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As was well covered in the media, the Russian war of aggression came into a new phase in October with strikes on the civilian energy infrastructure in Ukraine. I can understand why they're doing this and (I think that I understand) why they didn't do it before.

Obviously, good air defense capabilities can minimize the hits, and Ukraine has consistently asked for such capabilities since the beginning of the war. Now, I read about the Iris-T from Germany, NASAMS from the US, and some other systems from France and Spain flowing into Ukraine. Why didn't this happen before, i.e. why were these systems not supplied earlier in the war or even in advance? This seems to be a political decision, thus asking here.

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    The assumption that Ukraine did not receive air defense weapons is not correct. They did receive them. Look at % of shot-down incoming missiles - quite often it goes over 50%. We need to keep in mind that Ukraine is really big, it needs a lot of air-defense systems.
    – CorwinCZ
    Nov 22 at 9:41
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    Calling it "the Russian war of aggression" feels kind of...opinionated? in a way that feels too similar to the "lost cause" rhetoric surrounding the American civil war IMO. It feels like wording that pushes a certain view of the war, which all of us either already agree with (o/), or are not going to have our minds changed by how you phrase it. Nov 22 at 17:01
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    @RadvylfPrograms That's how this was defined by the UN General Assembly vote. And for anyone familiar with international law, this is a war of aggression. To put more, a war with multiple war crimes committed against Ukrainian civilians as highlighted by multiple respected international organizations. But you can call it a Special Military Operation if you prefer. You can also say that Holocaust is not a genocide, that Texas is not part of the US, or that France has never colonized Mali.
    – Igor
    Nov 22 at 23:38
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    @Igor: I think it's just that by sticking to an approved formula, whether it's "Special Military Operation" or "Russian war of aggression", anyone will sound a bit like a diplomat trying to establish the narrative. Of course it's important to establish the narrative, and if it didn't matter what terminology people use then Russia could just call it a war. They don't, because it does matter. But for example someone could say "invasion", and I think it'd be pretty clear they are rejecting the Russian narrative, without using a wordy formula. Just a matter of what impression you want to give. Nov 23 at 14:52
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    @RadvylfPrograms I hope you will never be in a situation when your home is burnt down, your family is raped and killed and when you tell about this crime and aggression, the people will tell you: 'this feels kind of ..opinionated' and seems like you 'pushes a certain view of event'. Nov 24 at 17:31

3 Answers 3

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The question is both interesting and somewhat incorrect in its assumptions.

Why didn't?

Oh, but they did. Ukraine got a very sizable proportion of NATO's stock of MANPADS (Stingers) for example. There just isn't that much sitting around waiting to be given away and it will take years to replenish.

The need wasn't really there and those systems aren't so suitable
  • Russia's air force, after an initial foray in the beginning, learned to stay away. It's been more or less absent since. More on that later.

  • Ukraine did have stocks of systems like S300s for longer range defense. But maybe not all that much to shoot at. So air defense systems weren't a priority.

  • Shooting down missiles is hard. I don't know exactly what combination of stuff they use to intercept, but it's never a given. Especially when you are trying to defend populations as whole. Israel has an unusual degree of protection with Iron Dome, but a) they've had decades to prep and b) their opponents use fairly low tech gear. Normally, you take out the enemy's launch sites but a) Russia is a nuclear state and b) shoots from home territory (or Belarus airspace) often as not. Some of Russia's stock of higher end gear (dwindling down) is non-interceptable, like the hypersonics.

  • Those Gepards have a short range. They will not cover everything.

You need to watch the $$$$

Russia's purchased Shaheds are supposedly $20K weapons. Even keeping in mind the relative economic weights of NATO vs Russia, shooting them down with $1.2M missiles is problematic.

(That's not to say they shouldn't be used to protect power stations. Only that can't be the long term solution. Unless NATO has more of those missiles than Russia has Shaheds. And unless Ukraine's army can manage without those missiles at the front. Neither of those conditions hold true)

Guns are better, costing less per shot down drone. But they need to be deployed near the power plants they are protecting.

It will take a while to figure this out.

Russia has found something more useful than the generic population shelling and bombing they had been engaging in. Additionally they have engineers who know the weak points of Ukrainian energy infrastructure (much of it co-designed during Soviet times) This will require a long term approach, without just one fix.

  • harden power station defenses, improve interception rates

  • transition Ukraine to replacement electrical gear (some of their heavy electrical generation stuff is Soviet vintage - no one has it around much) and Western stuff is incompatible.

    Transformers are used to step the power down from the high voltage that comes from power stations to a voltage that households can use. Much of Ukraine’s grid uses the old Soviet five-step system to do this. Western European systems use different voltages. Transformers are built to handle specific voltages, so those built for western European systems cannot replace older Ukrainian ones.

  • continue giving them weapons to beat Russia on the ground.

  • tighten sanctions so that the Shahed's Western-sourced electronics aren't available.

  • trust that the Ukrainian people will react much like Londoners did during the Blitz - i.e. it wasn't a winning long term move by Nazi Germany to try to terrorize people. On the other hand - taking out electricity, in winter, is a more effective means to hurt civilians, so best not to trust overmuch in WW2 wisdom.

  • win the war: that's the only long term solution to protecting civilians over that large a country from a high(ish) tech adversary.

Don't lose sight of the end goal

It is to take out Russia's armed forces from Ukraine. One concern by military experts is that Russia is not so much trying to beat Ukrainian civilians into submitting as it is to exhaust Ukrainian air defense systems. Then they could bring their tactical air force back on the battlefield and win on the ground.

This is a pretty good, if dense, summary from Rusi.org:

p.s. Fear of provoking Russia was likely not high on the considerations. These are defensive systems. There is some talk about supplying aircraft to help with the drones - that would be a sticking point, to an extent.

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    I've been looking for a quote from Nebenzya, Russia's UN ambassador, in which he said that the drones weren't aiming for Ukrainian civiian assets, but that their navigation systems had been confused by Ukrainian counterfire so they went off course. So not shooting at them would be a solution, no? Anyone remember seeing this? Nov 21 at 18:06
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Thank you for such a detailed response. If you don't mind I'd like to clarify a bit. Ukrainian officials state that now with the Western defense systems (NASAMS, Iris-T, whatever else - I don't know), they intercept something like 70-80% of the targets. So I'd expect that if the West doubles the number of the systems, that will improve the coverage and thus heighten the interception ratio. And exhaustion will be less of a risk with more systems on the ground. So unless the West doesn't have those systems at all, why not to send more and faster?
    – Igor
    Nov 22 at 0:19
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica The quote you mention is from his 21.10.22 speech - here's its transcript in English. Search for the paragraph starting with "Of course", it's the only one on the page. Nov 22 at 3:30
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica That really smells like Russian disinformation, but even if it were true: a) it won't help with missiles "accidentally" hitting civilian targets for other reasons, and b) a solution to what? After all, the Russians would probably also be killing far fewer Ukrainians if they just surrendered, which is also a "solution," but not one acceptable to Ukraine.
    – cjs
    Nov 22 at 6:28
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The likely reasons are listed here for instance and are:

  • fear of provoking Russia,
  • worries the technology could fall into Russian hands,
  • doubts Ukraine could operate the systems.

Those calculations seemed reasonable at the time but now with Russia destroying energy infrastructure either you give these weapons or the war is more or less lost. So then okay.

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    The IRIS-T from Germany that went to Ukraine had been supposed to be sold to Egypt, it was redirected. The Bundeswehr doesn't have the IRIS-T yet.
    – o.m.
    Nov 21 at 18:02
  • @o.m. So the German government wanted to sell the system before getting it to their own military? Does it mean that they have better systems already in place, or they were so confident they don't need them that decided first to sell several?
    – Igor
    Nov 22 at 0:00
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    @Igor, it means that German politics had planned to let foreign sales cover part of the R&D expenses, and to replace the existing German SAMs later. Different threat perceptions until February, and even today when it comes to the balance of fighters vs. long-range SAMs vs. medium-range SAMs. Germany is using Patriot missiles and fighters.
    – o.m.
    Nov 22 at 5:50
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    @Igor: To be somewhat more precise: the German Air Force is using IRIS-T for over a decade, since IRIS-T was developed to be fully integrated with the Eurofighter Typhoon. IOW, if you want to use the full capabilities of the IRIS-T, you need to fire it from a Eurofighter and if you want to use the full capabilities of the Eurofighter, you need to arm it with IRIS-T. What we are talking about here, is specifically the IRIS-T SL (surface-launched) variant, which is a newer development and is indeed not yet used by the German Army. Nov 22 at 13:57
  • @JörgWMittag interestingly NASAMS has the same type of relationship to air-to-air AIM-120 AMRAAM - one version of NASAMS is an AIM-120 ground launcher. Other versions will fire Sidewinders... and IRIS-T. Nov 22 at 20:35
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I think you are framing this wrong. This is not a discrete nothing before and something after but rather along a continuum. Some equipment like the Gepard AA tank has already been sent beforehand, although that might be of limited use against missile attacks.

Additionally to the points listed by Stančikas it is also worth considering that European militaries are pretty badly funded since the end of the cold war. There simply is not that much operational equipment in the first place, therefore in the beginning mostly obsolete equipment was sent. The Gepard is a good example of this, being phased out 10 years ago it did not hurt the German military in any way. After the October strikes the balance has changed.

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  • Please, correct me if I'm wrong, but Gepards were provided by Germany, while the US also has a lot of systems (like the recently given NASAMS), so the EU issues are one side of the problem. There are also the US, Canada, Australia, and some others. So, in this sense, the framing seems quite general. What I might have misformulated is that I was really asking about universal and semi-automated systems. As you mention, Gepard is not very useful against missiles. And, again if I understand this correctly, it requires a human to shoot while "air defense" seems to be something more automated.
    – Igor
    Nov 22 at 0:06
  • @Igor the US military is also chronically underfunded, and has severely depleted stockpiles due to the now more than 20 years of continuous warfare in the Middle East and Afghanistan. As a result US stockpiles are seriously depleted as well, especially those of offensive systems (and if they are like the Dutch, they'll have sold anything not actively being used to fund spare parts purchases long ago).
    – jwenting
    Nov 22 at 10:21
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    Not sure if I would call the US underfunded. It is at roughly 3.5% of GDP while most European nations are close to 1%. The US military might be overstretched. Regarding the missile defence capabilities, that is probably right. But it helps to keep in mind that missile defence is a high end capability and therefore something your own military might not just be able to give away
    – Manziel
    Nov 22 at 10:25
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    @jwenting "Orders new ships and immediately mothballs them" is a sign of wasteful spending, not "needs more money"; no amount of money could prevent someone from buying stuff and throwing it out immediately! Double the money? Double the number of ships thrown out!
    – Yakk
    Nov 22 at 15:52
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    @Yakk rather the ships were ordered when budgets were sufficient for keeping them but took so long to deliver that by the time they entered service they were surplus to requirements (plus, because of political wrangling, of such poor design and quality that they are useless. Looking at you, LCS). Combination of poor political decision making, declining maintenance and staffing budgets, and insanely long development cycles.
    – jwenting
    Nov 23 at 4:13

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