The Buzz

Javelin: The American Military's Ultimate Tank Killer

The U.S.-made FGM-148 Javelin is one of the premier portable anti-tank missile systems in the world. It’s also an expensive piece of kit, with each missile typically costing more than the targets it eliminates.

Still, the infrared guided Javelin has proven itself in combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria and has reliable shtick that should work on virtually any tank out there—it hits them on the weak top armor. It’s also exposes its crew to less danger than the typical guided missile system. Because it’s such a lightweight system, it may end up being a first responder on the ground to emergencies that could be described as “massive, unexpected tank invasions”—a scenario the U.S. military could have faced during Operation Desert Shield, when it deployed light infantry to defend Saudi Arabia, and currently fears in the Baltics.

The Javelin is so effective that who the United States sells or gives Javelins to has become a political issue on more than one occasion. Within the U.S. military, the Javelin also looks set to transition from being purely an infantry system to being mounted on vehicles.

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The Javelin doesn’t look as sleek and deadly as its name would have you think—it resembles a clunky dumbbell slightly over one meter in length. Fortunately, you don’t need good looks to blow up a tank.

The Javelin’s Command Launch Unit—CLU—has a sophisticated infrared sensor with multiple viewing modes, including 4x optical zoom, a 4x green-lit thermal view, and a 12x narrow-vision zoom activated for targeting. The seeker in the missile even provides a fourth 9x thermal viewing mode. The CLU can therefore serve as a handy scanning device for the infantry. The thermal viewers on the Javelin needs to be cooled off to function well, which theoretically takes 30 seconds, but might take a bit longer if you’re in Baghdad and it’s a breezy 120 degrees at noon. The system also incorporates multiple safeguards to avert or abort accidental launch.

The CLU, when loaded with a missile, weighs in at 50 pounds (most of the weight comes from the missile), and can be fired from a crouch or even seated position. That’s a lot lighter than the wire-guided TOW or other long-range missiles that typically required a heavy tripod. Still, it’s not exactly something you’d want to run a marathon with.

Once the firer acquires a target, locks the infrared seeker on to it and pulls the trigger, the Javelin missile is ejected out of the CLU without using its rocket motor in a “soft launch” creating relatively little back blast. Missile launch back blast not only makes it easy for opposing forces to spot the launcher after firing, but can make launching while inside a confined space (a building) a deadly risk. So the Javelin’s small backblast is very handy for keeping the operator alive. Still, the launch does blow back some gas, so you don’t want to stand directly behind it.

Afterwards, the Javelin’s gunner must… actually, the gunner could play Candy Crush on their cell phone if they wanted to, because unlike most long-range anti-tank missiles, the Javelin is a fire-and-forget system and requires no further input after lunch. The Javelin crew is free to duck into cover and concealment, rather than being forced to remain fixed in place guiding the missile towards the target, as is necessary with Semi-Automatic Command Line-Of-Sight (SACLOS) systems such as the wire-guided TOW or laser-guided AT-14 Kornet.

After launch, a Javelin shoots forward horizontally for a second before its rocket motor ignites and it climbs up 150 meters into the air, known as a “curveball” shot. It’s quite a sight, as you can see in this video.

The missile’s infrared seeker, benefiting from gyroscopes and gimbels, makes adjustments using thrusters to ensure its trajectory leads it to plunge almost vertically onto the infrared signature it was locked onto.

A Javelin fired in this manner will strike the top armor of an armored vehicle, which is generally much thinner than the frontal or even side armor. The Javelin’s 127 millimeter shaped charge warhead is estimated to penetrate the equivalent of 600 to 800 millimeters of Rolled Hardened Armor (RHA), which is not particularly impressive, given that modern tanks now feature composite armor that is extra effective against such warheads. But that doesn’t really matter: it’s still more than enough to penetrate the top armor of anything out there—at least, as long as we don’t consider other defensive system.

One common defense which sometimes does reinforce top armor is explosive-reactive armor (ERA), a layer of explosive bricks covering a tank intended to prematurely detonate the shaped charges used by missiles.

However, the Javelin has a tandem charge warhead designed to defeat ERA using a ‘precursor’ charge at the front of the warhead to take out the local ERA brick, blasting open a gap through which the main warhead can hit the tank’s conventional armor.

The Javelin can also be fired in direct attack mode, useful for hitting targets that are too close for the top attack, or that benefit from top cover, like a bunker or cave entrance. The direct-fire mode could also be effective against low flying helicopters.

One of the Javelin’s few limitations is its range—2.5 kilometers. Though adequate for most combat situations, older missiles like the TOW or Kornet boast ranges of 5 kilometers or more.