The FGM-148 Javelin – Killing Tanks The Smart Way

FGM-148 Javelin

Anti-tank firepower is vital for any infantry unit. The FGM-148 Javelin provides it.

Ever since tanks first appeared on the battlefield infantry commanders have wanted their men to have a way to kill them. The most effective destroyers of enemy armour have always been specialist anti-tank systems – antitank guns until the 1960s, guided missile carriers now – and other tanks, but the idea of a weapon that can be carried by one or two men yet have the power to knock out a tank is an old one. The first anti-tank rifles were developed during the First World War and later versions were in use as late as the Korean War, but by 1940 it was obvious that modern tanks were too heavily armoured for even a very powerful bullet to penetrate, and infantry anti-tank weapons moved towards using explosives. Various sticky, magnetic and shaped charge grenades were developed, then the first weapons that could launch a shaped charge projectile over a reasonable distance. Weapons like the PIAT, bazooka and Panzerfaust could all knock out tanks with a single hit out to around 300 metres, and after the war the idea was developed further into recoilless guns like the 84mm Carl Gustav and the ubiquitous Soviet RPG-7.

AT-3 Sagger
The AT-3 Sagger was the first successful man portable ATGM

The problem with these weapons was that their range was much shorter than that of a tank’s weapons, but beyond a few hundred metres they weren’t accurate enough to hit a moving tank. The solution was anti tank guided missiles (ATGMs), the first of which was the German X-7. This was developed in 1945 and used in the last weeks of the Second World War, but didn’t make much of an impression. The first to be widely used was the French SS10, introduced in 1955, and other nations quickly began to design their own. Most of them were large, heavy systems though, and usually they were mounted on vehicles or helicopters. That changed with the appearance of the Soviet AT-3 Sagger, which was small and light enough to be carried by one man but had a range of 3km. The USA set out to develop a counterpart and ended up with the FGM-77 Dragon. Unfortunately this had a short range – only 1,000 metres – and was hard to control in flight; troops hated it and performance was poor throughout its service life.

The FGM-148 Javelin was introduced by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin in 1996 as a replacement for the Dragon, and quickly proved to be far more effective and popular than its predecessor. Like the Dragon it’s a shoulder fired system consisting of a sight unit which attached to a missile preloaded into a disposable firing tube. Unlike most previous ATGMs, though, it had an automatic guidance system. With older weapons the operator had to hold the sight on the target until the missile hit. With flight times of up to 30 seconds at long range this gave plenty of time for the tank crew to spot the launch and return fire. It’s difficult to keep the crosshairs on a moving tank with machinegun fire hammering down around you, so this was a major disadvantage.

Instead the Javelin uses an infrared seeker. When the operator activates the sight it shows a thermal picture. He locks the sight onto the target and fires the missile, which then tracks and follows the locked target. This makes Javelin a fire and forget missile; immediately after launch the operator can take cover or reload and look for a new target.

Another feature of Javelin, only previously found on heavy air-launched missiles, is that as well as the standard ability to fly directly to the target it has a selectable top attack mode. When this is activated the missile climbs to around 150m then dives on the target, allowing it to penetrate the thinner top armour of a tank and avoid some active defence systems.

Javelin is a simple system to operate, and has proven to be robust and reliable. It has some disadvantages of course. It’s heavy – 6.4kg for the sight unit and 22.3kg for the complete system. It works poorly during thermal crossover periods around dawn and dusk, when heat contrast is reduced and the missile’s seeker can’t always lock on to the target. It’s expensive too – a missile costs around $80,000, which becomes painful when troops in Afghanistan are using them to kill lone Taliban gunmen. It’s still a huge improvement over every other light ATGM though, and it’s been adopted by over 15 countries including the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Taiwan and Israel. In late 2013 the USA proposed developing the next generation of Javelin missile in cooperation with India.

FGM-148 Javelin
The Javelin launcher is heavy, but compact.

Previous man-portable ATGMs have had successes, often spectacular ones – early in the 1973 Yom Kippur War Egyptian troops stopped an Israeli tank brigade using Saggers – but they’ve always been let down by their guidance systems. Javelin changes that, and it’s likely future weapons will be heavily inspired by it.