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What to know about the role Javelin antitank missiles could play in Ukraine’s fight against Russia

A Ukrainian soldier launches a U.S. Javelin missile during military exercises in Ukraine's Donetsk region on Jan 12. (Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
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The United States and allies have surged weapons to Ukraine in recent weeks in the face of the Russian invasion. Images of destroyed Russian tanks on social media have drawn attention to one particular weapon: the Javelin missile.

The U.S. and other NATO countries sent more than 17,000 antitank weapons, including Javelin missiles, overland to Ukraine via Poland and Romania in the span of less than a week this month, the New York Times reported.

The Javelin has taken on a symbolic valence in pro-Ukraine online chatter. Former reporter Christian Borys created an image of a saint clutching a Javelin and its launch unit. The image on stickers and other gear has raised more than $1 million, Borys said on Twitter, which he said will go to a humanitarian aid charity focused on Ukraine.

As a convoy of Russian military vehicles creeping toward Kyiv captures global attention, the antitank missiles are in the spotlight. Weapons experts say the Javelin could prove particularly effective against Russian tanks, though they caution that the missile systems alone are unlikely to change the trajectory of the war.

Here’s what to know about how they work and the role they could play.

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What is a Javelin?

The Javelin is an antitank missile system that locks onto a target’s thermal picture. The soldier peers through a command launch unit and selects different targets and attack types.

When fired, the missile’s launch motor thrusts it out of the tube before its primary motor turns on and sends the rocket flying. The gentler start reduces debris and smoke, making it harder for the enemy to see where it was launched. It makes use of what is known as a “fire and forget” system, which allows the soldier to take cover or load a new missile while the other one is tracking to its target.

Small weapon, big hit:

The FGM-148 Javelin

The shoulder-mounted Javelin antitank missile system can be operated by a crew of two or even a single soldier.

The command launch unit allows the operator to spot targets using standard visual magnification or two different thermal sensors.

Javelin

missile

Command

launch unit

A launch motor fires to throw the missile out of the launch tube. Once the missile is clear, the primary flight motor ignites, propelling the Javelin toward

its target.

Disposable

launch

tube

The Javelin operator can select a line-of-sight direct launch against a tank’s sides, or a top-down attack against the top of the vehicle, where the armor typically

is thinner.

Top-down

attack

Line-of-sight

attack

The main motor only fires once the missile is at a safe distance, making it difficult for enemies to target the operator with heat sensors.

Once the the missile is fired, the computer guides it, and the operator can move to cover before it hits the target.

Note: Diagram is not to scale.

Sources: Federation of American Scientists;

U.S. Department of Defense; GlobalSecurity.org

Small weapon, big hit: The FGM-148 Javelin

The shoulder-mounted Javelin antitank missile system can be operated by a crew of two or even a single soldier.

The command launch unit allows the operator to spot targets using standard visual magnification or two different thermal sensors.

Javelin

missile

A launch motor fires to throw the missile out of the launch tube. Once the missile is clear, the primary flight motor ignites, propelling the Javelin toward

its target.

Disposable

launch

tube

Command

launch unit

The Javelin operator can select a line-of-sight direct launch against a tank’s sides, or a top-down attack against the top of the vehicle, where the armor typically

is thinner.

Top-down

attack

Line-of-sight

attack

The main motor only fires once the missile is at a safe distance, making it difficult for enemies to target the operator with heat sensors.

Once the the missile is fired, the computer guides it, and the operator can move to cover before it hits the target.

Note: Diagram is not to scale.

Sources: Federation of American Scientists;

U.S. Department of Defense; GlobalSecurity.org

Small weapon, big hit: The FGM-148 Javelin

The shoulder-mounted Javelin antitank missile system can be operated

by a crew of two or even a single soldier.

The command launch unit allows the operator to spot targets using standard visual magnification or two different thermal sensors.

Javelin

missile

A launch motor fires to throw the missile out of the launch tube. Once the missile is clear, the primary flight motor ignites, propelling the Javelin toward

its target.

Command

launch unit

Disposable

launch

tube

The Javelin operator can select

a line-of-sight direct launch against a tank’s sides, or a top-down attack against the top of the vehicle, where the armor typically

is thinner.

Top-down

attack

Line-of-sight attack

The main motor only fires once the missile is at a safe distance, making it difficult for enemies to target the operator with heat sensors.

Once the the missile is fired, the computer guides it, and the operator can move to cover before it hits the target.

Note: Diagram is not to scale.

Sources: Federation of American Scientists;

U.S. Department of Defense; GlobalSecurity.org

The system can fire day or night and has a relatively far range, of up to 2½ miles.

While the Javelin can target any kind of vehicle that emits heat, it is most potent against tanks because it can strike from the top. This is why it’s called a Javelin, like the spear thrown in track and field events that falls to the earth at a steep angle.

Javelins can also fire directly at a target if there is protection above it, and can be used against low-flying helicopters.

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How could they help Ukraine fight Russian forces?

The Javelin is “probably the most sophisticated and most powerful” antitank weapon, said Mark Cancian, senior adviser for the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Ukrainian military shared images of soldiers carrying the Javelin on Twitter on Friday, along with photos of destroyed tanks.

“The very information about the presence of Javelins in the weaponry of the Ukrainian Armed Forces causes panic among the [Russian flag] occupiers,” the tweet said.

Ukraine claims that Russia has lost 335 tanks and just over 1,100 armored combat vehicles in the fighting.

But there isn’t reliable data on how many Javelin missiles Ukraine has used in battle and to what effect, said Amael Kotlarski, a senior analyst at Janes, an open-source defense intelligence agency.

The Ukrainian defense ministry asked Ukrainians in a Facebook post Wednesday not to share information on the purchase of weapons from foreign partners.

Experts say the Javelin is a powerful addition to Ukraine’s existing arsenal of domestically produced antitank missiles.

It’s easy to train fighters to use them, Cancian said, which is advantageous in Ukraine, where civilians have signed up for battle. The United States has trained Ukrainian forces in the past on how to operate the weapons.

Javelins are “particularly useful because the Russians seem to be road-bound,” Cancian added, which makes it easier for Ukrainian forces to set up ambush sites or strong launch points.

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What have Russians done to curb Javelins?

There are few things even the most well-equipped militaries can do about Javelins. Modern tanks are covered with reactive armor, which in some cases is packed with small amounts of explosives that will detonate an incoming warhead.

The Javelin is designed to get past that armor. It uses a tandem warhead, which first either creates a channel into the reactive armor or blows it up, allowing the main warhead to slice right through and explode.

Russian tanks are particularly vulnerable to the weapon, Kotlarski said, because they were designed to be “very small, squat and compact.” A Javelin missile hitting the top of the tank usually means “instant destruction,” he said.

There is some evidence the Russian military is wary of Javelins, including photos showing metal canopies jury-rigged on top of tanks. There are two theories about what these are intended to do. The first is to shield a commander or the turret itself from drones that can either drop munitions or crash into them, kamikaze style. But there is also speculation the canopies are meant to blunt the Javelin’s top-down attack, giving the tank and its crew a slightly better chance of survival.

How a Javelin missile

defeats reactive armor

Reactive armor is designed to fight fire with fire: By exploding on contact, it tries to push an attacking shell, grenade or other missile away from the hull of a tank before it can penetrate. The Raytheon/Lockheed Martin Javelin antitank missile leapfrogs this defense with a double explosive warhead.

1

The Javelin missile is packed with two explosive charges: A small “precursor charge” intended to defeat reactive armor or other obstacles, and a much larger, tank-killing main charge.

Hull of tank

Explosive

Main explosive

charge

Precursor

charge

Missile

Reactive

armor

Outer

plate

Inner

plate

2

As the missile strikes the reactive armor, the precursor charge detonates, igniting the explosive packed into the reactive armor. Smaller, simpler missiles would be stopped there,

without penetrating

the tank’s hull.

Reactive armor

explosive

Precursor

charge detonates

3

A split second later, however, the missile’s main charge detonates. With the reactive armor’s explosive charge already gone, nothing prevents the powerful Javelin from smashing straight through

the tank’s hull.

Main

charge

detonates

Note: Diagram

is not to scale.

Sources: Federation of American Scientists;

U.S. Department of Defense; GlobalSecurity.org

How a Javelin missile

defeats reactive armor

Reactive armor is designed to fight fire with fire: By exploding on contact, it tries to push an attacking shell, grenade or other missile away from the hull of a tank before it can penetrate. The Raytheon/Lockheed Martin Javelin antitank missile leapfrogs this defense with a double explosive warhead.

1

The Javelin missile is packed with two explosive charges: A small “precursor charge” intended to defeat reactive armor or other obstacles, and a much larger, tank-killing main charge.

Inner

plate

Hull

of tank

Outer

plate

Main explosive

charge

Precursor

charge

Missile

Reactive

armor

Explosive

2

As the missile strikes the reactive armor, the precursor charge detonates, igniting the explosive packed into the reactive armor. Smaller, simpler missiles would be stopped there, without penetrating

the tank’s hull.

Reactive armor

explosive

Precursor

charge detonates

3

A split second later, however, the missile’s main charge detonates. With the reactive armor’s explosive charge already gone, nothing prevents the powerful Javelin from smashing straight through the tank’s hull.

Main

charge

detonates

Note: Diagram

is not to scale.

Sources: Federation of American Scientists;

U.S. Department of Defense; GlobalSecurity.org

How a Javelin missile defeats reactive armor

Reactive armor is designed to fight fire with fire: By exploding on contact, it tries to push an attacking shell, grenade or other missile away from the hull of a tank before it can penetrate. The Raytheon/Lockheed Martin Javelin antitank missile leapfrogs this defense with a double explosive warhead.

Outer

plate

Explosive

Inner

plate

Hull

of tank

1

The Javelin missile is packed with two explosive charges: A small “precursor charge” intended to defeat reactive armor or other obstacles, and a much larger, tank-killing main charge.

Missile

Main explosive

charge

Precursor

charge

Reactive

armor

2

Reactive armor

explosive

As the missile strikes the reactive armor, the precursor charge detonates, igniting the explosive packed into the reactive armor. Smaller, simpler missiles would be stopped there, without penetrating the tank’s hull.

Precursor

charge detonates

3

A split second later, however,

the missile’s main charge detonates. With the reactive armor’s explosive charge already gone, nothing prevents the powerful Javelin from smashing straight through the tank’s hull.

Main

charge

detonates

Note: Diagram is not to scale.

Sources: Federation of American Scientists;

U.S. Department of Defense; GlobalSecurity.org

The design concept is similar to that of slat armor, which U.S. and other militaries have used to surround vehicles in steel cages, to detonate rocket-propelled grenades prematurely.

Social media has been littered with photos of destroyed Russian tanks with cages. The images have acquired a symbolic resonance so quickly that Internet users have coined the term “cope cage,” earning a page on the Internet’s primary meme directory.

Others have suggested thermal attachments to the tank may be an attempt to complicate the missile’s ability to focus on the target.

A Telegram channel associated with pro-Russian forces also published instructions for Russian soldiers on how to use Javelin systems that they capture in Ukraine.

What are the Javelin’s limitations?

The Javelin is “not a silver bullet,” said Kotlarski, from Janes.

“There is a prevailing narrative in the public mind to sort of lionize certain weapons systems as having a defining impact on certain conflicts,” he said, but “the reality is often more complex.”

Though potent, particularly in open areas where Russian military vehicles are lumbering toward Ukrainian cities, the Javelin does have some drawbacks.

“It has the disadvantage of all these kinds of antitank weapons, which is that they [the tanks] can shoot back at you and you just have people hiding behind a hill or a bush,” Cancian said. “It’s not like an armored vehicle where you have some protection.”

The weapons systems are also expensive and complicated to produce, with estimates of production costs ranging between $80,000 and $200,000 per missile, according to Kotlarski. U.S. weaponmakers have the capacity to produce a maximum of 6,500 Javelin missiles per year, according to the Army’s estimates, though the existing contract caps production at 2,100.

FGM-148 Javelin

Guidance

system

Flight

motor

Sensors

Precursor

charge

Main

explosive

charge

Launch

motor

3 FT. 7 IN.

FGM-148 Javelin

Guidance

system

Sensors

Flight motor

Precursor charge

Main

explosive

charge

Launch

motor

3 FT. 7 IN.

FGM-148 Javelin

Sensors

Guidance system

Flight motor

Precursor charge

Main charge

Launch motor

3 FT. 7 IN.

If the conflict drags on and Ukraine burns through existing Javelin supplies, the U.S. and European countries may worry that handing over more weapons could leave them vulnerable, Kotlarski said.

As its ground forces struggle to make progress amid fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russia is relying on shelling besieged cities and launching unguided bombs from the sky.

After more than two weeks of war, the Russian military grinds forward at a heavy cost

And with battles expected to play out increasingly in cities, the Javelin — which is tricky to fire safely out of building windows — may not prove especially useful, Kotlarski said.

“A Javelin in itself is not going to be able to allow the Ukrainians to defeat the entire Russian army,” he said.

Why Washington shut down Poland’s offer to give Ukraine fighter jets

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said weapons provided by the West so far are insufficient and called for fighter jets, setting off a fierce debate among U.S. politicians about whether to supply the aircraft. The Biden administration has so far shut down the idea.

“We believe the most effective way to support the Ukrainian military in their fight against Russia is to provide increased amounts of anti-tank weapons and air defense systems,” the commander of U.S. European Command, Gen. Tod D. Wolters, said in a statement.

Dalton Bennett and David Stern contributed to this report.

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