Despite being the primary infantry “tank killer” system for many NATO and Western-aligned militaries, the Javelin Anti-Tank Missile System has seen relatively few upgrades since its introduction in 1996. An initial slew of small upgrades and production optimizations brought the missile from the initial FGM-148A to the FGM-148C in 1999. But the FGM-148C has been the primary missile in service for nearly two decades and only has started to be replaced by newer FGM-148E and FGM-148F missiles (the FGM-148D being an export variant).
However, the U.S. Army has recognized the shortcomings of the Javelin and is currently in the middle of a three-phase upgrade program to improve Javelin lethality. This is the program that has resulted in the FGM-148E and FGM-148F missiles. The actual details are little publicized, but some capabilities introduced in some phases may result in the Javelin becoming a significantly more lethal and flexible weapon.
The first spiral is a simple optimization—replacement of older electronics in the missile control actuator section with newer, lighter, and cheaper ones for cost and weight savings. Missile control actuators are the area of the missile that move the control surfaces (fins) that steer the missile in flight and onto the target. Missiles with the new electronics are designated FGM-148E. FGM-148Es are currently in service with the U.S. military, and recent foreign military sales of Javelin missiles, such as those to Estonia, are of the E model.
The second spiral focuses on improving lethality. A new “precursor” (the first warhead of the Javelin’s tandem warheads is implemented, as well as a new main warhead, now called the Multi Purpose Warhead (MPWH). The main warhead designed to give improved effect against soft targets, while maintaining lethality against tanks. This is probably accomplished through the addition of a fragmentation ring or sleeve to the warhead. Missiles with the new warhead are known as FGM-148F. This version had some issues in testing due to the explosive material used to make the new precursor warhead failing during testing due to age, as a result the program decided to continue with the legacy precursor warhead (as of an FY2017 Army Programs report). Full rate production of FGM-148Fs began in January 2019.
The final, third spiral focuses on improving the seeker of the missile. Like many missile seekers of the 1990s era, the Javelin’s seeker is reliant on the Battery Coolant Unit (BCU), a small gas reservoir, to rapidly cool down the seeker so it can distinguish hot targets from the cool background. Because the seeker is cooled, the missile takes a short amount of time to cool down (around 10 seconds) and can remain cooled only for a limited time (around 4 minutes). This could potentially limit shots against targets of opportunity. But the third spiral will replace the cooled seeker of the missile with a more modern uncooled seeker. This will make the Javelin faster to fire and would allow potentially more accurate/reliable shots with the Javelin, as the CLU operator can make more liberal use of the “lock through seeker” mode, in which the operator confirms that the Javelin’s seeker is locked on the correct target or area. Work on the third spiral began in July 2019 and is expected to continue until September 2021.
Alongside the improvements to the missile, improvements are being made to the CLU. The CLU was already updated in 2008 with improved targeting functionality and better interfaces with Javelin simulation rounds, but the latest upgrade aims to cut the weight by 30 percent and introduce a litany of new features. The CLU also is a significant part of the “slowness” of the Javelin, as it can take 2 minutes or more to cool down from ambient temperature. The reconfiguration of components in Lightweight CLU has the potential to cut this time down.
With the upgrades to the Missile and the CLU, the Javelin is likely to remain a competitive anti-tank system for years to come.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national security issues.