Zelensky’s request, and the international response, reflect the missiles’ military suitability and political acceptability for Ukraine’s defence against more numerous Russian invaders.
Russia’s numerical superiority compared to Ukraine makes it impractical for Ukrainians to simply fight tank-versus-tank or plane-versus-plane. Anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles partly make up the difference.
The technology works particularly well for defence. Soldiers basically point and shoot the missiles at targets they see. This can include armoured vehicles driving along roads or aircraft flying overhead.
Ironically, Russia’s predecessor, the Soviet Union, was a leader in missile development. For example, Egypt used Soviet-supplied missiles to destroy Israeli tanks and aircraft during the 1973 war.
Today’s missiles cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. But they can destroy tanks and warplanes costing millions or tens of millions more.
That makes the missiles good for asymmetric “David and Goliath” situations, where one army is much smaller than its opponent.
Ukraine has apparently used its missiles and other weapons in a highly effective manner. It claims to be regularly destroying Russian warplanes, helicopters, tanks and other armoured vehicles.
A new internet meme has consequently appeared: “Saint Javelin of the Ukraine.”
The image shows a woman wearing medieval clothes but carrying a Javelin anti-tank weapon. That’s an apparent nod to Saint Olga of Kiev, an Eastern Orthodox Church saint who protected her son and avenged her husband’s death in medieval Ukraine.
Ukraine’s success with the missiles has also prompted a darkly humorous announcement from Ukraine’s tax authorities: Captured Russian tanks won’t need to be declared as assets on income tax forms, because they’re clearly not worth much.
The missiles also have a diplomatic advantage. Their low cost and defensive usage make them politically easier for other countries to provide.
By contrast, governments disagree about sending more expensive offensive weapons like warplanes.
The M72 light anti-tank missiles from Canada were also designed during the Cold War, though they’re still being produced. They have limited utility against modern tanks but remain effective against other vehicles.
Ukraine apparently has not received any larger vehicle-mounted missiles. It still hopes to get some from European countries to replenish its S-300 air defence systems.
Like any weapon, however, Ukraine’s missiles have limitations.
Many Russian tanks have “reactive armour” that resembles metal bricks glued to the outside. When missiles hit, the armour explodes, thereby interfering with the missiles’ own detonations.
Aircraft instead try to throw incoming missiles off course. Burning flares and infrared jammers can confuse a missile’s heat-seeking guidance system.
Ukraine’s anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles also face operational limitations.
They’re great at slowing down Russian forces heading into Ukraine. But they’re less helpful for pushing them out once after they’ve surrounded and begun bombarding cities like Mariupol.
For that mission, Ukraine likely needs to counter-attack with tanks and airstrikes. And then they’ll face Russia’s own anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.
So even as other nations continue rushing missiles to Ukraine, the long-term odds against that country look formidable.