Iconic Tank Killers

An important part of the multi-billion-dollar military aid package being sent to Ukraine is Javelin missiles, more precisely known as the FGM-148 Javelin or Advanced Anti-Tank Weapon System-Medium (AAWS-M). They are portable American-made anti-tank systems that have been in continuous use since the mid-1990s.

A soldier from the Idaho Army National Guard fires a Javelin anti-tank missile at the Orchard Combat Training Center ranges in Idaho. Image Credit: Thomas Alvarez/Idaho Army National Guard
A soldier from the Idaho Army National Guard fires a Javelin anti-tank missile at the Orchard Combat Training Center ranges in Idaho. Image Credit: Thomas Alvarez/Idaho Army National Guard

Since the early days of the Ukrainian conflict, Javelins have been blowing Russian tanks off of their treads right and left. However, they are only one of many from a specific type of weapons systems being employed to extract a heavy price from Putin’s forces.

When speaking of these weapons, CSIS International Security Program Senior Adviser Mark Cancian says, “The Javelins are the top end. They’re most expensive and the most effective.”

Manufactured in the US by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, the Javelin costs $178,000, including the launch system and missile, according to the Pentagon’s 2021 budget. Each replacement missile costs around $78,000. With Russian tanks costing up to $4 million each, you literally get a lot of bang for the buck destroyed.

Russian T-72 tank following a Javelin strike. Image credit: ukrinform.net
Russian T-72 tank following a Javelin strike. The Russians believed these birdcages welded to the turrets would defeat the top-down explosive charge of the Javelin. Obviously not. Image credit: ukrinform.net

Briefly, the Javelin is a long-range guided antitank missile capable of being carried by one person.  To date, we have provided at least 7,000 of them to Ukraine. They have become so popular that the Ukrainians have even composed a song about them.

The Javelin song. Video courtesy of YouTube and FAMA.

Fire and Forget

Javelins are equipped with two explosive charges and are capable of piercing the armor of the most sophisticated tanks in the world, particularly the Russian T-90, whose own armor is reactive and works to lessen the impact of a projectile to keep it from penetrating the tank. The first charge of the Javelin explodes on impact with the target, and it releases a second, even more powerful charge which pierces the armor.

With a range of 2,500 meters, they can be used in direct attack mode to destroy a target or, if fired upwards, to shoot down a low-flying aircraft such as a helicopter. But the weapon can also be used in indirect attack mode from above. The missile rises up to 160 meters in altitude and then plunges vertically onto its target, like the javelins of ancient Roman legionaries. Tanks have rather thin armor on top of their turrets and with Russian tanks, their turrets store 23 rounds of ready ammunition.  The penetration of the Javelin through turret vertically and the resulting explosion often cooks off these ready rounds, often launching the turret into the sky and instantly killing the crew. In Ukraine, Russian tanks are earning a reputation for being death traps as the Javelin racks up a hit rate in 98% range.

Javelins are extremely easy to use. They are basically a “fire and forget” weapon with a lock-on before launch and automatic self-guidance. The system can be set up and ready to fire in less than 30 seconds. Reload time is less than 20 seconds. These are “soft launching” weapons, enabling them to be fired from covered positions or inside buildings. Compressed air ejects the missile from the launcher and once the missile is clear of the launch area, a secondary propellant is ignited. This is what propels the weapon towards its target.

The gunner selects direct attack mode to engage covered targets, bunkers, buildings, and helicopters.

The top attack mode is selected against tanks, in which case the Javelin climbs above and strikes down on the target to penetrate the roof of the tank where there is the least armor protection.