long-distance strike weapon Ukraine will have to employ judiciously for maximum effect—though even the likely modest number transferred to Ukraine will likely cause anxiety to Russian logisticians, commanders, and air defense personnel.