First, it was the drones and then the HIMARS. With depressing regularity, a new miracle weapon has been touted as a game changer for Ukraine, only to have its shine dim as Russia adjusts to it.
The latest example is the Storm Shadow, an air-launched cruise missile developed by the UK and France that Ukraine has used spectacularly, notably in an attack in June that damaged the vital Chonhar bridge between the Crimean peninsula and southern Ukraine.
Some observers believe that Storm Shadow will be crucial to the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The missile’s 155-mile (250 km) range allows Ukrainian aircraft to launch it while staying out of range of Russian air defenses. In addition to a 1,000-pound (454 kg) warhead and stealth features, the Storm Shadow has multiple guidance systems, including GPS, inertial guidance, and terrain-following radar, that allow it to avoid detection by flying at just a few hundred feet on the floor.
“They are effective weapons,” Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on a July 14 episode of the Geopolitics Decanted podcast, recorded during his visit to Ukraine. “They’re hard to intercept, and it gives Ukraine, to put it bluntly, a much longer stick.”
Although HIMARS was initially devastating in Ukrainian attacks on supply depots and command posts, the Russian military was able to adapt – albeit at some cost of efficiency – through the use of electronic warfare and relocation of logistics sites and the headquarters out of the range of the HIMARS’ guided rockets.
In the weeks since the Chonhar bridge attack, successful Storm Shadow attacks have been reported, including the assassination of a Russian senior commander and an attack on a Russian vehicle repair depot in Crimea.
But since Ukraine started using the missiles in mid-May, “we haven’t seen a tremendous impact on the Russian force,” Kofman said, “and part of the reason for that is adaptations in the Russian military that were caused by the introduction of the HIMARS last June.”
Ukraine’s long-range weapons will continue to have an impact. With a front as vast as Ukraine’s, it’s impossible for the Russian military “not to have ammunition stored anywhere, or not have command and control vulnerabilities, or not have to use bridges,” Kofman said. “But you’re not seeing anywhere near the number of attacks against critical infrastructure or the logistics command and control network that you saw when HIMARS was first introduced last summer.”
Ukraine is also facing limitations on the use of Storm Shadows. Kyiv likely received only a few hundred missiles, and the planes that launch them are vulnerable in disputed Ukrainian airspace. This raises questions about whether the Ukrainian army can use enough Storm Shadows against hard-to-find or hard-to-shoot targets.
In the fighting around Kherson during the Ukrainian counteroffensive last fall, Russia held on and eventually withdrew its forces using a bridge and ferry system. “You’d be surprised how many forces can be sustained with a fairly narrow pipeline when it comes to landlines of communication,” Kofman said.
This has implications for the next miracle weapon on Ukraine’s wish list: the US-made MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System, known as ATACMS, a ground-launched weapon with a range of 190 miles, exceeding the range 155 miles from Storm Shadow and 50 miles from HIMARS.
The US has so far refused to supply Ukraine with ATACMS out of fear of its use against targets inside Russia – though the Biden administration is now reconsidering that policy – but some Western and Ukrainian experts believe a long-range weapon like the ATACMS could reconfigure the conflict.
However, if history is any guide, the ATACMS would have a degree of success before the shock wears off and Russia adapts. The Storm Shadow missiles, while effective, have a “very similar capability with a very similar payload used largely against targets that the ATACMS would have been used against,” Kofman said on the podcast.
While the new long-range weapons could damage the Russian war machine and force the Russian military to modify its operations, the question is whether their impact will be limited to the tactical level or deep enough to tip the conflict in Ukraine’s favor.