Why Germany’s Taurus is Europe’s most-wanted long-range missile

Britain, France and the US have supplied Ukraine’s armed forces with powerful longer-range missiles to help fight Russia’s invasion. But the Ukrainian army really wants the German-made Taurus systems.

Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz is refusing, saying his country’s troops would have to be sent to Ukraine to programme the missiles, dragging it further into the conflict with Moscow. Berlin is also concerned over escalation if Kyiv strikes targets in Russia or the bridge linking Russia to the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.

The debate has highlighted Taurus’s capabilities compared with the Anglo-French Storm Shadow and Scalp-EG systems.

How superior is the Taurus missile to its French and British peers?

The Taurus cruise missiles, fired by fighter jets, are roughly the same length and weight as the UK’s Storm Shadow and France’s Scalp-EG.

What really sets the German missile apart is its Mephisto intelligent warhead system. Unlike traditional warheads which detonate after a set time, Mephisto can penetrate several layers of material and its so-called fuze that activates the warhead, can be programmed to go off in the optimal spot, ensuring maximum damage to structures such as bridges and bunkers.

In a call recently leaked by the Kremlin, German officers discussed the Crimea bridge as a potential target, with one noting that unlike the Storm Shadow/Scalp-EG missiles, the Tauruses would be able to “penetrate” its structure.

The Taurus has a “higher ‘kill probability’ because its superior fuze system allows its warhead to destroy complex structures, such as bridges, with greater likelihood compared with Storm Shadow/Scalp-EG”, said Fabian Hoffmann, a missile technology doctoral research fellow at the University of Oslo.

The missile is also powered by a turbofan engine, which blows in more air, giving it a longer range than the turbojet engine-powered Storm Shadow/Scalp-EG missiles. Hoffman estimates Taurus could strike targets up to 250km farther away than the UK and French competitors.

Its stealth technology and design means it can fly as a low as 50 metres, evading detection from most radars.

However, Christian Mölling, defence expert at the think-tank German Society for Foreign Policy, said the debate in Germany has focused less on the missile’s “military impact” and more on Russia’s potential reaction to Berlin sending such powerful weapons to Ukraine.

Who makes the Tauruses?

The Taurus system is built by a joint venture between the German arm of Europe’s largest missile maker, MBDA, and Sweden’s Saab. Bavarian-based TDW, a subsidiary of MBDA Deutschland, makes the Mephisto warhead. No missiles are in production. The Spanish, South Korean and German militaries have stocks of Taurus missiles but none have been used in war.

Production lines are idle: they were last active in 2019, following an order by the South Korean government. The plants in the Bavarian town of Schrobenhausen are only carrying out refurbishments of sold missiles. Analysts estimate that each missile costs about €1.5mn, depending on the size of the order.

An Exhibit of a Taurus KEPD 350 cruise missile in a showroom

Storm Shadow/Scalp-EG is manufactured by MBDA in the UK and in France. Last year saw the first use of the cruise missiles in Ukraine — gifted by UK and France — released from Ukraine’s Su-24 ground-attack aircraft.

There is one active Scalp-EG production line in France delivering an order from Greece. Athens procured some additional missiles as part of a wider weapons package for Dassault Aviation’s Rafale jets.

Neither the UK nor France have disclosed how many missiles they have sent to Ukraine. However, prior to sending Storm Shadows to Kyiv, Britain had a stockpile of up to 850, Hoffmann estimated. France had stockpiles of up to 460 Scalp-EG missiles before deliveries to Ukraine.

The US started supplying Ukraine with the Army Tactical Missile System, ballistic missiles known as ATACMS, late last year. Built by Lockheed Martin, ATACMS are fired from launchers on the ground and have a maximum range of 300km — although the ones sent to Kyiv are the older missiles with a range of 165km.

How long would it take to restart production?

Joachim Knopf, managing director of Taurus Systems, in January said Taurus production could be resumed “at short notice” as long as an order was placed.

Nevertheless, analysts estimate a new Taurus missile would take about two years to produce.

Increasing or restarting production of a cruise missile “can’t be done overnight, with the supply chain also having to increase output or restart production of components, all of which takes time”, said Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Any missiles sent to Ukraine would likely come from the Bundeswehr’s stock of roughly 600 Taurus missiles — although only half of them are believed to be operational, according to Hoffmann.

A The SCALP-EG long Range Autonomous Cruise Missile

Beyond the debate over supplying Ukraine, Europe needed to consider its own arsenal, Hoffman said. “[Missile systems] are key capabilities in modern warfare — we don’t have enough of them in our arsenals and we currently don’t produce them,” he said.

Meanwhile, Russia has increased production of its long-range missiles, from about 40 a month in 2022 to about 100 a month by the end of last year, according to the Royal United Services Institute.

How easy is it to train personnel to operate the Taurus?

The leaked call between German officers revealed Ukrainian troops could be trained to use the missile systems despite Scholz’s previous claims that Germans would need to operate them. The officers discussed various training scenarios, which could be done in less than 12 weeks.

Mölling said the real “bottleneck” would be the technical integration of any missile system into Ukraine’s existing aircraft. But he added that “it has been done before, it happened with the Storm Shadow and Scalp”.

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin