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Video Above: The Role of Javelin Missiles in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

The Pentagon, US allies and perhaps even Ukraine are solidifying preparations for what may evolve into a long-term war against Russia’s invasion, as Russian gains have been minimal and challenged, while Ukrainians continue to defend key areas and gain ground.

Given the prospect of a protracted engagement, the Pentagon and NATO allies are assessing industrial base capacity to ensure sufficient quantities of arms and equipment can flow into support Ukraine, while making sure not to diminish US or allied readiness in any way. President Biden will be visiting a Javelin production plant to assess production capacity and future plans, yet overall the Pentagon leadership has been clear that US readiness has in no way been impacted by ongoing support to Ukraine.

Javelin Missile

“The US will continue to be the best armed, most capable fighting force in the world. This fight is not going to be cheap, but caving to aggression is even more costly,” President Bided said on CNN while visiting a Javelin anti-tank missile factory in Alabama.

The question of when, or how, the conflict might end continues to take on more significance as the West pivots toward a longer-term posture.

“Nobody knows how long this is going to go. And again, I'll say it again; I'll keep saying it every day; it could end today. It could end right now. This is a war of choice that Mr. Putin decided to wage on his own while he still had diplomatic options on the table. So it could end now. There's no reason for it to go a single other day,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.

Recent Pentagon reports have said Russia is making intermittent progress in some areas of Eastern Ukraine while also struggling with troop morale and equipment challenges. Recently, DoD officials pointed out that, overall, Russia has achieved essentially none of its objectives in the campaign thus far, one reason perhaps why there appears to be a concentrated Russian effort to learn from recent mistakes and prepare for a sustained incursion into Donbas.

Video Above: The War in Donbas, Ukraine with Russia

“The Russians are going to be concentrating now almost all of their remaining combat power in the Donbas and in the south. And because Ukrainians have clearly shown no interest in capitulating and not fighting for every inch of their territory, there is a distinct possibility that this could go on for quite some time,” Kirby said.

The Ukrainians continue to fight with the kind of fervor, tenacity and resolve they have demonstrated throughout the war, while Pentagon reports have cited indications that the Russians are “casualty” averse and less inclined to fight. 

The arrival of heavier weapons to Ukraine is also quite likely making a large impact upon the fight, as 155mm artillery rounds able to destroy Russian targets out to 30km or more improves their ability to slow down, blunt or stop advancing mechanized units. The more long-range fires the Ukrainians acquire, coupled with the more heavy armored vehicles, artillery and air defenses, the less likely Russia is to have any success advancing quickly. 

While much is unknown as to the future, and any questions about possible escalation, it seems entirely likely that Ukraine will continue to stand its ground. Speaking at a Javelin factory in Troy Alabama, President Biden said on CNN that the Ukrainians have 5 Javelins for every Russian tank.

Javelin Missiles

A US Marine with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, attached to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force, Crisis Response-Central Command, fires an FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank guided missile during a live fire demonstration near At Tanf Garrison, Syria, September 7, 2018. 

Perhaps this is one of the reasons for continued Ukrainian success. Senior Pentagon officials are pointing out a lesser recognized, yet extremely significant element of the many Russian challenges, setbacks and simple failures which continue to unfold during the invasion of Ukraine.

Attacking force, for instance, has not been able to secure the critical vital city of Kharkiv, a strategically crucial area just North and West of Donbas close to the Russian border. While seemingly less prominent or noticeable, Kharkiv is crucial due to its proximity to both Russia and Donbas, meaning Russian forces might have a continuous, less threatened supply line route from Russia directly into Donbas. However, Russian attacks of Kharkiv have not been successful.

“Kharkiv has continued to come under air assault largely through strikes for sure, but the Ukrainians have been doing an able job over the last 24/48 hours of pushing the Russians further away, and they have managed to push the Russians out about 40 kilometers to the east of Kharkiv,” a Senior DoD official told reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.

The Pentagon official did not elaborate upon why the Russians have been unable to advance on the city, but it seems quite likely that the Ukrainians are continuing to build upon the effective tactics they used North of Kyiv. These would include ambushes with anti-armor weapons at strategically critical crossroads, chokepoints or other narrowly configured passageways. Anti-armor weapons such as Javelin anti-tank weapons continue to prove extremely effective against Russian armored vehicles, Pentagon and White House officials said.

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

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

“Kharkiv important to the Russians because it sits at the very northwestern sort of lip and edge of that Donbas region, and as they wanted to, you know, they were obviously hoping to get Kharkiv and hold it so that they could have that ability to continue to push down from the north, and the Ukrainians are making it difficult for them to do that,” the Senior official said.

“They're pushing them back, so back into areas of the northern Donbas region, but away from Kharkiv, so an incredible effort there that, again, hasn't gotten a lot of headlines and hasn't gotten a lot of attention, but it's just another piece of the stiff Ukrainian resistance that they continue to demonstrate,” the Pentagon official said.

A major urban area, such as Kyiv or Kharkiv, likely needs to be accessed through roads, bridges or other passageways, cross-points which make the approaching Russian vehicles vulnerable to Ukrainian fires from Javelin anti-tank weapons and other weapons.

Video Above: Ukrainian Warfare Tactics Derail Russians

“We’ve made sure there are no interruptions in the shipment of equipment to Ukraine. If you don’t stand up to dictators, history has shown us they keep coming. Their appetite for power continues to grow,” Biden said on CNN.

Switchblade Drones

The Ukrainian military is quickly expanding its ability launch mini-drone explosives at Russian armored vehicles from behind rock, trees and buildings by using a now arriving fleet of Switchblade drones.

The Switchblade, built by AeroVironment, is a battery-powered unmanned aerial vehicle that can carry three pounds worth of explosives. It has cameras and can both loiter as a “camera” node in the sky to conduct surveillance missions or also descend upon enemy targets and explode them as an attack weapon itself.

The Pentagon plans to send 700 Switchblades to Ukraine, roughly 100 of which have arrived, to help support the Ukrainian effort to destroy approaching Russian armored vehicles. The small mini-drone can function organically within dismounted units and fly out to distances as far a 5km to attack a target.

The #Switchblade is a tube-launched tactical missile system that provides the operator with real-time video and cursor-on-target GPS coordinates for increased safety and precise target engagement.

The #Switchblade is a tube-launched tactical missile system that provides the operator with real-time video and cursor-on-target GPS coordinates for increased safety and precise target engagement.

While a weapon such as the Switchblade could be used in open areas of Eastern Ukraine, it could more easily be seen and less able to leverage the element of surprise. However, in an urban warfare environment, soldiers could launch the mini-drone explosives from hidden locations such as behind buildings to gain a tactical advantage over armored vehicles.

The Switchblades, in conjunction with other asymmetrical or dismounted anti-armor weapons are helping a dispersed force of Ukrainian fighters to stage ambushes, hit and run attacks and opportunistic strikes. The nature of this kind of weapon enables Ukrainian fighters to use these from hidden or obscured locations, demonstrating that well executed tactics with anti-armor weapons can have great success against a heavier mechanized force if employed in the right way.

Along with its ability to operate as an explosive, the Switchblades can also conduct reconnaissance missions and beam back video images of Russian troop movements or show locations of high-value targets. This is likely why the Ukrainians are also receiving PUMA small, hand launched EO/IR drones. These small platforms enabled dismounted units to look on the other side of a ridge or building to see and target enemy troops. These kinds of small drones are particularly effective when they can organically operate as part of a specific ground unit tasked with locating and attacking the enemy from dispersed dismounted positions.

These drones support the effective tactics thus far being employed by the Ukrainians to exact a heavy toll upon incoming Russian convoys, mechanized vehicles and armored units. A numerically smaller, less armored but dispersed and dismounted force of Ukrainians have been able to employ anti-armor weapons and hit and run tactics to cripple Russian advances in several critical location.

Interestingly, the Navy began testing the Switchblade to launch from a small signal injector tube from the side of a submarine.

These Ukrainian anti-armor weapons to be of use against approaching mechanized units are now being fortified and supplemented by the arrival of heavier weapons and equipment from the rest, meaning Ukrainian forces will have an ability to support their dismounted tactics with stand-off fire and heavy armor forces as well.

Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization