The irony of using Javelins to destroy pickup trucks and machine guns is that the roughly $80,000 Javelin missiles cost considerably more than the weapon systems they are destroying. This has reportedly has led U.S. forces to at times hold back on using the weapon in Afghanistan. Though considered a ‘lighter’ weapon than the vehicle-mounted TOW missile, significantly larger numbers of TOW missiles have been expended since 2003.
However, given that the United States spends dozens or hundreds of thousands of dollars operating expensive jet fighters dropping pricy smart missiles, or deploying large numbers of ground troops just in order to take out a few insurgents at a time, the relative costs of using Javelins as a sort of heavy sniping weapon may not be that absurd. It’s less likely to cause collateral damage than calling in an artillery strike or dropping a large, laser-guided bomb. And if that strike eliminates in a timely manner an active threat endangering the lives of friendly troops, it could save lives.
One last note of caution when evaluating the Javelin: though it may be a top-tier anti-tank weapon, it has not yet been used in combat against a modern tank, which is not true of the TOW or Kornet missile.
The Future of the Javelin
The Javelin has undergone quite a few upgrades since initial deployment in 1996—let’s take a look at three of the most important ones.
Given that the Javelin has been used primarily to hit soft targets and structures, a new version of the Javelin warhead with a deadlier blast fragmentation has been introduced, designated the FGM-148F. This new warhead is supposedly just as effective against tanks, and no costlier than its predecessors.
The Army has also been funding the development of a Lightweight Command Launch Unit. The new launch system would supposedly be 70% smaller, weigh almost half as much, and feature upgrades including modernized electronics, a new laser pointer, a high-definition color camera, and IR sensors with improved range and resolution.
Finally, a new extended range Javelin has been recently tested capable of hitting targets up to 4.5 kilometers away. This is significant, as one of the chief rationales for keeping the TOW missile as the standard vehicle-mounted anti-tank weapon was its longer range of nearly 5 kilometers. A long-range Javelin would seem to be superior.
Vehicle-mounted Javelins are now in the works. Back in the 90s, the Army reportedly experimented with a Javelin-toting ‘Warhammer’ Bradley but didn’t pursue the project. Recently, however, the U.S. Army has announced it is looking to upgrade half of its standard Stryker wheeled APCs to carry Javelins. (The other half would receive 30-millimeter autocannons). Previously, only specialized M1134 Strykers equipped with TOW launchers had any anti-tank capability.
The move to equip middle-weight personal carriers with effective anti-tank missiles mirrors Russia’s own moves to install deadly Kornet anti-tank missiles on the Epoch turret used in its new families of Bumerang, Kurganets and T-15 Armata (not the T-14) armored personnel carriers.
The Javelin would represent a more flexible weapon than the older TOWs, as the launch vehicle can move immediately out of danger after firing the Javelin. If the upgrade is implemented, even the United States’ lighter armored vehicles will be bristling with anti-tank firepower and the ability to launch precision-guided missile attacks.
One interesting question is what will happen to the TOW missile, which is considered a heavier asset assigned to specialized anti-tank platoons. The newer TOW-2B Aero has a top-attack kinetic warhead with a wireless guidance system so that the launch unit is no longer literally attached to the missile—and the operator doesn’t have to remain immobile, though he or she will still need to guide the missile onto the target.
Though the TOW may have lost its advantage in range, it is optically guided rather than infrared-guided and also costs less at around $59,000. Thus, the U.S. military might keep both weapon systems so that no single system of jamming or countermeasures would be effective, and to retain a less costly long-range missile for fighting the kind of insurgent targets it continues to face in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Political Battlefield
The Javelin is one of the U.S. military’s most effective, man-portable weapon systems. They’re available to frontline infantry squads in the Marines and Army, and typically a few are stowed inside vehicles in mechanized units.
The United States has sold Javelins both to many NATO countries, including France and the United Kingdom, allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and to Asian-Pacific countries including Australia, Indonesia and Taiwan.
Because of the Javelin’s capabilities, the sale of Javelins is loaded with both political considerations as well as military significance.
For example, the United States has provided 120 Javelin launch units to Estonia and 260 to Lithuania. If the Baltic states were invaded by Russian armor—not truly a likely event, but one much worried about because the small NATO countries would be hard to defend—light infantry wielding Javelins would basically serve as the Baltics’ first line of defense on the ground until NATO mobilized.
When Russia provided military support to separatists in Ukraine, columns of Russian tanks were instrumental in turning back Ukrainian Army offensives and seizing government strongpoints, notably the Donetsk International Airport in January 2015. For hawks like Senator John McCain pushing for the United States to provide direct military aid to Ukraine, Javelin missiles were cited as a key weapon system that might have reversed the Ukrainian Army’s fortunes on the battlefield—and one far more practical to put into action than a main battle tank or jet fighter.
However, providing missiles of undeniably American origin would also have sharply escalated the conflict between the United States and Russia. Unlike the widely exported TOW missiles or various Russian weapon systems, there was no credible way for such weapons to end up in Ukrainian hands without American authorization. Thus: no Javelins for Ukraine.
Theoretically, the same policy applies to various Syrian rebel groups being supplied arms by the United States, including Kurdish groups opposed by Turkey. The United States acknowledges supplying them with older TOW missiles, not Javelins.
But then we have images like this.
In February of this year, Kurdish forces near El Shadadi are seen firing a Javelin missile that destroyed truck-born IED hurtling towards their lines, destroying it before it could hit friendly forces. You can see the action in this clip.
The report of Javelin armed Kurds caused quite a stir, even while the U.S. government insists that it is not arming the rebels with Javelins. This may be disingenuous, or it could be that the Javelin came from a U.S. Special Forces unit operating alongside the Kurds, and the provisioning was ad hoc rather than part of a systematic program. Another possibility is that the Javelin came out of the stocks of a Middle Eastern country sympathetic to the rebels.
The Turkish Land Forces have lost nearly a dozen Patton tanks this year to anti-tank missiles wielded both by ISIS and Kurdish fighters, whom it also opposes. So far, it doesn’t seem any have been hit by Javelin missiles, however.
In any case, the Javelin missile remains one of the United States’ most potent systems on the ground, and one that seems set to increase in capability and be deployed on a greater number of platforms Its presence, or absence, on battlefields around the world will remain both consequential and highly scrutinized.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.