Ukrainian forces have used anti-armor weapons extremely effectively against Russian convoys and armored vehicles, perhaps due to a blend of innovative ambush tactics and high-quality equipment.
While most observers and weapons developers are likely to stop well short of describing tank warfare as “obsolete,” does the Ukrainian success highlight the possibility that heavily armored tanks are in fact more vulnerable than many previously thought?
There may be something to this hypothesis in the—anti-armor weapons are known to be quite effective, and Javelins were used successfully against Iraqi armor in Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, there are several crucial variables to consider, including the relative condition of Russian tanks and the tactics employed by Ukrainian fighters.
Ukraine’s apparent success with anti-armor weapons may largely be the result of effective ambush tactics and hit-and-run operations. If Javelin-armed Ukrainian soldiers strategically position themselves at hidden locations in urban environments or chokepoints, they can quickly emerge to strike armored vehicles at close range. This approach would increase the likelihood that Russian armored vehicles are accurately targeted and hit with greater precision and impact. For instance, striking the ammo compartment of a tank or hitting other vulnerable areas can maximize damage to enemy tanks.
Yet another key variable may be the relative state of Russian tanks. While it would be quite significant if Russia were to use some of its cutting-edge T-14 Armata tanks, not many of them have been produced yet. Russia is known to operate some upgraded T-90 tanks and older T-72s, but the extent to which they have been modernized is not publicly known. Many of them might be operating with outdated armor protections or without any kind of active protection system, making them more vulnerable. As Global Firepower’s 2022 assessment of Russia’s military reports that the Russian Army operates 12,000 tanks, they are not lacking in numbers. However, in terms of their ability to defend against Javelins, it would be crucial for them to be upgraded, modernized variants.
Finally, while many specifics are not likely available for security reasons, the United States has recently upgraded its Javelins with a number of impactful enhancements. It is not clear if the Ukrainians have the most advanced variants of the Javelin, but the Army’s ongoing upgrades to the Javelin’s Raytheon-built Lightweight Command Launch Unit expands the system’s range. More recent innovations, slated to enter production this year, also incorporate improved sensor fidelity and a “fast lock” for accurate attacks on the move. Army officials told the National Interest last year that the service is engineering a new warhead for the Javelin as well.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.