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Ukrainian soldiers use a launcher with U.S. Javelin missiles during military exercises in Donetsk region, Ukraine, Jan. 12, 2022.

Ukrainian soldiers use a launcher with U.S. Javelin missiles during military exercises in Donetsk region, Ukraine, Jan. 12, 2022. ((Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service)

The United States and allies have surged weapons to Ukraine in recent weeks, in the face of the Russian invasion. Images of destroyed Russian tanks on social media have drawn attention to one particular weapon: the Javelin missile.

The U.S. and other NATO countries sent more than 17,000 antitank weapons, including Javelin missiles, overland to Ukraine via Poland and Romania in the span of less than a week this month, the New York Times reported.

The Javelin has taken on a symbolic valence in pro-Ukraine online chatter. Former reporter Christian Borys created an image of a saint clutching a Javelin and its launch unit. The image on stickers and other gear has raised more than $1 million, Borys has said on Twitter, which he said will go to a humanitarian aid charity focused on Ukraine.

As a convoy of Russian military vehicles creeping toward Kyiv captures global attention, the antitank missiles are in the spotlight. Weapons experts say the Javelin could prove particularly effective against Russian tanks, though they caution that the missile systems alone are unlikely to change the trajectory of the war.

Here’s what to know about they work and the role they could play.

What is a Javelin?

The Javelin is an antitank missile system that locks onto a target’s thermal picture. The soldier peers through a command launch unit and selects different targets and attack types.

When fired, the missile thrusts flies out of the tube before its primary motor turns on and sends the rocket flying. The gentler start reduces debris and smoke, making it harder for the enemy to see where it was launched. It makes use of what is known as a “fire and forget” system, which allows the soldier to take cover or load a new missile while the other one is tracking to its target.

The system can fire day or night and has a relatively far range, of up to two and a half miles.

While the Javelin can target any kind of vehicle that emits heat, it is most potent against tanks since it can strike from the top. This is why it’s called a Javelin, like the spear thrown in track and field events that falls to the earth at a steep angle.

Javelins can also fire directly at a target if there is protection above it, and can be used against low flying helicopters.

How could they help Ukraine fight Russian forces?

The Javelin is “probably the most sophisticated and most powerful” antitank weapon, said Mark Cancian, senior adviser for the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Ukrainian military shared images of soldiers carrying the Javelin on Twitter Friday, along with photos of destroyed tanks.

“The very information about the presence of Javelins in the weaponry of the Ukrainian Armed Forces causes panic among the [Russian flag] occupiers,” the tweet said.

Ukraine claims that Russia has lost 335 tanks and just over 1,100 armored combat vehicles in the fighting.

But there isn’t reliable data on how many Javelin missiles Ukraine has used in battle and to what effect, said Amael Kotlarski, a senior analyst at Janes, an open-source defense intelligence agency.

The Ukrainian defense ministry asked Ukrainians in a Facebook post Wednesday not to share information on the purchase of weapons from foreign partners.

Experts say the Javelin is a powerful addition to Ukraine’s existing arsenal of domestically produced antitank missiles.

It’s easy to train fighters to use them, Cancian said, which is advantageous in Ukraine, where civilians have signed up for battle. The United States has trained Ukrainian forces in the past on how to operate them.

The weapons are “particularly useful because the Russians seem to be road-bound,” Cancian added, which makes it easier for Ukrainian forces to set up ambush sites or strong launch points.

What have Russians done to curb Javelins?

There are few things even the most well equipped militaries can do about Javelins. Modern tanks are covered with reactive armor, which in some cases is packed with small amounts of explosives that will detonate an incoming warhead.

The Javelin is designed to get past that armor. It uses a tandem warhead, which first either creates a channel into the reactive armor or blows it up, allowing the main warhead to slice right through and explode.

Russian tanks are particularly vulnerable to the weapon, Kotlarski said, since they were designed to be “very small, squat and compact.” A Javelin missile hitting the tank’s roof usually means “instant destruction,” he said.

There is some evidence the Russian military is wary of Javelins, including photos showing metal canopies jury-rigged on top of tanks. There are two theories about what these are intended to do. The first is to shield a commander or the turret itself from drones that can either drop munitions or crash into them, kamikaze style. But there is also speculation the canopies are meant to blunt the Javelin’s top down attack, giving the tank and its crew a slightly better chance of survival.

Others have suggested thermal attachments to the tank may be an attempt to complicate the missile’s ability to focus on the target. The design concept is similar to that of slat armor, which U.S. and other militaries have used to surround vehicles in steel cages, to detonate rocket propelled grenades prematurely.

Social media has been littered with photos of destroyed Russian tanks with cages. The images have acquired a symbolic resonance so quickly that internet used have coined the term “cope cage,” earning a page on the Internet’s primary meme directory.

A Telegram channel associated with pro-Russian forces also published instructions for Russian soldiers on how to use Javelin systems that they capture in Ukraine.

What are the Javelin’s limitations?

The Javelin is “not a silver bullet,” said Kotlarski, from Janes.

“There is a prevailing narrative in the public mind to sort of lionize certain weapons systems as having a defining impact on certain conflicts,” he said, but “the reality is often more complex.”

Though potent, particularly in open areas where Russian military vehicles are lumbering toward Ukrainian cities, the Javelin does have some drawbacks.

“It has the disadvantage of all these kinds of antitank weapons, which is that [tanks] can shoot back at you and you just have people hiding behind a hill or a bush,” Cancian said. “It’s not like an armored vehicle where you have some protection.”

The weapons systems are also expensive and complicated to produce, with estimates of production costs ranging between $80,000 and $200,000 per missile, according to Kotlarski. U.S. weaponmakers have the capacity to produce a maximum of 6,500 Javelin missiles per year, according to the Army’s estimates, though the existing contract caps production at 2,100.

If the conflict drags on and Ukraine burns through existing Javelin supplies, the U.S. and European countries may worry that handing over more weapons could leave them vulnerable, Kotlarski said.

As its ground forces struggle to make progress amid fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russia is relying on shelling besieged cities and launching unguided bombs from the sky.

And with battles expected to play out increasingly in cities, the Javelin — which is tricky to fire safely out of building windows — may not prove especially useful, Kotlarski said.

“A Javelin in itself is not going to be able to allow the Ukrainians to defeat the entire Russian army,” he said.

Zelensky has said weapons provided by the West so far are insufficient and called for fighter jets, setting off a fierce debate among U.S. politicians about whether to supply the aircraft. The Biden administration has so far shot down the idea.

“We believe the most effective way to support the Ukrainian military in their fight against Russia is to provide increased amounts of antitank weapons and air defense systems,” the commander of U.S. European Command, Gen. Tod D. Wolters, said in a statement.

The Washington Post’s Dalton Bennett and David Stern contributed to this report.

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