Russia Claims Ukraine’s Anti-Tank Missiles Are Duds. So Why Are Russian Tanks Burning?


Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles supplied to Ukraine are failures, Russia claims.

Don’t believe Russia, reply Western experts, who point to plentiful evidence that these weapons have wreaked havoc on Russian armored vehicles.

“The much-touted Javelin and NLAW man-portable anti-tank missile systems supplied by NATO countries to Ukraine have performed poorly on the battlefield and created numerous setbacks,” according to Russian state-owned news agency TASS, which cited testimony from a Ukrainian soldier allegedly captured by Russia.

“U.S. military aid, to my mind, has been overhyped because the much-touted ATWS [anti-tank weapon systems] and grenade launchers, their Javelins and NLAWs that were heavily promoted, failed to prove their worth in practice,” said the prisoner, who spoke in a video released by Russia’s Ministry of Defense. “They suffered setbacks, with normally one out of four weapons firing and instances of duds or blasts 50 meters [164 feet] away from the target.”

In addition, “some weapons had storage batteries with an expired service life while most batches indicated years past expiration dates,” the prisoner said.

Russia’s claims are contradicted by numerous videos of Russian armored vehicles being destroyed by the American-made Javelin as well as the NLAW (Next-generation Anti-Tank Weapon), designed by Swedish company Saab and supplied to Ukraine by Britain. These anti-tank missiles have been pivotal in helping outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian troops to frustrate Russia’s ground offensive, which has been spearheaded by tanks. Russia has lost more than 2,000 armored vehicles since it invaded Ukraine in late February, with many of those losses inflicted by Ukrainian missiles fired by foot soldiers or drones.

“The Russian media claims are doubtful, and are most likely attributable to Russian propaganda efforts,” N.R Jenzen-Jones, director of Armament Research Services, a non-partisan consultancy, told Forbes. “We have seen, if anything, superior performance from Javelin and NLAW compared with expectations, and no evidence of issues with condition or lack of maintenance thus far.”

“Similarly, the claimed 25 per cent dud rate would be highly abnormal, and is not in line with the available visual evidence from the conflict,” Jenzen-Jones added.

Early man-portable anti-tank missiles could be a bit unreliable. The Soviet AT-3 Sagger, which inflicted heavy losses on Israeli tanks in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, required operators with extensive training to guide the missile to the target. Then there was the notorious U.S. M47 Dragon, whose poorly designed rocket motor gave the missile an erratic flight path that was hard for the operator to control.

But the new generation of anti-tank missiles are more reliable and easier to operate. The Javelin and NLAW are fire-and-forget weapons in which the missile has its own on-board guidance system, rather than relying on the operator to guide them all the way and expose themselves to hostile fire. The Javelin uses infrared homing, while NLAW predicts the target’s movement and aims the missile at that spot. Both missiles are top-attack weapons that can climb after launch, and then dive down on a tank’s vulnerable top armor.

All military equipment has a certain number of failures, and all munitions will have a certain number of duds that stop them from exploding. Russia’s military know this better than most: U.S. intelligence believes that some Russian guided missiles have suffered from a failure rate as high as 60 percent. This could be due to poor design, but it may also reflect the poor maintenance that caused many Russian vehicles to break down.

But the Javelins and NLAWs sent to Ukraine came from American and British military stockpiles, which presumably received proper maintenance and storage. “Almost all arms and munitions—especially advanced weapons such as the Javelin and NLAW—require periodic inspection and sometimes maintenance subsequent to manufacture,” Jenzen-Jones said. “However, the shelf life of infantry weapons is generally quite good, and they are typically packaged in such a way as to minimize these requirements. The weapons supplied to Ukraine have been provided in good condition, with the U.S. and UK having every incentive to ensure this. They also have been in the country for such a short period of time that additional inspection is unlikely to be required.”

Ukraine has already received thousands of Javelins and NLAWs, with additional missiles to come as manufacturers strain to produce more. A few duds are to be expected. But Russia’s claims are less about flaws in Western anti-tank missiles, and more about raising the morale of an army bogged down in a floundering invasion.

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