Royal Air Force/Sgt. Laura Bibby
- The British government is sending its Brimstone 2 missiles to Ukraine.
- Brimstone missiles are anti-armor weapons, and the original has already been sent to Ukraine.
- Brimstone 2 has an added feature: the ability for a human to guide the missile to its target.
Ukraine is getting a new British missile with a more human touch.
The Brimstone 2 is a longer-range version of the original Brimstone air-launched anti-tank missile already issued to Ukrainian forces. Also among its new capabilities: It can be guided to its target by a human rather than homing in on its target, or what it thinks is the target, on its own.
The British Ministry of Defense confirmed the missiles were being delivered to Ukraine in a video published on November 27, which detailed the delivery process and the missiles capabilities.
—Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) November 27, 2022
The first Brimstone, developed by European missile maker MBDA, is based on the US-made Hellfire anti-tank missile. It was first deployed by the Royal Air Force in 2005 and was employed during the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
Brimstone 1, a 6-foot-long missile with a range of about 12 miles, was designed as a fire-and-forget weapon. Equipped with a millimeter-wave radar, it could detect and home in on a tank without needing to be guided by the launch aircraft or helicopter.
But combat experience revealed a problem. In Afghanistan, the rules of engagement mandated that missiles must be guided by a human operator to avoid the missile accidentally striking a civilian target. This precluded fire-and-forget weapons.
In response, the RAF asked for a dual-guidance system in 2007. The Brimstone 2 still has fire-and-forget radar, but it’s also equipped with a semi-active laser seeker that allows the missile to home in on a target that a human has illuminated with a laser designator. It also has a longer range, reportedly 25 to 37 miles.
A Brimstone missile at British Royal Air Force base RAF Marham in December 2015.
PHILIP COBURN/AFP via Getty Images
“The new version’s guidance system is understood to be vastly improved since Brimstone 1 to locate challenging targets such as anything obscured by right angles or that can only be seen from an odd angle,” according to British defense site Forces.net.
The original Brimstone was one of the first weapons that Britain provided to Ukraine after Russia’s attack on February 24, though perhaps not in the way that the designers intended. Video appeared on social media in May 2022 showing the Brimstone 1 being launched from a truck rather than from a helicopter or another aircraft.
With Ukraine desperate to stop the Russian offensive, firing self-guided anti-tank missiles made sense. But the Russian advance has been halted and Ukraine has conducted a series of successful counteroffensives that have liberated much of the territory Russia captured. This raises another problem: how to liberate Ukraine without destroying it.
Much of the fighting has been in cities and villages or in areas where there might be civilian homes and vehicles. By keeping a human in the loop, Ukrainian troops can steer the missile toward the right target.
While Brimstone 2 can use an on-board database to match radar signatures it detects with a list of pre-authorized targets, a laser designator gives operators much more flexibility to choose the target.
An RAF Tornado GR4 in Italy in March 2011. Brimstone missiles are visible at the lowest point under the fuselage.
Royal Air Force/Cpl Babbs Robinson
For Ukrainian’s coastal defenses, Brimstone 2 also offers another advantage. The missile has been designed to hit ships and has been tested against swarms of fast in-shore attack craft, or FIAC.
During a May 2013 test, Brimstone missiles using their autonomous millimetric wave mode carried out “the world’s first single button, salvo engagement” against multiple FIAC, destroying three vessels, one of which was moving, inside a kill box without damaging nearby neutral vessels, MBDA says in a product brochure.
During RAF testing in 2014, Brimstone missiles using dual-mode anti-FIAC software took out two speedboats without damaging neutral vessels nearby, the brochure says.
It’s not clear how many Brimstone 2s have been sent to Ukraine. It probably isn’t many, given the limited numbers of precision-guided weapons that NATO militaries have in stock. But a versatile weapon that can hit tanks and ships — with an option between automated and human guidance — will be welcome.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.