Ukraine Is Building Its Own Tank-Killer Missiles to Fight Russia
In June 2015, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko famously requested exactly 1,240 Javelin missiles—one for every former Soviet nuclear warhead that Ukraine voluntarily decommissioned in the 1990s. The former Soviet state was ruing its lack of deterrence after Russian tanks and artillery intervened in on behalf of a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.
The infrared-guided Javelin is a fire-and-forget portable antitank weapon whose export is strictly controlled by the United States. Finally, in December 2017, the State Department announced Poroshenko would receive his missiles for Christmas—or at least a fraction of his request: just 220 Javelin missiles and thirty-five launch units.
This is not enough to meet Ukraine’s antitank needs. But analysts have already argued that it would be more cost-effective to help Kiev domestically manufacture its own missiles instead. Ukraine was a major industrial center for the Soviet war machine, and much of that arms industry remains—if not necessarily in the best of shape. In particular, Ukraine is producing two new families of antitank missiles which might allow it to counter new Russian tanks at much lower cost, and with fewer strings attached, than the Javelin.
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Currently, the Minsk agreement forbids the deployment of tanks, artillery and heavy weapons of over one-hundred-millimeter caliber to the frontline. Since late 2015, this has caused a steep, but not total, decline in the combat use of armored vehicles. However, if one side were to intentionally break the agreement by massing armor for an offensive, they could overrun surprised defenders lacking heavy weapons of their own. For this reason, both sides have continued to deploy long-range antitank guided missiles (ATGMs) to the frontline, even though many are above hundred-millimeter caliber and thus violate the agreement.
The Ukrainian military entered the conflict with ample stocks of older Soviet-era antitank guided-missile designs, including the AT-4 Spigot, the AT-5 Konkurs and the lighter AT-7 Metis. However, improper storage and old electronics meant that as many as one-third failed shortly after launch. Furthermore, the missiles that weren’t duds struggled to defeat the Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) on Russian tanks, which detonates explosive bricks to trip the shaped charges of incoming missiles before they can strike for maximum penetration.
New Russian tanks, such as the T-72B3 and the T-90A, are also equipped with “soft” Active Protection Systems and Laser Warning Receivers. The latter can detect when a vehicle is being painted by a laser designator and possibly determine the position of the missile system; the former seeks to obscure the target vehicle or disrupt the incoming missile’s guidance systems. According to one report, Ukrainian gunners were repeatedly frustrated when their missiles appeared to go haywire as they approached Russian tanks.
Of Ukraine’s domestically-built missiles, the light Corsar missile is the newest; the first fifty were delivered to the Ukrainian armed forces in August 2017. It has been nicknamed the Ukrainian Javelin because it weighs only thirty-two pounds loaded, and can be fired from the shoulder as well as mounted on a tripod for additional stability. The system is semiautomatically guided (SACLOS), which means the operator trains a stealthy low-energy laser on a target up to 2.5 kilometers away using an 8x sight until the 107-millimeter missile strikes its target no more than twelve seconds after launch. Supposedly the system is agile enough to attack hovering helicopters, drones and speed boats, as well as armored vehicles.
The Corsar can fire a fragmentation warhead, which can still penetrate fifty millimeters of armor, a thermobaric warhead for striking enclosed fortified targets, and an RK-3K antitank munition, which can penetrate the equivalent of 550 millimeters of Rolled Homogeneous Armor (RHA) after bypassing ERA. The Corsar launch units are not exactly cheap, at $125,000 each, but the missiles cost only $20,000, one-quarter the price of a Javelin missile.