A year ago, it was said to be a direct path to “World War III.” Now it’s being announced as an accomplished fact.
The United Kingdom is in the process of delivering Storm Shadow cruise missiles to Ukraine, the British government confirmed Thursday, giving Kyiv a much-needed and long coveted long-range precision strike capability.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said that the supply of the missiles will “allow Ukraine to push back Russian forces based on Ukrainian sovereign territory,” adding that “none of this would have been necessary had Russia not invaded.”
The Storm Shadow is an advanced air-launched cruise missile with low observable characteristics, meaning it is more difficult to detect and counter by air defense systems than a traditional cruise missile. Depending on the variant, it has a range of up to 350 miles and carries a 990-pound warhead. In British, French, and Italian service it has been used successfully in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Even if the U.K. dispatches the shorter-range variant, the Storm Shadow can still hit targets as far as 155 miles away. That would put every single Russian position in all of occupied Ukraine, including Crimea, in range.
Speaking in the British House of Commons, Wallace confirmed the Ukrainians would deploy the missiles from their fleet of ex-Soviet fighter jets. In fact, the Storm Shadow missiles would have been delivered earlier, Wallace seemed to suggest, but for the technical engineering feats necessary to adapt the missile to older-generation fighter jets. Ukraine has a background in hybridizing or “MacGyvering” its preexisting aircraft to use NATO-standard weapons. MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters, for instance, have successfully fired other advanced Western supplied munitions, such as the HARM anti-radiation missile and the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) GPS-guided smart bombs.
The United Kingdom has frequently led the field in supplying military hardware to Ukraine that even the United States has been reluctant to send. In the weeks before the full-scale invasion, the Royal Air Force delivered numerous planeloads of NLAW anti-tank guided missiles, seen as an extremely important weapon in the early days of the war, making then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson something of a folk hero in Ukraine. Late last year, the U.K. became the first country to supply Western manufactured main battle tanks to Ukraine when it delivered a squadron of 14 of the British Army’s Challenger Two tanks.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia viewed the British announcement as “extremely negative,” and he claimed that an “adequate response would be required.”
The British decision comes as the U.S. — still Ukraine's most important partner and source of security assistance — has consistently refused to supply Kyiv with its own long-range precision strike weapons, most notably the ATACMS tactical ballistic missile. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said in July that the U.S. wouldn’t supply the system to “ensure we do not end up in a circumstance where we’re heading down the road towards a third world war.”
In recent months, though, this fear of provoking Russia into a major retaliation, such as the use of a tactical nuclear weapon, has gradually subsided. In its place, the U.S. refusal to send ATACMS has given way to floated concerns over America’s limited stockpile of the munitions, which are manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The U.S. instead promised to supply another system, the GLSDB (Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb).
Politico reported this week that certain officials in the Biden administration were hopeful that the British provision of Storm Shadow would “silence” stateside critics still insistent that the U.S. send Ukraine ATACMS.
There may also be a domestic political calculation to Washington’s outsourcing of long-range strike capability to its closest ally across the Atlantic. In an interview with Yahoo News, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov heaped praise on Britain’s democracy. “Their opposition is as strong as the current government in terms of supporting us,” Reznikov said.
Ukraine has long wished for the ability to strike Russian forces in the entirety of the territory of Ukraine that they occupy. The Ukrainian military entered the war with a limited number of Soviet-era short-range ballistic missiles, but these are considered relatively inaccurate by modern standards, and their 75-mile range would not allow them to reach targets across the entirety of Ukraine. Their stocks have also been severely depleted in the last 15 months of full-scale war.
The Russian military, on the other hand, possesses an extremely extensive arsenal of long-range munitions.
However, the accuracy of Western weapons have enabled Ukraine to strike back effectively against Russian forces on the territory they can reach. It forced Moscow to reposition vulnerable targets outside the range of such systems, complicating their already strained logistics.
Ukraine is on the brink of launching another widely anticipated counter offensive, which is expected to begin this spring. Speaking earlier on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed his country was still waiting for promised aid to arrive before launching their attack. “We still need a bit more time,” Zelensky said.