Explained | Why is Russia raging at France for sending SCALP missiles to Ukraine?

How lethal is the SCALP missile that France has promised Ukraine? What impact will this have on the ongoing Ukrainian counter-offensive?

July 15, 2023 07:51 am | Updated 06:54 pm IST

The SCALP or Storm Shadow missile is designed to neutralise high-value targets. (Source: L Caliaro/MBDA)

The SCALP or Storm Shadow missile is designed to neutralise high-value targets. (Source: L Caliaro/MBDA)

The story so far: The French government’s recent decision to supply long-range cruise missiles as part of an increased Western effort to assist Ukraine in its ongoing counter-offensive against Russian forces has drawn an angry response from Russia, which termed the move an “erroneous decision fraught with consequences for the Ukrainian side.” 

Setting aside its initial reluctance to provide advanced weaponry to Ukraine over fears of escalating the conflict, French President Emmanuel Macron announced on the sidelines of the annual NATO summit in Vilnius that the delivery of SCALP missiles was to help Ukraine defend itself and enable its forces “to have the capacity to strike deeply.”

The United Kingdom delivered the British version of SCALP, called Storm Shadow, in May this year. 

What is special about the SCALP missile? 

The SCALP and its variants are a series of air-launched, long-range and conventionally armed missiles capable of striking targets deep in enemy territory. The missile has a range of more than 250 kilometres (155 miles), making it the longest-range Western weapon in Kyiv’s possession so far. Defence experts claim it can hit targets up to 560 km away, depending on parameters such as its launch altitude.

Derived from the Apache project, SCALP was developed in the late 1990s and is now built by European weapons manufacturer Matra BAe Dynamics (MBDA.) The initial version was christened Système de croisière conventionnel autonome à longue portée (SCALP), which translates to long range autonomous conventional cruise system. In 1997, the French and the U.K. government placed contracts for the development and production of SCALP and Storm Shadow missiles with MBDA units in their respective countries.

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The first Storm Shadow was fired by the Royal Air Force during the U.K.’s Operation Telic in Iraq in 2003. A year later, the SCALP missile entered into service with the French Air Force and was first operated in March 2011.

Besides France and Britain, SCALP and Storm Shadow missiles have been exported to Italy, Greece and Saudi Arabia, among others. Over the past two decades, these missiles have seen action in multiple conflicts, including the invasion of Iraq and air strikes on Libya and Syria.

Presently, the SCALP and Storm Shadow missiles can be operated from Tornado, Rafale, Mirage 2000 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. The Indian Air Force’s latest acquisition, the Rafale fighters, also carry the SCALP missile, and recently, France offered India the naval version of SCALP.

What are the capabilities of SCALPs?

The SCALP and its British derivative are designed to strike high-value stationary targets such as airbases, radar installations, bunkers, port facilities, and communication centres behind enemy lines. The 5.1m-long missile, which weighs 1,300 kg, can be operated round the clock and engage targets up to 4,000 metres above sea level, in extreme weather conditions as well.

Designed to minimise radar detection, SCALP is guided by an advanced triple navigation system of inertial navigation, GPS and terrain referencing.

A Rafale jet of the French Navy equipped with MBDA’s SCALP long-range cruise missile. (Source: MBDA)

A Rafale jet of the French Navy equipped with MBDA’s SCALP long-range cruise missile. (Source: MBDA)

Before launch, the missile is programmed with all relevant mission details and the path to reach the target. Once released from the aircraft, the weapon follows the pre-decided path at low altitudes to avoid detection. As it approaches the target, the onboard infrared seeker matches the image with the stored photo to ensure an accurate strike and minimal collateral damage. 

The warhead can be programmed to detonate above the target ( an airburst), on impact, or after penetration. The missile is fitted with a two-stage bomb royal ordnance augmented charge (BROACH) blast or penetrator warhead.

What is the significance of SCALP missiles in the ongoing Ukrainian counter-offensive?

The Ukrainian counter-offensive has made territorial advances in certain areas since its launch last month. Long-range missiles in Ukraine’s armoury would be a key boost for Ukrainian forces. The deployment of SCALPs could help Ukraine target Russian troops and supplies, especially in Russian-controlled areas in the eastern part, which is well behind the front lines. 

Military historian Guillaume Lasconjarias of the Paris-Sorbonne University wrote in France 24 that with its pledge, France has given the Ukrainian air force an ability to “better support the counter-offensive, and further inland.” 

“Such capability is critical for Ukrainian forces to disrupt Russian logistics and command and control,” researcher Ivan Klyszcz of the International Centre for Defence and Security told AFP. He added that SCALP missiles would help Ukraine’s current approach of advancing slowly to protect its forces and reduce its casualties as much as possible.

Jean-Pierre Maulny, Deputy Director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), views the latest development as a move to bring Russia to the negotiating table. “The Westerners want to give [Volodymyr] Zelensky all the means he needs to ensure the success of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. They want to show Putin that this aid will continue over the long term, that they will provide unfailing support, and therefore that Putin cannot win this war,” Maulny said in an interview with France 24.

Russia, however, maintains that France’s decision was a mistake, one which would force Moscow to take countermeasures. “Security guarantees from Western powers for Ukraine would undermine Russia’s security and will make Europe much more dangerous for years and years,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said after G7 countries signed a declaration outlining long-term security assurances for Ukraine to deter future Russian attacks.

How many missiles is France sending to Ukraine and when? 

While France has not confirmed the number of missiles in the weapon package, Ukraine is set to receive a “fairly significant number,” as per multiple reports. News agency Reuters has estimated the number to be around 50, citing a French diplomatic source. Reports have suggested that Ukraine is modifying its Soviet-designed MiG jets to integrate the weapon.

Meanwhile, concerns arose about depleting French stock after trade magazine Défense & Sécurité Internationale claimed in a tweet soon after the announcement that “less than 400” of the missiles remain in service in Paris. A French military source, however, said France had nothing to worry about and that the remaining stock would be enough for the country. 

According to sources, the first batch of SCALPs was already in Ukraine at the time of Mr. Macron’s announcement. Notably, the delivery comes at a time when the missile-maker has planned a mid-life modernisation of SCALP. France, the U.K. and Italy have also come together for the Future Anti-Ship and Cruise Missile programme that aims to replace the SCALP/Storm Shadow missiles.

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