The Javelin Missile Is Feared And Incredibly Deadly, Here’s How It Works

U.S. Army Infantry Soldiers fire an FGM-148 Javelin during a combined arms live fire exercise in Jordan, Aug. 27, 2019. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

The Javelin missile is part of a long line of systems designed to allow infantry to deal with armored targets. This formidable weapon came into service in the 1990s and is capable of dealing with tanks, buildings and even helicopters. Since its introduction, 5,000 Javelin missiles have been launched, and the system has become a fundamental asset for the infantry.

The battle between man and armor has been ongoing since the dawn of warfare. Whether the means of protection is leather, a shield or a full suit of armor, man has worked to overcome it. This competition has been mostly back and forth, but the advent of explosives, cannons, bombs and guns rendered most forms of protection obsolete.

The arrival of the tank on the battlefields of WWI suddenly changed this though. There was little infantry could do stop these steel beasts. K bullets and anti-tank rifles are examples of early attempts to provide infantry with a portable means of dealing with tanks, but these were quickly dealt with by increasing armor thickness.

Infantry versus tanks

When WWII came around tanks carried even more armor and were essentially invulnerable to anything carried by the infantry. They could reliably be stopped by mines, traps, artillery, dedicated anti-guns or aerial attacks, but none of these could easily be carried by one man.

WWII saw a number of man-portable anti-tank weapons enter service, like the Bazooka and Panzerfaust, but these required the operator to be uncomfortably close to the target.

In the years after WWII, there were some leaps in portable anti-tank weapon developments. Weapons like the M47 Dragon and the TOW missile helped the situation considerably, as they offered enormous armor penetration capabilities and much better range.

However, neither of these systems was perfect; their wire guidance meant the operator had to stay in one location and they emitted violent backblasts. The M47 Dragon had a range of less than a mile, which puts the user within the range of a tank’s heavy machine guns.

These drawbacks meant the operators of these weapons were vulnerable to return fire.

The Javelin missile

Javelin Missile
The Javelin Close Combat Missile System – Medium (CCMS-M) is a man-portable, medium-range tactical missile system that provides the U.S. Army and Marine Corps with precision direct-fire effects to defeat main battle tanks and other armored vehicles. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

The FGM-148 Javelin missile solved these drawbacks. Introduced in 1996, the Javelin quickly replaced the M47 Dragon, with the latter being withdrawn from service in 1990s and early 2000s.

The Javelin does away with wire guidance and instead uses an automatic infrared guidance system. It is a fire-and-forget weapon, so as soon as the missile is fired the user can relocate or take cover.

Upon firing, the missile first experiences a “soft launch,” which propels the projectile out of the launch tube without the flight motor igniting. After a short delay, the flight motor kicks in and powers the missile to the target. The advantages of a soft launch are twofold: it protects the user by reducing the effect of backblast associated with missile launchers, and reduces the amount of dust kicked up by the rocket motor.

After launch, the missile uses an onboard infrared imaging and tracking system to accurately make its way to the target without any assistance from the operator. The weapon has a range of over 4,500 meters (2.8 miles), keeping the operator out of harm’s way.

The actual high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) warhead itself is a tandem charge, the first of which detonates any explosive reactive armor to clear the way for the main charge. The main charge is able to penetrate 700 mm (27.5-inches) of steel.

One of the more interesting features of the Javelin is its top-attack ability. The missile can ascend to a maximum height of 150 meters and strike a tank from a steep trajectory. This exposes the top armor to the missile, which is usually very thin.

However, the Javelin is just as capable in a direct attack flight path, which is particularly useful against helicopters. Its HEAT warhead is designed for the anti-armor role, but it can be equally deadly against buildings and unarmored vehicles. A multi-purpose warhead (MPWH) that is even deadlier against personnel was designed for the system. This features a devastating fragmentation warhead.

A US marine launches a FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile
A US marine launches a FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile. (Photo Credit: SGT MAURICIO CAMPINO, USMC / Wikipedia / Public Domain)

With the Javelin, infantry soldiers are no longer sitting ducks against tanks.