Explained: How Javelin Missiles Help Ukrainians Destroy Russian Tanks

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Russia-Ukraine war: The Javelin missiles being used by Ukrainian soldiers.

As Russian military move towards Ukrainian capital Kyiv, US-made Javelin anti-tank missiles are in the spotlight. These weapons are giving the numerically inferior Ukrainian army a chance to wreak havoc on their attackers.

The lightweight but lethal weapon has allowed the soldiers in Ukraine to inflict some serious damage to Russian tanks and artillery, military experts have said.

American journalist Jack Murphy who has been tracking the war in Ukraine said earlier this month that the Javelin missiles have a kill rate of 93 per cent.

How does the Javelin missile operate?

The anti-tank missile has been developed by defence contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. According to latter’s website, the missile automatically guides itself to the target after launch (“fire and forget” system), allowing the gunner to take cover and avoid counterfire, or load a new missile.

It also has a gentler start, making it difficult for the enemy to see where it was launched from.

To fire, the gunner places a cursor over the selected target, according to Lockheed Martin website. The Javelin command launch unit then sends a lock-on-before-launch signal to the missile. With its soft launch design, Javelin can be safely fired from inside buildings or bunkers.

Using an arched top-attack profile, Javelin climbs above its target for improved visibility and then strikes where the armour is weakest, said Lockheed Martin. That is why it is called Javelin – representing the path of the spears thrown in track and field events that fall to the Earth at steep angles.

The range and other details

The Javelin missiles have a range of 2.5 miles and can be filed during in day as well as during night. Since they also have a thermal scanner, Javelins can target any kind of vehicle that emits heat.

It can be operated by a single soldier, though more hands would be needed to carry extra launch tubes.

Javelins can also target an enemy if there is a protection above it. The 46-pound, shoulder-fired weapon can also target helicopters.

“The Javelins are the most sophisticated and most effective weapon the Ukrainians have, but not the most numerous,” said Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

How are these missiles helping Ukrainians?

Though there is no official data on the number of weapons demolished by the Javelins in Ukraine, journalist Jack Murphy said they destroyed 280 armoured vehicles out of the 300 shots fired. 

“As the Russians learned that Ukraine now had Javelins, their T-72 tanks in Donbas became less aggressive, and pulled further back from the frontlines,” Mr Murphy wrote in an article, quoting the US military official during the initial days of the war.

The missiles are very effective in piercing through reactive armour, which most tanks are covered with. This type of armour is packed with small amounts of explosives that detonates any incoming warhead. But Javelins is designed to get past that.

Also, it is easier to teach people to use these missiles, which could prove useful for Ukraine where civilians are lining up to take part in the battle, according to Cancian.

Limitations of Javelin missiles

According to Federation of American Scientists (FAS), the command launch unit (CLU) of the missile cannot discriminate targets past 2,000 metres. The FAS also said that the flight path of the missile is restricted in wooded, mountainous and urban terrain.

A Washington Post report said that Javelins are “expensive and complicated to produce”. The estimated cost of production ranged between $80,000 and $200,000 per missile, said the report.

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