DON: Blunting the Javelin? – The prospects for Nato participation in a Ukraine-Russia war

DON: Blunting the Javelin? – The prospects for Nato participation in a Ukraine-Russia war
Can Javelin missiles blunt a Russian attack / National Interest
By Gav Don December 3, 2021

Members of Nato’s North Atlantic Council met in Riga on 30 November, where Ukraine and Russia naturally topped the agenda. The following day Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics held press conferences and gave one-on-one interviews, clearly carefully co-ordinated to send unambiguous messages to Moscow on the likely future actions of Nato members. In the words of Stoltenberg himself, “…we…need to remove any room for miscalculation or misunderstanding about Nato’s resolve and commitment to protect and defend all Allies”.

Statements and interview answers offered up in Riga certainly left no room for miscalculation or misunderstanding in Moscow. To summarise, Stoltenberg expects Nato members to provide equipment (more on that in a moment), training, and to agree heightened sanctions on Russia if the latter attacks Ukraine. Since Ukraine is not a member of Nato, the principle of mutual defence enshrined in Article 5 of the Treaty does not apply, and Stoltenberg was clear that it would not. It appears that no Nato soldiers will be sent to die in any ditches to defend Ukraine.

No Article 5 for Ukraine today

As far as that goes, the Riga meeting will be a source of considerable comfort to Moscow, one of whose high-level goals is to prevent Nato from accepting Ukraine as a member. The assembly of the 1st Guards Tank Army 250 km from Ukraine’s northern border has served what is probably its prime purpose – forcing Nato members and the European Commission to think long and hard about the (dire) consequences of extending Article 5 coverage to Ukraine, and to decide firmly not to do that.

However, even the neatest of geopolitical plays can have adverse side-effects. One of these flows from the use of the word “equipment” by Stoltenberg. The equipment here is not defined, but is most likely to be further supplies of the Javelin anti-tank missile system. Javelin is an appealing solution to the question of “how can Nato members help” since it is inherently defensive, is easily delivered, has no strategic application, and is relatively cheap compared with other larger equipment systems such as ships or aircraft. If Javelin does indeed form the core of Nato “help”, now seems like a good time to analyse just how effective, or ineffective, that help might prove to be.

Throwing a Javelin

Javelin is a 15 kg one-metre-long missile with an infrared seeker head. Inside the missile are not one but two shaped-charge warheads. At the front of the missile is a small (1 kg) explosive charge shaped around an inverted copper cone. This warhead is designed to trigger and penetrate the explosive reactive armour fitted to Russian tanks (the boxes visible on their outer armour). With the reactive system removed, the second warhead detonated about half a millisecond later. This warhead uses an 8 kg charge (also shaped around its inverted copper cone) to create a lance of molten superheated copper which melts its way through the tank’s armour to expand inside the fighting compartment. There it ignites anything combustible and shreds anything human. Published sources suggest that the main warhead can penetrate about 700 mm of armour plate.

Javelin is designed to approach its target from above. After launch the missile climbs for two or three seconds to a height of a few hundred metres, before diving steeply (but not vertically) onto its target’s roof. Tanks and armoured infantry fighting vehicles are designed to receive fire from their front, and this is where they carry the thickest armour. Frontal armour is also steeply sloped, to increase resistance to frontal fire. Vehicle tops carry thin armour, on the expectation that the only threat from above is shrapnel and from light (~40mm) fire from ground attack aircraft.

Javelin exploits this choice. If a Javelin missile succeeds in connecting with the turret top of a tank, or the armoured roof of an infantry fighting vehicle, it can expect an almost certain kill, explosive reactive armour notwithstanding.

Firing from the bleeding edge of the contact line

Javelin is designed to be used by infantry at the bleeding edge of the contact line with enemy forces. The missile is light enough to be man-portable and can be fired from the shoulder. The Javelin team fits the missile to a 6 kg Command Launch Unit (shortened to a CLU), which the aimer then holds in front of his face, resting the launch tube on his shoulder. The aimer must sit, squat or stand to aim, and so break cover to some degree.

The launch unit has a viewfinder which works first as a television (for scanning a wide area in daylight for targets), and can then be stepped into a wide-angle thermal view (also used at night for target identification). Next comes a narrow thermal view. When the aimer finds his target he steps through these views to bring an aiming box on his screen onto the target. The launcher’s software narrows the aiming box until it contains the exact target, and on command from the aimer passes that target profile to the missile seeker.

When the missile is locked to its target it fires. A small (short burn) rocket motor throws the Javelin out of its tube to ten metres ahead of the aimer, where the main rocket motor ignites. The missile climbs to height (defined by software, and a variable function of the range to the target). Older model Javelins can fly for about 2,500 metres, newer ones 4,000 metres.

Up and over

While it climbs, the missile’s own thermal sight tracks the target selected by the aimer and sends commands to the missile’s tailfins to guide it onto the top of the selected target. Flying at high subsonic speed (around 250 m/s) the Javelin reaches its target in less than eight seconds (slightly longer at longer ranges). Since the missile makes no electromagnetic emissions and flies for such a short time, forces accompanying the target have effectively zero chance of bringing it down with a hard kill. Test firings (in ideal conditions) give Javelin a proven 95% hit-kill ratio.

The target vehicle itself has more than a zero chance of a hard kill on an incoming Javelin. Most Russian tanks are fitted with the Arena hard-kill self defence system. Arena uses a Doppler radar to detect incoming munitions and fires a small hard-kill projectile which detonates with a cloud of shrapnel 1.5 metres ahead of the incoming munition. The system reacts automatically – vital with a missile moving at 250 m/s – within 50 milliseconds. Arena is designed to destroy missiles approaching from a high angle, which includes the descent angle of the Javelin.

Javelin might stop a tank attack in its tracks

So far so good. The Javelin sales pitch is that infantry equipped with enough Javelins can stop a tank attack in its tracks, or deter one from being launched. To Ukraine’s army – short on tanks and aircraft but long on men – facing a Russian attack spearheaded by hundreds of main battle tanks and infantry in armoured vehicles, Javelin looks like the answer to a maiden’s prayer.

But wonder weapons are never quite as wonderful as they look. If we work backwards from the target we can identify multiple obstacles that lie in the way of a successful Javelin attack. Each obstacle dilutes that “hit and kill” rate cumulatively, and as the accumulation of obstacles builds the net result is to generate an overall “systemic” miss-rate, which then factors back into an army’s total stock of Javelins.

But the rule of attrition still applies

We will start with the target. Once an attacking force becomes aware that Javelin is a threat it has several methods of disrupting the aimer’s target lock. First, cheapest and most obvious is to screen its armoured vehicles with a combination of geography and chemistry. Geography means working to break the line of sight between aimer and target with buildings, ground, foliage and trees. CLUs are expensive ($150k each). Ukraine is known to have around 200 units (with more on the way, to be sure) – which means that it has only one or two units per infantry battalion. The aimer needs a clear line of sight to the target. In flat country (like Ukraine) that means locating the aimer at less than 1,000 metres from his target, and that in turn means the Javelin team has to be right in the contact line, vulnerable to the fire of the entire force attacking his unit. If the attacker is using his main battle tanks as supporting artillery (rather than the tip of the spear) the Javelin aimer will be faced with incoming infantry before his target comes into range and view.

Smoke in their eyes

The Javelin team has no mobility (other than his feet). Once one or two missiles have been fired his approximate location will become known to the enemy, allowing a well-articulated attacker to seek physical cover and fire smoke, if geography and nature don’t co-operate. Infrared smoke works in exactly the same way as a normal smokescreen, but with smoke particles chosen for their ability to block infra-red radiation.

Without an IR lock Javelin loses guidance. IR smoke can prevent the aimer from getting a target lock in the first place, but it can also break the target lock of a missile in flight if fired within the right (narrow) time window. So tanks close to the contact line and in possible range of Javelin will probably fire IR smoke at frequent intervals while keeping on the move. As IR smoke disperses across the contact line in a thick haze, Javelin will not be able to acquire or keep its target lock, and a missile that does have a target lock may lose it for enough few crucial seconds to make it miss a moving target.

Your missile, my missile

A Javelin that penetrates an IR smoke screen has to survive the Arena hard kill system, but Russian tanks have recently been seen carrying an additional countermeasure – steel or mesh structures mounted like a roof two metres or so above their turret tops – like light steel umbrellas. This screen is designed to trigger the main warhead at a distance from the thin turret-top armour, allowing some or most of the force of the molten copper jet to disperse harmlessly in air and on the turret roof. The hope is clearly that the part of the copper jet that reaches the actual turret will have too little energy to penetrate the turret’s own armour, enhanced by its explosive reactive armour if that is fitted.

Just keep moving

Movement itself offers the target some protection. Javelin is designed to be able to hit a moving target, so the target’s objective is not to “dodge” the incoming missile, but to use movement in and out of smoke and cover to disrupt the aimer’s attempts to get missile lock in the first place, or to disrupt the missile’s lock in flight. The launcher unit is cumbersome, especially for a man aiming under fire and only partly in cover, and the target tanks will usually be much closer than the maximum 2,500-4,000 metres possible range. With tanks crossing the aimer’s field of view in and out of cover at speeds of around 8 metres per second while firing high explosive rounds in the aimer’s general direction (he’s on the contact line, remember), obtaining a lock will be harder than on the verdant peaceful grass of Salisbury Plain. Once a missile is fired, if it loses its target lock because the target has manoeuvred into cover it will miss.

Information in the public domain does not reveal whether a lost Javelin is programmed to re-acquire any replacement target in its field of view. If it is (which seems very likely – why waste a perfectly good missile) then that target may be a lesser vehicle (an infantry fighting vehicle, or even a soft-skinned vehicle), may already have been hit, and may itself avoid lock a few seconds later. It must be borne in mind that a lost Javelin has only a handful of seconds to re-lock, and that its ability to change its track to left and right are limited by the combined physics of its flight energy and its manoeuvring fins, so a backup target would have to be located very close to the original target. Since Russian forces may be expected to maintain good dispersal, re-acquisition will be the exception.

Fire control under fire

Already we can see reasons why a significant percentage of fired Javelins will miss their targets, be shot down as they approach, or fail to kill a target that they hit. Only actual experiment will show what that percentage is, but the probability is that it will be substantially higher than the 5% revealed in those peaceful tests mentioned above, which are fired at stationary targets in clear view without self-defence systems by aimers who are not under fire.

In the contact line another diluting factor is present. Javelin is designed to kill heavily armoured main battle tanks. It can be used just as effectively to kill lightly armoured infantry fighting vehicles, or even unarmoured soft-skinned trucks and jeeps. Finally, it can be used as a personal front-line artillery weapon to kill small bunkers and strongpoints, or even groups of men. A significant part of the two-week training course for Javelin Aimer covers fire control, with the message that Javelin is a very expensive missile (~$100k per shot), and that it is wasted on anything smaller than a main battle tank.

That message will inevitably be diluted, or forgotten, in the terrifying noise and lethal threat of an attack by a Russian motorised infantry battalion. The Javelin aimer, when faced with infantry fighting vehicles advancing on his position carrying heavily armed infantry, may forget his fire control training and use his precious missiles to remove the immediate personal threat. Since the great majority of targets presented to the Ukrainian army in a Russian attack will be infantry fighting vehicles rather than tanks we can expect most of Ukraine’s Javelins to be expended on these.

Russian formations may encourage this behaviour by deploying main battle tanks behind the infantry advance as battlefield artillery. That choice would be easier given the fact that Ukrainian forces have few tanks, and the tanks that they do have will probably have been destroyed by air attack before the infantry battle begins.

Javelin aimers – next please

The next challenge that the Javelin team has to overcome is the normal one of remaining alive within the contact zone to aim and fire their missiles. Needing a clear line of sight of its target the Javelin team cannot seek cover from direct Russian fire in a support line, or behind a hill, or in a bunker, but must instead raise themselves into the teeth of incoming fire. A skilled aimer can find and acquire a target in 30 seconds, but throughout that time he can be seen by attacking forces, especially forces equipped with thermal sights, and engaged. Javelin aimers may expect to have rather shorter life expectancies than their comrades.

The Javelin team will be more visible still from above. We discussed in an earlier article the likelihood that in an invasion of Ukraine Russia would achieve air superiority by day two or day three of an attack. If that is correct (and nothing has appeared in public to rebut the proposition) then the Ukrainian contact line will probably sit under the watchful gaze of Russian Alligator attack helicopters and other ground-attack aircraft with a special brief to find and destroy Javelin teams in the contact line. A Javelin team may well be able to fire one missile undetected, but a well-articulated Russian attack will swiftly detect the position of the launch team and bring it under intense fire from the air, as well as from attacking artillery.

The Javelin sales pitch tries to address this point, with the proposition that Javelin is a fire-and-forget missile which needs no continued guidance from the aimer. So as soon as the missile is fired, the aimer and his team can move to a new position. That is effective if the attacking formation is poorly co-ordinated, lacks artillery and has no close air support. Russian forces will have all three of those assets, and therefore a reasonable chance of firing not just on where the aimer was, but on where he actually is as he relocates. With each missile launch bringing down a personal barrage on its aimer, his precious CLUs and reload missiles, Javelin teams and launchers may be expected to suffer a mortality rate well above normal infantry. Retaliatory strike will not be the only threat; Javelin teams and reloads will also be captured in the normal flow of advance and retreat.

So much for the contact line. Javelin remains a potent threat notwithstanding the problems above, and Russian forces will give a high priority to attacking Javelin logistics behind the contact line. With air control established, Russian forces will inflict major damage on Ukrainian rear areas and logistics. Inevitably this damage will include the loss of reload Javelins both in battalion reserve areas and en route to Ukrainian forces from the rear.

A perfect missile, but an imperfect kill ratio

The problems presented here are familiar to forces already equipped with Javelin. Principle among these are the UK’s army, currently approximately 80,000 strong with around forty active infantry battalions. This force is equipped with some 900 CLUs (which works out at two or three per company) and 9,000 missiles. That number was clearly specified to offer a good chance of blunting a major armoured attack on Nato territory by a major country (read Western Europe and Russia respectively, for an example). The UK’s approach to Javelin stocks suggests that Ukraine’s missile stock is way too small to be a strategic problem for a Russian invasion. Stocks are not the only issue – aimer skills are important too. We know that some 20,000 Ukrainian infantry have received training from UK forces – some of which will have been in the use of Javelin.

The key question is: “what would be the kill rate for main battle tanks in a Russia/Ukraine ground war?” We can add numerical estimates on our narrative to get an idea of the scale of the challenge. Working forwards from the rear, the model looks like this (insert your own numbers to taste):

  • 95% of Javelin resupply successfully reaches front-line units from rear logistics areas
  • 80% of missiles that arrive in a battalion area reach the contact line
  • In the contact line, 10% of missiles are destroyed before firing, 10% are captured
  • Of the balance that are fired from the contact line, 5% suffer technical failure (the rate experienced in peacetime exercises), 10% lose lock between firing and their target for one reason or another, and 20% suffer hard kill from countermeasures
  • Of those detonating on their target, 20% are disrupted by explosive reactive armour or by the tank “roof”, and 30% are not fired at main battle tanks at all.

The net result of this analysis is that only 21% of an available Javelin stock would kill a main battle tank. Ukraine’s present stock of Javelins is a few hundred, less those which have been fired, or stolen. President Zelenskiy’s visit to Washington this summer ago saw the announcement of a $60m weapons supply deal, which was almost certainly for Javelin systems and reloads. Past deals have seen a launcher-missile ratio of between 6:1 and 10:1, which suggests that Ukraine might already have received an additional sixty launchers and five hundred missiles. With a stock of, say, 800 missiles our estimate of kill-ratio would imply the loss of some 150 Russian main battle tanks in an attack. Painful, but not enough to give Ukraine a win.

Is Stoltenberg talking about a Javelin bonanza?

Returning to the words of Stoltenberg, they can be read as a promise that if Ukraine were attacked it would receive additional Javelin systems from Nato members. In this context only two members have sufficient stocks to act at short notice – the US and the UK. While both are probably signalling privately to Moscow that they would send quantities of missiles and launchers to Ukraine, Moscow may be forgiven for expecting supplies to be too small and too late to make much of a difference.

Again, the numbers are instructive. A Russian invasion of Ukraine would see something of the order of 800 main battle tanks engaged. To inflict a loss rate of 50% would, by implication, require a Ukrainian Javelin stock of 2,000 missiles – some 1,200 more than have already been delivered or promised. In an emergency, and with quick political decision-making, the UK and the US could deliver that number from their respective stocks in just two flights of heavy lift aircraft and within 48 hours of a request. A single 40-foot ISO container can hold about 500 Javelin reloads, while a 1,200-missile resupply would weigh something less than 20 tonnes. Stoltenberg’s back-channel message to Moscow may well be that those missile deliveries will be triggered by a Russian move towards the distant Ukrainian border. Javelin may have inadvertently become a strategic weapon.

The UK and the US may decide to go “all in”, and deliver many thousands of Javelins to Ukraine. A stock of, say, 6,000 missiles would allow Ukrainian forces to do severe damage to Russian tank forces, plus to Russian infantry fighting vehicles. On top of that, Javelin can also function imperfectly as an anti-helicopter missile, using its “direct flight” mode. Aid on that scale would be surprisingly cheap – less than a billion dollars, and no Nato lives at risk.

Moscow has tabled its real aims – a new standstill agreement

But, if our analysis of last week is correct, then this whole discussion will prove moot. Moscow’s reasons not to attack Ukraine are not only as powerful as they were a week ago, but have been made more powerful by the words of an article jointly written by the Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the United States and published by The National Interest five days ago.

In this article the two ambassadors state: “The sovereignty, security and development interests of a country should not be violated.” As if that were not sufficiently clear, they immediately reinforce the point: “…infringing on [other countries’] sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity go against the UN Charter and other basic norms of international law and are obviously anti-democratic.” Finally, to lay to rest any residual doubt, they add: “There is only one international system in the world, i.e. the international system with the United Nations at its core. There is only one international order, i.e. the one underpinned by international law. And there is only one set of rules, i.e. the basic norms governing international relations based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.”

This statement clearly bears the personal authorisations of Putin and Xi (it is hardly credible that it would have been released without that clearance), and as such may be taken as an authoritative exposition of Russia’s attitude to Ukraine. It would be bizarre, not to say incredible, if a state ordered an attack on another sovereign state after making so public a declaration.

To a Western reader, though, the statement is somewhat at odds with two situations – Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, and Russia’s support of Donbas separatist forces. Seen from Moscow neither conflicts with the joint statement or undermines Russia’s respect for international law, since Moscow sees Crimea as a part of Russian territory accidentally included in a rapid and messy dissolution of the Soviet Union, and furthermore as a territory which has exercised a right of self-determination.

As for the Donbas, Moscow’s position is that aiding a separatist movement does not amount to an invasion or an act of war. One can see his point – if aid to an insurrectionist movement was an act of war then the United States would be at war with half of the Global South, and Ukraine to boot.

Both Russian positions are highly debatable, and beyond the scope of this article, but what does seem clear for the present is that the declaration amounts to a firm (coded) statement that Russia will not (ever) invade Ukraine. It is therefore no great surprise that the article has received no coverage, or even acknowledgement, in the mainstream media coverage of the Ukraine “crisis”.  How clear can a polity be?

At present Moscow is carefully taking no steps to increase the tension that flows from the position of the 1st Guards Tank Army, and it is likely that it will not do so in future. Indeed, as the pressure it is exerting is visibly pushing its opponents further together Moscow will probably be keen to send the Army back to its barracks sooner rather than later. The beginnings of a face-saving agreement are emerging: this week Putin suggested that a written commitment by Nato members not to allow Ukraine into Nato would lead to a full de-escalation. Moscow’s perspective is that an agreement on those lines would partially serve to replace the verbal commitments of some twenty Nato state leaders not to expand Nato eastwards after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, commitments which were promptly broken. What Nato members will think of that remains to be seen, but the probability of an invasion remains low.  

Gav Don trained as an officer in the Royal Navy and has a degree in international law. He grew a global energy intelligence business over 25 years and now specialises in geopolitical analysis, focusing on the interactions between politics, law, energy and armed force.