Javelin is an infrared (ie heat-seeking) guided anti-tank missile system. A previous generation of anti-tank missiles were wire-guided via a ‘semi-automatic command to line of sight’ (or SACLOS) system where the operator had to guide the weapon to the target by pointing at it until impact. The launcher communicated with the missile via a trailing wire, or latterly a radio link, instructing the projectile to alter its trajectory as needs be.
The advantage of infrared guidance being a missile can be forgotten about after firing and the firer can take cover or make preparations for the next firing.
The Javelin command unit has different optical and thermal settings allowing for magnification and night vision. In the thermal setting, the operator focuses the unit on the heat signature of the target. Once locked, the weapon will launch and can be forgotten about. Javelin ejects out of its firing tube before a rocket motor ignites, reducing the amount of kickback experienced during the launch.
Having locked on, the missile heads towards the target, monitoring the position of the heat signature and making flight adjustments as necessary. Although Javelin can be used in ‘direct’ mode, a top attack mode allows the missile to rise above the target and drop, striking at the most vulnerable part of the tank where the armour is thinner and less sophisticated.
In Ukraine, Puffins may have noticed some Russian tanks with improvised frames above the turret, often piled up with kit bags, to take the sting out of a Javelin attack. Exploding when reaching the target isn’t a simple process. Two shaped explosives are used, the first detonates any reactive armour protecting the tank (ie explosive armour whose faceplates and liner disrupt the anti-tank weapon’s warhead) and the second penetrates the armour.
The damage isn’t caused by the ‘bang’ but by the resulting stream of melting hot metal (superplasticity) from the lining of the exploding warhead. In a Javelin warhead, the initial charge uses molybdenum, the secondary uses copper.
Earlier versions had a range of 2000m, later versions, 2500m, similar to the range of a T-72’s main gun but, ideally for them, the Russians will have artillery and territory denying munitions to keep anti-tank forces a greater distance than that away from their tanks.
The Javelin system is heavy, weighing over four stones but does go up on the shoulder. Its American predecessor, TOW, required a tripod. In the US, a two-week training course instructs those who are already military-trained on how to use the weapon.
Another anti-tank weapon in the news is the SAAB NLAW (Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapon). Again, there is a ‘direct’ mode and an ‘above’ mode where the missile flies one meter above its line of sight and is detonated by a magnetic sensor when passing horizontally over the target (rather than Javelin’s strike from the preferred perpendicular). SAAB claim a maximum combat range of 800m, less than a third that of Javelin.
NLAW is much smaller, lighter (12.5kg) and cheaper than Javelin but isn’t guided by infrared. It can be deployed against stationary targets, or against moving targets after the target has been tracked for a few seconds. After launch, NLAW predicts the movement of the target based upon the previous tracking. This is called PLOS (predicted line of sight) guidance.
SAAB also claim an ‘ordinary soldier’ can be trained in one hour to use the system. In a pre-conflict article, Forbes Magazine were unenthusiastic about NLAW pointing out,
“Unfortunately for Ukraine, modern Russian “non-contact warfare” military doctrine emphasizes destroying enemy forces from long distances with artillery supported by drone surveillance assets, rather than aggressively pushing tanks and infantry forward to engage with direct fire. By this doctrine, most of the destruction of enemy forces is achieved at distances the target simply can’t shoot back at.”
Forbes suggests NLAW will only come into its own if the Ukrainians can bog down Russian forces in close contact urban environments, likely to be city-flattening and result in high civilian casualties, Grozny and Aleppo style.
Javelin and NLAW should be available immediately to the Ukrainians in large numbers as they are already deployed to NATO countries. Not so the TB-2.
Another piece of equipment, much mentioned on the internet but rarely mentioned on mainstream media, is Ukraine’s Baykar Bayraktar TB-2 drone. Technically the TB-2 is a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV).
Controlled by a ground crew, Ukrainian land forces are thought to have 12 examples with the Ukraine Navy having an additional 6. Previously, they have been used against Russian backed separatist forces in the Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk.
During the present conflict, TB-2 video uploaded to the internet shows them dropping light munitions on Buk self-propelled anti-aircraft launchers, supply convoys and a fuel train. They are credited with killing Chechen general Magomed Tushayev while destroying a small convoy of vehicles near the Antonov International Airport northwest of Kiev.
The drone’s Turkish manufacturers, Baykar, claim the BT-2 can reach altitudes of 25,000 feet and fly for 27 hours continuously while being operated remotely from up to 185 miles away. Each drone can carry up to four laser-guided bombs or rockets, to an estimated payload of 150kg. The American MQ-9 Reaper, by comparison, can carry up to 1,700kg of ordnance.
All the same, the TB-2 was a high profile success in the six week long Azerbaijan/Armenia conflict that began on 27th September 2020.
In a thoughtful résumé of the conflict from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (dated 8th December 2020), Shaan Shaikh and Wes Rumbaugh noted the importance of BT-2 in the Azerbaijani victory but only as part of a full-spectrum air defence capability. Both side’s arsenals were limited in size and quality but Azerbaijan was able to exploit some of Armenia’s gaps with its drones, including the BT-2.
As well as T-72 tanks (and their derivatives), CSIS claim BT-2s were able to degrade advanced S-300 air defences.
The S-300 is a big beast and not meant to counter UAV missions, rather to safeguard high altitudes across long distances. Consisting of a combination of transporters, erector launchers, guidance stations, long-range surveillance radar, command vehicles and engagement radars there is a lot of S-300 for a drone to aim at.
Simultaneously, S-300 is not supposed to go head to head with a small, slow-moving bit of tin 20,000 feet away, rather to shoot down fast jets and transports 150 miles distant.
Hence the need for a full spectrum of long and short-range capabilities at every point of the battlefield.
Beyond pointing out the significance of ‘full-spectrum’, the second salient point Shaikh and Rumbaugh make is the importance of passive defences such as camouflage, lessened profiles and hardening forces. The arts of dispersal and deception need to be reinvigorated.
“Soldiers should train to limit their electronic and thermal signatures for longer distances and times. We see this time and time again with both sides operating out in the open, static or moving slowly, poorly camouflaged and clumped in tight, massed formations.”
Seeing internet video of Russian armour stuck in the mud, falling off bridges, crashing into each other, running out of fuel, being towed away by angry farmers and breaking down, might be almost comic but sheer weight of numbers, long-range artillery and a lack of concern over civilian casualties tips the likelihood of victory in this war towards the Russians.
At the time of writing, such a Russian ‘open, static, slowly moving, poorly camouflaged, clumped in, tight, massed formation’, stretching for 40 miles, advances on Kiev. Were this approaching Tel Aviv or Taipei it would be shredded but given both NATO’s and Ukraine’s inability to provide anything close to the full-spectrum air defence required for air supremacy over the target, we can only wish the defenders luck with their 18 drones and last-minute supplies of Javelin and NLAW.
CSIS, Air and missile war over Nagorno-Karabakh, lessons in future strike and defense
Forbes, The UK airmailed 2000 NLAW missiles to Ukraine, are they useful?
SAAB, Products – NLAW
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