Hudson Institute

Keep Calm and Arm Ukraine: Assessing British Military Policy

Re: Ukraine | May 17, 2023

Senior Fellow (Non-Resident)
Ukrainian artillery recruits come to the end of their training on AS90 155mm self-propelled gun on March 24, 2023, in England. (Finnbarr Webster via Getty Images)

This report first appeared as a part of Hudson's Re: Ukraine newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.

Below Hudson Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers a military situational report about the war in Ukraine.

1. The Evolution of British Policy toward Ukraine

While the United Kingdom has seen three different prime ministers and a new monarch since the outset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its support for Kyiv’s fight has remained unwavering. This is unsurprising; after all, recent British writings identify Russia as a full-spectrum threat to the UK and its allies. Like much of continental Western Europe, London’s attitude to the Russian challenge has evolved to match the times. 

Its 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review, for example, made only a few references to Russia. This was all the more surprising given the palpable tension between the two countries that arose in the aftermath of the November 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer and naturalized UK citizen, who died suspiciously in London—likely at the hands of Russian agents—after being poisoned with radioactive polonium a few weeks earlier. 

The 2010 assessment also produced a military forecast in line with most others from the time, predicting that “asymmetric tactics such as economic, cyber and proxy actions instead of direct military confrontation will play an increasing part” in future conflicts. Few could anticipate that by 2022 Russian tanks would be pouring en masse into Ukraine, Iskander missiles and Iranian loitering munitions would be pounding Europe, and Belarus would be preparing to host Russia’s tactical nukes.

In recent years, London’s national defense and security documents, as well as British officials’ rhetoric, have reflected a more astute understanding. In a June 2018 speech to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), then Chief of Staff General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith noted the Russian threat and urged the British Army to keep combat ready. That same year, Britain’s military chief went even further and warned that Russia posed a far greater threat to the UK’s national security than al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, not an insignificant assessment coming from a man who hails from the ranks of the British Special Air Services (SAS) and was combat-deployed multiple times in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The British Ministry of Defense also considered the Russian Federation to be “the greatest nuclear, conventional military and sub-threshold threat to European security” well before Moscow’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, just as Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee urged countering Russia’s subversive actions as early as 2020. The 2021 Integrated Review, the top national security document of the British government, identified Russia as the most acute direct threat to the UK. 

Its assessment was prescient: only a few months after the release of that document, Vladimir Putin published “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” an irredentist screed articulating his imperialist ambitions in the former Soviet space. The Integrated Review Refresh 2023 states that the Euro-Atlantic alliance’s “collective security now is intrinsically linked to the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine.” Supporting Ukraine is now the most urgent priority of Britain’s security policy in the short-to-medium term. 

2. The UK’s Ambitious Military Assistance Program Empowers Ukraine

The United Kingdom runs Ukraine's second-largest military assistance program, behind only the United States. The British have committed £4.6 billion ($5.7 billion) in defense aid to Kyiv, with £2.3 billion ($2.8 billion) already spent in 2022. British military support ranges from artillery ammunition to land warfare platforms and missiles. 

The UK also hosts Operational Interflex, the British-led multinational training program that aims to train more than 30,000 Ukrainian military personnel. Western training programs are vital to Ukraine because these efforts are the only way to address what the Ukrainian Chief of Staff Valerii Zaluzhnyi has identified as residues of the Soviet Red Army living within the Ukrainian Armed Forces. More important, the British government trains Ukrainian servicemen in high-end weapon systems that have not yet been incorporated into ongoing assistance programs, including training pilots on advanced Western combat aircraft. Such training programs will play a key role in the postwar transformation of the Ukrainian military as it orients to NATO standards. 

The British have also courageously led the way on arms transfers. In the opening stages of the war, American Javelin and British NLAW anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and Turkish TB-2 drones inflicted overwhelming casualties on Russian land warfare platforms. As of March 2023, the UK has transferred some 3,600 pieces of NLAW to the Ukrainian military. 

Likewise, thousands of Starstreak MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) have poured into Ukraine. Starstreak launches three high-velocity interceptors in one salvo—the manufacturer calls them “darts”—following laser beams painting the target. With its velocity and multiple-interceptor configuration, the system is tailor-made to address threats that require a short response time.

Of London’s signature moves in Ukraine, the transfer of 14 Challenger-2 main battle tanks is of particular importance. While 14 Challenger-2s do not change the land warfare balance of power, sending main battle tanks to Kyiv sets a firm precedent for the rest of Europe; indeed, after the UK’s move, several nations followed suit by sending German-manufactured Leopard-2 tanks to Ukraine. London has also been quick to defy threats from the Kremlin and send armor-piercing, depleted uranium rounds to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. 

3. Equipping Ukraine with Storm Shadow

London has also been a staunch supporter of equipping Ukraine with long-range, high-precision arms, such as M-270 multiple-launch rocket systems. The recent decision to transfer Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles further deepens that commitment.

With its reported range of 250 kilometers or more, the Storm Shadow is a perfect weapon to pound high-value targets in the opposing force’s rear. As previous editions of this report have highlighted, hitting the Russian rear, including command-control nodes, ammunition depots, and assembly areas, remains a key prerequisite for the success of Ukraine’s anticipated counteroffensive. The Storm Shadow’s BROACH (Bomb Royal Ordnance Augmented Charge)tandem warhead, consisting of a precursor charge and a follow-through bomb, helps the missile penetrate and detonate within reinforced structures. Ukrainian officials have expressed a need for a weapon with this capability. Storm Shadow marks one of the most notable NATO-standards weapon systems to be integrated into the Ukrainian Air Force’s air deterrent. 

The Ukrainian Air Force has already begun employing the missile against Russian targets, inflicting damage. The Ukrainian Armed Forces are also complementing the weapon with smart concepts, such as US-supplied AGM-160B decoy missiles, to further stress Russian air defenses. 

4. Providing Intelligence Support

Apart from its generous military assistance packages, British support to Ukraine has also extended to the information space. 

The British intelligence services and strategic community have been offering intelligence support to Ukraine since the outset of the conflict to combat Russia’s efforts to conduct information and political warfare. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense has unclassified the core findings of its military intelligence assessments, and has been periodically releasing its intelligence briefs via its official Twitter account. These intelligence reports have played a central role in tackling Russia’s infamous maskirovka—literally, “masking”—and information operations efforts while providing the Western policy community with a reliable source.

British think tanks have also done their part. RUSI, for example, has published meticulous defense intelligence reports, revealing Western components in critical Russian weapon systems, including advanced missile warfare assets. These findings help NATO capitals fine-tune sanctions regimes to better restrict Moscow’s ability to repair and replace its instruments of warfare.

As a post-Brexit, non-EU NATO nation, Great Britain’s military policy in Eastern Europe has broad geopolitical ramifications for the postwar European security architecture. British policymakers consider the Russian threat to be a significant challenge to Britain’s global interests. London sees Ukraine as the last stop before the ruling Russian elite directly targets the Euro-Atlantic alliance. Its policy choices reflect this knowledge and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. 

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