UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made an unannounced visit to Kyiv last Saturday to meet Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in his first visit to the country since taking office. He followed in the footsteps of his predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss and became the third British PM to visit Ukraine since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukraine war.
During his meeting with Zelensky, Sunak re-emphasised that British support for Ukraine in their struggle against Russia will remain constant.
He also announced an additional £50m package of defence aid comprising, amongst other things, 125 anti-aircraft guns plus technical equipment to help Ukraine counter Iranian-supplied drones, including radars and anti-drone technology.
It’s also reported that Britain has sent Ukraine an advanced model of the laser-guided Brimstone missile with double the range of the previous design. Britain first gave Brimstone missiles to Ukraine about six months ago. The missiles are usually air-launched from aircraft or drones, but Ukrainian troops have modified trucks to serve as mobile launch platforms to destroy Russian tanks and other vehicles from long range.
When launched from a ‘plane the range of the newer Brimstone 2 missile is roughly 37 miles, but when ground-launched this reduces to approximately 12 miles. The missiles can hit targets by tracking a laser fired by troops, aircraft or vehicles, or select its own target from a pre-programmed list through the use of an extremely high-frequency millimetric wave radar.
On top of all this, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has just announced during a visit to Oslo that the UK will also supply three Sea King helicopters, one of which is already in Ukrainian hands, and 10,000 rounds of 155 mm NATO-standard artillery shells to help Ukraine continue the fight.
The Sea Kings helicopters were retired from Royal Navy service in 2016, but are a combat-proven design having seen operational service in the Falklands – with one famously flown by now out-of-favour Prince Andrew – Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It’s the first time a piloted aircraft has been supplied to Ukraine by the west.
We should perhaps take a look at the economics of each of these weapons systems now being sent to Ukraine. Although which anti-aircraft guns and systems are being supplied is not clear, the shells they fire will cost considerably less than the anti-air weapons currently in use to down Iran-supplied drones. A Shahed-136 armed drone costs roughly £20,000, whilst a UK-supplied Starstreak missile comes in at £100,000. The cost disparity is obvious.
Brimstone, on the other hand, which each cost about £175,000, will destroy a tank like the Russian T 80 costing approximately £3 million. The economics of waging war continue to play a big part in the efforts of both sides to keep going.
We have to be careful, though, not to be too simplistic in our economic cost/benefit analysis. Whereas it might appear at first to be profligate to bring down an armed drone using a missile costing five times as much, that’s only part of the calculation. There’s no gainsaying how much damage and destruction that drone might have caused had it not been intercepted. It could have landed in a field or it could have landed on a power station causing millions of pounds of damage, not to mention the accompanying death and injury.
And we should not imagine that the economics of warfare are anything new. As Kipling wrote in his poem about irregular warfare on the North-West Frontier, “Arithmetic on The Frontier”, over a century ago:
“A scrimmage in a Border Station —
A canter down some dark defile —
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail —
The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!”
The question in the current Russo-Ukraine war is now how long either side can keep going. For Russia, the vast expenditure of munitions has almost exhausted their available supplies and their factories have not yet fully ramped up to replenish what has been used. In addition, western sanctions are severely limiting the amount of critical components they require for their more sophisticated systems.
For Ukraine, the question is more one of how long the western nations are prepared to send military support in the face of rampant inflation and the cost of living crisis. The USA and the UK have both run their own military munitions reserves low, with Britain’s Ministry of Defence having just issued a “letter of intent” to arms manufacturer BAE signalling an imminent order for replacement 155 mm artillery rounds.
With the war likely to continue through winter and into next spring, the economic and financial burdens can only intensify. At some point something has to give.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a Defence Analyst and a former Army officer, author & broadcaster – sign up to his podcast at defencereview.uk
Have you signed up for the Defence Review Podcast? https://open.spotify.com/show/4vHJsYgxfrDyTkKgMpGlqs