No final decision has been made, according to a British official who declined to confirm the type, timing or quantity of weaponry under consideration. But the notice is a substantive step toward Britain itself supplying such munitions, and the requested specifications and capabilities closely match its air-launched Storm Shadow cruise missiles.
Ukraine has long pleaded with Western nations for longer range missiles, arguing that such weapons could change the course of the war by allowing its forces to target Russian command centers, supply lines, ammunition and fuel dumps deep inside Crimea and Russian-held territory in eastern Ukraine. As Kyiv prepares to launch a major counteroffensive as soon as within the next several weeks, the ability to strike far behind Russia’s front lines would help clear the way for a ground assault with tanks and infantry troops.
Storm Shadows can be mounted on Ukraine’s Soviet-made jets and reach into Russian territory. Kyiv has long sought that capability, and tried to ease Western escalation fears with pledges it would refrain from using donated weapons in such attacks.
“If we could strike at a distance of up to 300 kilometers, the Russian army wouldn’t be able to provide defense and will have to lose,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the European Union earlier this year. “Ukraine is ready to provide any guarantees that your weapons will not be involved in attacks on the Russian territory.”
Moscow has charged that Kyiv has adapted drones for long range use in what have been sporadic attacks deep inside Russia. Kyiv has not asserted responsibility for any of the attacks, but has claimed its right to hit internal Russian targets with its own weapons.
Concerns that Ukraine would fire missiles at targets in Russia is a key reason the administration has repeatedly rebuffed Ukrainian pleas to supply long-range U.S. munitions.
The United States has provided multiple-launch precision rocket systems, including the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, but only with munitions whose range is limited to about 50 miles. In a weapons package announced earlier this year, the Pentagon said it will send Ukraine Ground-Launched Small-Diameter Bombs (GLSDB) with double that range. They can also be fired from HIMARS, but delivery is not expected until later this year at the earliest.
HIMARS also has the capability to fire the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, a munition with a range equal to that of the Storm Shadow’s 300 kilometers. But the Biden administration has been unyielding in denying Ukrainian appeals for those weapons, with Pentagon officials, in addition to fears of escalating the conflict, citing short supplies in U.S. arsenals.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has dismissed talk among Ukraine’s benefactors of their depleted stockpiles. “If there is a moment in this conflict we can make a difference, why not seize it? What are we waiting for?” he asked of European allies at the Munich Security Conference in February. “What is the purpose of these stockpiles? If the weapons are degrading Russian armed forces, that is increasing our security.”
Weeks before those remarks, according to a previously unreported file included among the classified U.S. documents leaked online through the Discord messaging platform, U.S. intelligence confirmed Britain intended to send Ukraine an unspecified number of Storm Shadow missiles, along with British personnel to aid in targeting.
“The United Kingdom will be the first country to provide Ukraine with longer range weapons,” Sunak said in his Munich speech.
Being first is something Britain has striven for throughout the war, beginning under former prime minister Boris Johnson. After the United States, Britain has been the second-largest supplier of Ukraine military aid — contributing $2.5 billion worth of munitions last year. Though that’s only a fraction of what Washington has provided, the British have claimed the cutting edge, sending some of the first shoulder-launched anti-air and antitank weapons to combat Russia’s February 2022 invasion, and more recently by training pilots on NATO-standard fighter jets.
In mid-January, Britain broke through allied reluctance to send heavy tanks to Ukraine by unilaterally announcing it would send 14 British-made Challenger tanks. The United States, Germany and others in Europe eventually followed suit in promising to send their own heavy armor.
“It’s a position the United Kingdom can uniquely do [since] Russia doesn’t like us very much anyway,” said the same British official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about internal alliance issues. “We know that if we give something it makes it slightly easier for others.”
“There is definitely a different risk tolerance among different countries. We’re often in an earlier place,” the official said, citing the pilot training, even though no country has yet agreed to provide the NATO-standard aircraft, particularly F-16s, that Ukraine has asked for.
While U.S. policy remains unchanged, Pentagon officials expressed no concern when asked about the prospect of Britain sending long range missiles to Ukraine. “Each country makes their own sovereign decisions on what types of security assistance and what kinds of equipment they provide,” said Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder. “We commend the significant support that allies and partners from around the world, including the United Kingdom, are providing to Ukraine.”
U.S. lawmakers of both parties who support an aggressive stance have repeatedly urged the administration to provide Ukraine with ATACMS and F-16s. In a statement issued after late-January announcements by Germany and the United States that they, too, would send tanks, Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), along with Republican Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) urged “the Biden administration and our allies to send more long range artillery, such as ATACMS and fighter aircraft.”
“I’ve long been pushing for the longer range, ATACMS, for example,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a military veteran who served in Iraq, said at the Hudson Institute two weeks ago. “I think it’s time to do that. We see less and less talk about escalation” as Russian President Vladimir Putin has crossed “every red line,” Crow said. “The Ukrainians have proven themselves to be responsible partners” and “have every incentive” to abide by restrictions on long-range weapon use, lest they lose Western support.
The distance between Ukrainian-held territory and Sevastopol, Crimea’s largest city and the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, is within the range of the Storm Shadow, which was originally developed as an Anglo-French project in the early 1990s and is held in the arsenals of a number of countries in Europe and the Persian Gulf. Used by Britain in Iraq in 2003, and by Britain, France and Italy in Libya in 2011, it has been adapted to fit on a number of different aircraft.
The weapons would allow Kyiv’s forces to adopt tactics already in use by Russia, which launches “cruise missiles [from aircraft] inside their own territory to be beyond Ukrainian air defenses,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies International Security Program who has specialized in weapons systems used in the Ukraine war.
“All you need to do is give it ten digit coordinates,” Cancian said of the missile targeting. “There’s nothing else you need to do intelwise.”
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.