The American-made Javelin anti-tank missile has recently appeared in the news as one possible way Ukraine might defend itself from a Russian ground assault.
Although the missiles are highly effective against the kinds of main battle tanks fielded by the Russian Ground Forces, Ukraine has purchased too few to make much of an impact on the battlefield. The missiles, and their launch teams, would also be vulnerable to Russia’s battlefield specialty: artillery.
The FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile was introduced in the 1990s as a replacement for the M-47 Dragon in U.S. Army and Marine Corps service. The Javelin was a significant upgrade over the Dragon, featuring twice the range, and improved warhead, a shorter time to target, and the ability to climb sharply and then strike a tank from above, punching through the thin overhead armor.
Importantly for the missile crews, Javelin is an infra-red guided “fire and forget” weapon, meaning the gunner can locate a tank, lock onto a target, fire, and then run away to safety. Javelin is in use with armies worldwide, including Australia, France, Norway, Taiwan, and Ukraine.
The U.S. has sold Ukraine Javelin missiles twice. The first sale in 2018 was for 210 missiles and 37 command launch units (CLUs), for an estimated cost of $47 million. A second sale involved 10 additional CLUs and 150 missiles.
“Ukraine’s twenty-eight combat battalions would need about 450 antitank weapons, based on U.S. practice,” Mark Cancian, a retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel and analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Popular Mechanics. “(Ukraine) could likely use a lot more anti-tank weapons. During the Cold War, the U.S. strategy to offset the large numbers of Soviet tanks was to proliferate anti-tank weapons on the battlefield.”
In other words, Ukraine has only enough Javelins to equip three of twenty-eight battalions, though Cancian said that it does have stocks of older anti-tank missiles from the Cold War era. Ukraine’s army also has an unknown number of locally produced Skif laser-guided anti-tank missiles. Furthermore, three battalions are only enough troops to cover about seven miles of the front line—while Ukraine’s border with Russia is 1,400 miles long. Russian intelligence could merely identify Ukrainian units outfitted with Javelins and then have a tank and mechanized infantry forces skirt around them.
Or it could pound them into oblivion. Another problem with the Javelin is that launch teams are susceptible to artillery fire—a Russian specialty. Javelins are typically carried on foot by infantry or mounted in light armored vehicles, modes of transport that lack the heavy armor protection of tanks. In July 2014, a Russian artillery strike on Ukrainian forces at Zelenopillya, preceded by reconnaissance drones and cyberattacks, resulted in, “thirty Ukrainian soldiers dead, hundreds more wounded, and over two battalions worth of combat vehicles destroyed.”
In the event of a major attack by the Russian Ground Forces, “made in the USA” Javelin missiles would likely only have a secondary role. It’s a great missile, but in current numbers is just not a threat to Russia’s armored spearheads. The real threat to an invasion force is the thousands of other, more local missiles, old and new, in Ukraine’s arsenal.