Putting Russia’s Army in the Shadow of the Storm
Main Image Credit Storm approaching: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in February 2023. Image: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Holding Russia’s logistics and command and control at risk is a key contributor to shaping the conditions for successful Ukrainian offensive operations.
The decision by the UK government to gift Storm Shadow cruise missiles to Ukraine provides a significant capability for disrupting Russian logistics and command and control, and will likely prove useful in support of forthcoming Ukrainian offensive operations. At more than £790,000 a munition, however, they will have to be expended carefully.
In June 2022, the Russian military was having the fight it wanted: having blinded Ukrainian forces in Donbas, Russian artillery was unleashing an overwhelming volume of fire. Ukraine found itself taking unsustainable levels of attrition. This situation was reversed when Ukraine’s partners provided GMLRS systems and means for finding Russian ammunition and command and control nodes, enabling Ukraine to cut the ammunition supply and coordination from Russia’s artillery.
Since that moment, the Russian military has adapted to the GMLRS threat. Its main logistics hubs now sit 120 km from the front, beyond GMLRS range. Its command and control has been relocated to hardened structures, or dug into bunkers at brigade and battalion level. These command posts have largely been connected via field cable to Ukraine’s civilian telecommunications system, rendering them difficult to detect, while GMLRS munitions lack the warhead to destroy them. Russian air defences, meanwhile, have also been reorganised and are now intercepting a non-trivial proportion of Ukrainian strikes in depth.
The result of the Russian reorganisation has been the shortening of the Reconnaissance Fire Circuit (the Russian term equivalent to kill chain) and the ability for Russian artillery to control fires in a much more dynamic manner than they had previously. This poses serious problems for Ukrainian offensive operations, since limited Ukrainian breaching capability means that assaults will have to be infantry-heavy, and their progress depends upon disrupting Russian artillery.
The introduction of Storm Shadow should therefore not be seen as an escalation, but rather a means of resolving serious tactical challenges in support of Ukraine’s efforts to liberate its territory. The Storm Shadow is a cruise missile with much greater range than GMLRS. Its warhead is also specifically designed for destroying hardened targets, while the munition has a number of stealth features and penetration aids that should make it extremely hard for Russian air defences to accurately detect, let alone intercept.
The significance of Storm Shadow in the Ukrainian arsenal is that it holds a wide range of Russian critical dependencies at risk: fuel, ammunition dumps, command and control bunkers, and other high value targets. The Storm Shadow stockpile is small, and Ukraine will have to select the targets to be struck with great care. The critical priority will be to perform strikes that achieve disproportionate effect and that create specific disruption in areas that Ukraine can exploit in its conduct of offensive operations.
The introduction of Storm Shadow should not be seen as an escalation, but rather a means of resolving serious tactical challenges in support of Ukraine’s efforts to liberate its territory
The impact of Storm Shadow on the Russians, however, goes significantly beyond the targets struck. Confronting Russian forces with a new system that can evade their defences, which their operators do not know how to distinguish clearly from other targets, and which can be used in combination with existing Ukrainian capabilities – from loitering munitions to GMLRS or HARMS – will create conflicting imperatives for air defence crews. Do they start looking for objects with much smaller radar cross-sections? Doing so risks their being saturated and wasting missiles. If they are receiving a raft of false positives from electronic warfare systems, do they fire when they think they have a target, even though it could be friendly?
Perhaps most importantly, making Russian commanders afraid for their personal safety is a good means of degrading their prioritisation decisions. Employed well, in conjunction with psychological operations and other capabilities, Storm Shadow offers myriad opportunities to cognitively attack the enemy. In this sense, their existence in Ukraine’s arsenal may be as significant as their use.
There is, of course, the question of holding targets vulnerable in Russia itself. Managing escalation may mean that this is prohibited as an agreed condition of their supply. Nevertheless, being able to strike Russian air bases in Crimea – for example – could help to prevent the Russian Aerospace Forces from trying to disrupt Ukrainian offensive operations. 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 defence, spreading resource and expertise across more sites and thereby necessarily thinning the protection of key targets that are on the strike list.
Throughout the war, the relentless focus on weapons systems has overshadowed the importance of tactics in determining the course of the fighting. There are not enough Storm Shadow missiles to alter the course of the war in themselves, 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.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare
- Paraic WalkerInterim Media Relations Manager+44 (0)7917 373 069ParaicW@rusi.org