Here's What You Need to Know: Much of the missile's effectiveness comes from its innovative warhead design.
Infantry Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs) have always been a historical strength of the Russian military. During the Cold War, the Konkurs and Metis systems fielded by the Soviet Union were considered to be among their best in their class, far better than the American Dragon ATGM systems. However, with the introduction of the American FGM-148 Javelin ATGM, the United States took the technological lead in this field. While the Soviet systems required the operator to continue guiding the missile after launch by keeping the reticle on the target (SACLOS guidance), the American Javelin simply required the operator to lock on, then launch the missile (fire-and-forget guidance). However, even modern Russian systems, such as the Kornet and Metis-M, retain the SACLOS mode of guidance. But does this make them less capable? Or could it even make them more capable at certain tasks?
The primary infantry ATGM for Russian troops is the Kornet missile. In contrast with Western armies where the primary infantry ATGM has a relatively short range (out to 2.5 kilometers), the Kornet is a long-range ATGM with a range of eight kilometers. The trade-off is increased weight, as the Kornet has a combat weight of 63.7 kilograms. However, this is still lighter than the U.S. TOW missile on a tripod, which has a combat weight in excess of a hundred kilograms. Similar to the Konkurs missile that came before it, the Kornet reflects Russian doctrine in that the infantry’s primary ATGM is unified with the primary vehicle ATGM, even if it comes at the cost of increased weight.
Developed following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1994, the Kornet was meant to defeat all current peer tanks, including the Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams tanks. To achieve this, it was designed with a tandem-charge warhead. The Kornet’s tandem charge warhead is of an advanced design, where the two HEAT charges are separated by the missile’s rocket motor. This stands in contrast to Western tandem-charge warheads, where the two HEAT charges are stacked one behind the other. The advantage of the Kornet’s charge design is that the motor’s positioning allows for the second charge’s focal length to be increased, allowing for a greater distance in which the molten jet formed by the second HEAT charge to form. In a sense, the rocket motor acts as a standoff probe for the Kornet’s follow-on warhead. It also protects the second charge from deformation that may occur with the detonation of the precursor warhead.
As a result, the Kornet will likely penetrate the M1A2 Abrams with any hit that isn’t on the frontal aspect of the turret. Even on the frontal aspect of the turret, there are still many areas that are potentially vulnerable to the Kornet. Upgrade kits designed to protect against RPGs such as TUSK are unlikely to defeat the Kornet, given the tandem warhead design and the massive size of the follow-on warhead. Kornet missiles are known to have defeated armor on the Israeli Merkava tanks.
Other technical aspects of the Kornet system are a day/night thermal sight with 12x/20x zoom capability, which is greater zoom than provided by the Javelin’s CLU unit, which only goes up to 12x magnification. The ITAS thermal sight used for the TOW missile has up to 24x zoom; however, this sight is far heavier than that on the Kornet. Guidance is achieved with a laser beam, which the missile rides onto the target. While vehicle mounted versions of the Kornet have achieved automatic homing capability by using machine vision in the thermal sight to automatically track the target, the infantry Kornet remains a SACLOS system.
The other Russian infantry ATGM is the Metis-M1. This missile is far lighter than the Kornet at twenty-five kilograms’ combat weight and a range of two kilometers, more in line with a traditional Western infantry ATGM. However this type is not as widely in service as the Kornet. The missile is similar to the Kornet, with the same advanced tandem warhead layout. It is increased in caliber from the original Metis missile to increase its penetrative capability. Like the Kornet, it poses a threat to the hull and turret sides of the Abrams—however, due to the slightly smaller caliber compared to the Kornet, it is not as powerful and poses less of a threat from the frontal aspect. It also possesses a thermal sight, and is wire guided.
Overall, the Kornet and Metis-M1 missiles are relatively traditional ATGMs. They are vulnerable to interception by hard-kill active-protection systems (APS) due to the slow speeds at which they fly (three hundred and two hundred meters per second, respectively). Most of their effectiveness comes with their innovative warhead design, which makes them extremely deadly—provided they hit. The retention of the SACLOS mode of guidance is more of a result of the preferences and doctrine of the Russian military, rather than the lack of technology on the Russian arms complex. At an arms expo, representatives of the Bazalt company, which makes handheld light AT systems, expressed the belief that the Russian MoD preferred Metis and Kornet systems due the only range limiter being the ability for the operator to acquire a target. With systems like the Javelin, what the operator sees through the thermal sight might not be able to be locked onto with the missile’s internal computer. This can represent a range limitation in certain situations. The advanced internal electronics of Javelin-like systems would also represent a significant increase in cost for the individual missile round.
SACLOS guidance has also proven to give the operators more confidence in their weapon situations in certain situations, in studies undertaken by the French military. Operators who were trained on both the SACLOS Milan missile and Fire-and-Forget Javelin expressed greater confidence in the Milan missile when hitting moving infantry, due to their ability to continue guiding the missile after firing. With the Javelin, being out of the loop after launch led to a decrease in confidence.
The development of thermobaric and high explosive versions of the Kornet and Metis missiles lends credence to the theory that the Russian MoD also subscribes to this idea, preferring SACLOS due to the increased operational flexibility of the missile and confidence it gives to the operator.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues.
This article first appeared in 2017.
Image: Wikimedia Commons