The UK’s decision to supply Storm Shadow air-launched land attack missiles to Ukraine, offering a long-range, stand-off strike capability with a range of more than 250km, represents that latest evolution of London’s support to Kyiv, ahead of a much-anticipated counter-offensive against Russia.

Delivering a statement to the UK House of Commons on 11 May, UK Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace confirmed the UK had supplied an undisclosed number of Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine, in what marks the first provision of such an air-launched capability to Kyiv.

While Nato allies had to date provided land-based missile systems such as HIMARS and the ATACMS munition, offering a range of several tens of kilometres, no ally had opted to supply air-launched ground attack missiles. The second-largest donor to Ukraine, after the US, the UK has consistently led European Nato allies in its support for the administration of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, and was the first in Nato to provide main battle tanks to the country as it battles a Russian invasion.

According to MBDA, the UK-French manufacturer of the Storm Shadow, known as SCALP in French service, the 5m-long Storm Shadow is powered by a turbojet engine, using an internal navigation (INS) or GPS guidance system to fly to the target.

The warhead itself can be configured in blast or penetration function, thus is able to be used against fortifications. Although the range is officially listed by MBDA as being 250km+, it is typical for western defence companies to play down exact capabilities, with the actual maximum range likely significantly further.

The GPS guidance function is of particular importance, as Storm Shadow, being air-launched, has to be fitted to and fire from an aircraft within Ukraine’s defence forces capable of ground attack function. In UK service, the Storm Shadow is carried by the advanced Typhoon FGR4 multi-role fighter, having previously been fitted to the Tornado GR4 (pictured).

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How will Ukraine use Storm Shadow?

The use of INS/GPS navigation means that target coordinates can be uploaded into the Storm Shadow system prior to use, meaning integration can be limited to carriage and launch, and not target location and painting, for which Ukraine’s combat aircraft such as the MiG-29 are not ideally suited.

Wallace, speaking before the UK parliament, said that the apparent slow pace in the provision of air-launched ground-attack munitions to Ukraine was due to having to undertake technical feasibility studies to determine if Ukrainian fighters are able to carry to such weapons.  

“Taking a fifth or fourth generation weapon system and putting in onto a sometimes-second-generation aircraft is not easy. We will see. They have yet to be tested and we will soon find out to the extent that it has worked,” Wallace said.

Tristan Sauer, aerospace and defence analyst at GlobalData, said that integration onto existing Ukrainian aircraft would not pose “too significant a challenge” as there was “limited interaction” between the weapon’s targeting systems and the aircraft’s sensors.

“The main concerns would likely revolve around attachment to weapon pylons and the firing mechanism. Reports emerged in 2022 that a Ukrainian Su-24M was being modified to fire Storm Shadow, and in light of the recent announcement we can assume that aircraft provided a testbed for the integration of additional Su-24M bombers and possibly even other aircraft such as the MiG-29 or Su-27,” Sauer said.

Sauer added that Nato had successfully integrated the AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles with Ukraine’s MiG-29 fighters, offering an indication that such processes had been completed before.

“Since last time we started seeing videos of JDAMs within a week or two of their supply being announced, I think we can safely assume this has been in the works for a while and the public announcement will act more as the ‘go ahead’ for their deployment in coming weeks, especially with the counteroffensive coming up,” Sauer detailed.

Typhoon to Ukraine off the table?

Another development to come from Wallace’s parliamentary session was the apparent understanding that Ukraine was no longer seeking the UK to provide Typhoon fighters, spoken of recently in Zelensky’s ‘wings for freedom’ speech.

Instead, Wallace said that communications received from Ukraine indicated that the UK offer to provide Typhoon simulator training for Ukrainian pilots could be “turned off”, with the focus instead turning to asking the UK to helping convince other nations to contribute US-designed F-16 fighters instead.

“I am happy to encourage my [Nato] colleagues to donate F-16s and if they do, we will help move them,” Wallace said.