Ukraine Pins Hopes on Javelin Missiles to Dent Putin’s Armor

And soldiers tend to fire them at everything.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Ukrainian serviceman rides atop of an APC with Javelin anti-tank missiles during a military parade in Kiev on August 24, 2018 to celebrate the Independence Day, 27 years since Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union.
A Ukrainian serviceman rides atop of an APC with Javelin anti-tank missiles during a military parade in Kiev on August 24, 2018 to celebrate the Independence Day, 27 years since Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union.
A Ukrainian serviceman rides atop of an APC with Javelin anti-tank missiles during a military parade in Kiev on August 24, 2018 to celebrate the Independence Day, 27 years since Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union. Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration has used harsh language to underscore Russia’s isolation as it has massed more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, signaling the potential of a renewed invasion of the former Soviet republic. The United States and NATO countries have also promised to lay down hard-hitting sanctions against Russia and boost military deployments to Eastern European nations.

Yet perhaps the biggest sign of the West’s efforts to defend Ukraine can be found on the runways of Boryspil International Airport in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, where Javelin anti-tank systems, shoulder-fired missiles designed to help Ukrainian troops destroy advancing Russian tanks, have been showing up from the United States, Britain, and Baltic countries over the past several weeks. Ukraine’s faith in the Javelin system is so strong that the country’s defense chief recently went as far as to say his confidence in the armed forces was as effective as the shoulder-fired rocket. 

But what makes the Javelin so useful? It’s a fire-and-forget system, which means that defenders can basically point and shoot, blasting off rounds before seeking cover from advancing tanks, for instance, which Russia could send onto the battlefield to mop up after initial air and missile salvos that experts expect Moscow would launch in an effort to knock out Ukrainian air defenses. 

The Biden administration has used harsh language to underscore Russia’s isolation as it has massed more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, signaling the potential of a renewed invasion of the former Soviet republic. The United States and NATO countries have also promised to lay down hard-hitting sanctions against Russia and boost military deployments to Eastern European nations.

Yet perhaps the biggest sign of the West’s efforts to defend Ukraine can be found on the runways of Boryspil International Airport in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, where Javelin anti-tank systems, shoulder-fired missiles designed to help Ukrainian troops destroy advancing Russian tanks, have been showing up from the United States, Britain, and Baltic countries over the past several weeks. Ukraine’s faith in the Javelin system is so strong that the country’s defense chief recently went as far as to say his confidence in the armed forces was as effective as the shoulder-fired rocket. 

But what makes the Javelin so useful? It’s a fire-and-forget system, which means that defenders can basically point and shoot, blasting off rounds before seeking cover from advancing tanks, for instance, which Russia could send onto the battlefield to mop up after initial air and missile salvos that experts expect Moscow would launch in an effort to knock out Ukrainian air defenses. 

The Javelin has had relatively little combat experience, but it tends to be effective and easy enough to use that soldiers will fire the rockets at almost anything. In Afghanistan, U.S. troops used the Javelin to fire at insurgents who hid in caves, a quicker response than calling in an airstrike. 

“One thing the U.S. forces found and is likely to be true of the Ukrainians is that the infantry tends to shoot these things at everything,” said Mark Cancian, a senior advisor with the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a former colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. “You may hit it once, twice, three times, but eventually, you’re going to hit a track or hit a weak spot, or something’s going to happen, even on a tank.” American forces even shot the weapon at bunkers and infantry. 

There’s a reason for that confidence. Javelins have a maximum range of nearly 2.5 miles, giving defenders an advantage over even the fastest ground vehicles. Cancian once commanded a Marine Corps heavy weapons company that had the M47 Dragon anti-tank missile, the precursor to the Javelin. He said that the new weapon combined some of the best features of previous iterations. 

Whereas the Dragon used booster rockets to almost hop across the battlefield, making it easy to lose track of, the Javelin traces an upward trajectory, dropping down on targets from above, where they are more vulnerable. And other objectives, like armored personnel carriers, are even softer targets from above. 

The missiles aren’t cheap; they run about $80,000 each. The United States sent 300 Javelin missiles to Ukraine this week and a further 180 missiles and 30 launchers back in October 2021. Kyiv first purchased 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles and 37 launchers from the United States in 2018. And more could be on the way if Russian President Vladimir Putin greenlights an invasion. 

But given the cost of air and missile defense, officials and experts argue that the Javelin still provides good bang for the buck. Though Russia has developed new armoring techniques, the weapon could deal a devastating hit to advanced battle tanks, especially with a new tandem charge that’s designed to break through even reactive armor. Current and former U.S. officials have touted the Javelin deliveries as specifically being designed to alter Putin’s calculus about a potential invasion. 

 “When you’re dealing with a potential adversary who is very much, you know, very much constrained resource-wise and doesn’t have an endless pool of front-line armor capabilities, he’s got to think about the attrition aspect pretty carefully,” said Alexander Gray, a former chief of staff on the National Security Council during the Trump administration. 

There was a major push in Ukraine after Russia’s military buildup on the border last spring to increase Javelin training and deploy more of the anti-tank missiles in the field, a Western military official familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy, who said the deployments had been previously tightly held. 

“If you get enough of those forward-placed, that’s a serious threat to your tank force,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about Ukraine’s military capabilities. Javelins could also be effective in deterring Russian troops from built-up urban areas or serve as a last line of defense for militia forces, the official added.

And there’s a historical track record—even if the playbook is decades old—to support the idea that a plan centered around short-range air and missile defense could work against a Russian assault. Afghan mujahideen groups, with little combat training, turned CIA-provided Stinger shoulder-launched missiles into a major killer of Soviet aircraft during Moscow’s war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Lithuania is transfering U.S.-made Stingers, with the approval of the State Department, to the Ukrainian military, a capability that could be used to restrict Russian helicopters from getting to the battlefield, though experts have cautioned that most Russian aircraft have learned to operate at higher altitudes. 

Shoulder-fired weapons have been a major focus of U.S. military consultations with Ukraine in recent days, including for a Pentagon delegation that went to Kyiv in December to discuss air and missile defense. But some experts insist that Russia’s likely style of standoff warfare will keep its forces well out of reach of the shorter-ranged defensive weapons the West has provided Ukraine.

“Javelins and Stingers, they’re very short-range tactical solutions, and they’re not taking into account airpower, and they’re not taking into account missile strikes, and they’re not taking into account the extended ranges of Russian artillery and other weapons,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. who studies Russian military capabilities.

The reliance on the Javelins is also a throwback to the large-scale battlefield of the late Cold War era, experts said. During the 1970s, NATO put tens of thousands of tube-launched missiles along the eastern flank of Europe—on Jeeps and on the ground–—to make the Soviet Union think twice about a tank advance beyond the Iron Curtain. 

And it has become central to Ukrainian hopes that it can turn a renewed Russian invasion into a knock-down, drag-out fight despite the apparent disparity in military might.

“The enemy will know that they do not have an advantage of unexpected incursion,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a recent statement. “That in case of crossing the border the ground will literally burn under their feet. They will not be able to cross a single bridge unimpeded, they will be met at every crossroad.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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