Weapons: Battlefield Test Against Russians


December 5, 2021: In late 2021 Ukraine used its American FGM-148E Javelin ATGMs (Anti-tank guided missile) against Russian forces for the first time. The Russians continue to occupy portions of Ukraine’s two eastern provinces. Russia tried to seize this heavily industrialized area, called the Donbas (Don River Basin) in early 2014 but were halted by Ukrainian forces moving in more quickly and fighting more effectively than the Russians expected. Ukraine asked the United States for military assistance and received ATGMs and electronic equipment, including counter-battery radars. Until early 2021 the missiles had to be kept away from the ceasefire line and only used if the Russians carried out a major offensive. Russia has been threatening to do that. Currently Russia has nearly 100,000 troops concentrated on the Ukrainian border and are openly threatening to invade. That was enough to lift the restrictions on Javelin use.

In early 2020 Ukraine received another shipment of Javelins. This was a small order ($27 million) and the Javelin is an expensive system. Each missile costs $112,00 and the reusable CLU (command launch unit) costs $130,000. Ukraine received a larger order of Javelins in 2018 but these were provided free. Ukrainian interest in the Javelin has more to do with the effectiveness of Russian APS (Active Protection Systems) on their latest tanks than just obtaining a modern ATGM. These APS systems have proved capable of defeating many existing ATGM systems, including those manufactured by Ukraine and several other nations. APS systems have been around since the 1990s and in the last decade they have improved to the point where they can regularly defeat many ATGMs as well as RPGs and other unguided systems. The Israelis have taken the lead in developing ATGMs that can defeat APS and the American Javelin is headed in the same direction. The Javelin is also lighter and easier to use than Ukrainian ATGMs and the troops at the front (in eastern Ukraine) appreciate that.

The Javelin was introduced in 2002. So far over 5,000 of these have been fired in combat and responses from users have led to regular upgrades. The 148F Javelin model entered service in 2020. The missile weighs 22.3 kg (49 pounds, with disposable launch tube and battery/seeker coolant unit) and is fired from a 6.4 kg (14 pound) CLU which contains a 4x day sight and a 9x heat sensing night sight. The missile has a tandem warhead (two warheads to blast through reactive armor) that can hit a target straight on or from the top. This latter capability enables the Javelin to use its 8.2 kg (18 pound) warhead to destroy any existing tank, including the U.S. M1. Maximum range is 2,500 meters. The seeker on the missile is "fire and forget." That is, once the operator gets the target in the CLU crosshairs and fires the missile, the computer and seeker in the missile warhead memorizes the target and homes in on it. The infantry loves this because it allows them to take cover once the missile is fired and indicates to the enemy where CLU and its operator are.

Ukraine develops and manufactures cheaper and nearly as effective ATGMs. Since the 1990s Ukraine has been trying to develop new and competitive, with Israeli and American, systems and in 2017 began shipping the Skif ATGM. The Russian invasion in 2014 accelerated the need for locally developed weapons because Russian threats prevented Ukraine from receiving new weapons from the West. Before 2014 these new Ukrainian weapons were intended mainly for the export market but now much of the new stuff goes to Ukrainian troops, at least until the war with Russia in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) is over.

Skif is based on work done with neighboring Belarus to develop the older Shershen ATGM. The two countries differed on design of the joint project and each went their own way with Ukraine developing the Skif. The Ukrainian ATGM is a 29.5 kg (65 pound) missile stored and fired from an 8.5 kg (18.7 pound) container that is mounted on a 32 kg (70 pound) control unit. Max range of the laser guided missile is 5,500 meters. The control unit contains a thermal sight and allows the operator to manually guide the missile to a moving target or designate a stationary target in “fire and forget” mode.

The firing unit can be detached from the tripod and operated up to 50 meters away from the rest of the system. Skif has two types of armor piercing warheads (130mm and 152mm), the larger one capable of penetrating 1.1 meters of reactive and composite armor. There is also a fragmentation warhead that is useful against structures. Skif is touted by the manufacturer as being comparable to the Israeli Spike-LR but as a practical matter the Spike uses more advanced technology and the main advantage Skif has is lower price. Shelf life of the missiles (in their sealed containers) is 10 years but few of those produced over the next year or so are expected to remain on the shelf long.

Ukraine has a long history with the development of ATGMs. For example, in 2013 Ukraine tried to interest buyers in its new Corsar ATGM, which was something of a scaled down Skif. The 105mm (diameter) Cosar missile and its storage/launch container weigh 18 kg (40 pounds). The missile is laser homing, with a range of 2,500 meters, and its tandem warhead can penetrate 550mm of armor that is behind reactive (explosive panels) armor. At the time Poland expressed some interest, even though Poland has been using the Israeli Spike LR for several years. But Corsar is cheaper than Spike and uses laser guidance rather than the more expensive “fire and forget” system Israeli missiles employ. The Spike LR, along with the sealed storage/launch canister, weighs 13 kg (28.6 pounds). The canister is mounted on a 13 kg fire control system (10 kg without the tripod) for aiming and firing. The missile in its canister has a shelf life of twenty years and a range of 4,000 meters. The Spike uses a fiber-optic cable so that the operator can literally drive the missile to the target, although the missile can also be used in "fire and forget" mode. Israel is apparently flexible on what they charge for the Spike LR, saying only that it's cheaper than the similar Javelin. Ukraine found that the export market was more crowded and competitive than they expected. The larger, longer-ranged and cheaper (than Spike LR) Skif may not have been the answer but if it does well in Donbas, that will be a powerful assist for sales efforts.

Ukraine has a lot of other potential new weapons and has made some progress in finding customers. Before the Cold War ended in 1991, many Soviet weapons design and production operations were in Ukraine. These were inherited by the newly independent Ukraine after 1991. But most of these organizations went out of business because there were no more Soviet Armed Forces placing large orders each year. Most of the foreign sales disappeared as well. Ukraine salvaged some weapons and design capability by selling off its large Cold War stocks of Soviet weapons at low prices and developing a willingness to sell to anyone who could pay. Ukraine now has a lot of customers in Africa and Asia and noted a growing demand for ATGMs. These weapons are popular not just for their ability to destroy or disable most tanks but as highly portable and accurate artillery against all sorts of targets. Corsar and Skif are old technology but the Ukrainians still know how to produce it cheaply and reliably enough to attract some customers. Yet when Skif or Corsar fail against Russian T-90s equipped with an upgraded Arena APS, it’s time to check out what the foreigners have to offer.




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