One common defense which sometimes does reinforce top armor is explosive-reactive armor (ERA), a layer of explosive bricks covering a tank intended to prematurely detonate the shaped charges used by missiles.
However, the Javelin has a tandem charge warhead designed to defeat ERA using a ‘precursor’ charge at the front of the warhead to take out the local ERA brick, blasting open a gap through which the main warhead can hit the tank’s conventional armor.
The Javelin can also be fired in direct attack mode, useful for hitting targets that are too close for the top attack, or that benefit from top cover, like a bunker or cave entrance. The direct-fire mode could also be effective against low flying helicopters.
One of the Javelin’s few limitations is its range—2.5 kilometers. Though adequate for most combat situations, older missiles like the TOW or Kornet boast ranges of 5 kilometers or more.
Russia is also aware of the Javelin’s capabilities—and their latest tanks feature several countermeasures intended to defeat them. New Relikt and Mechanit ERA systems feature dual layers of radar-triggered ERA plates designed to defeat tandem charge warheads. The Shtora and the newer Afganit Active Protection Systems can also deploy ‘soft kill’ multi-spectral grenades and flares designed to obscure the tank from infrared seekers or divert them to other heat sources.
However, the latest infrared sensors have also improved in their ability to see through obscuring haze and distinguish flares from the original target. And “hard-kill” active defenses designed to shoot incoming missiles down would need to be able to shoot vertically above the tank to tackle a top-attack Javelin—which the new Afganit system on the T-14 tank, with launch tubes nestled at a horizontal angle under the turret, doesn’t seem capable of doing.
So would Relikt-style ERA and soft-kill infrared defenses work against the Javelin? There’s simply no way to know for sure, unless Moscow were suddenly to invite Washington to test its anti-tank missiles against its best tanks in a friendly competition. But given that relations are too frosty for the United States to participate in Russia’s annual tank biathlon , don’t count on that happening.
So Do They Actually Work?:
The Javelin was designed in the 70s and 80s, when the leaders of the U.S. military had nightmares about being overrun by endless hordes of Soviet tanks—a fear worsened by the generally poor performance of the M47 Dragon missile in use at the time.
However, the Javelin finally entered service with the U.S. military in 1996 after the Cold War had ended, and first saw action in 2003 during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
At the time, the United States was not able to deploy troops in Northern Iraq by land, so it instead air dropped Special Forces and paratroopers that fought alongside Kurdish peshmerga fighters. In the Battle of Debecka Pass , a force of a few dozen Special Forces operators and a larger peshmerga contingent engaged and destroyed an Iraqi mechanized company of over a hundred soldiers. The U.S. force had just 4 Javelin launch units. Nineteen Javelins missiles were fired, seventeen of which hit, destroying two T-55 tanks, eight MT-LB armored personnel carriers, and several trucks. Reportedly, all of the Javelins shots were made at 2,200 meters range or further—close to or exceeding the official maximum range of the weapon—and one hit was even reported at 4,200 meters.
Javelins knocked out several more tanks during the Iraq War, including Type 69 tanks and Lion of Babylon T-72s, none of them cutting edge types. As the conventional phase of the conflict ended, the Javelins main duty soon came to ‘sniping’ smaller, softer targets. The Javelin’s precise targeting scope was ideal for spotting and taking out at long ranges insurgent heavy weapons teams armed with machine guns, missiles, or recoilless rifles, as well as the occasional pickup truck. Other weapons systems available to the infantry lacked the combination of long range and precision.
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.