Ukraine’s claim that its forces destroyed more than 300 Russian tanks and more than 1,000 armored personnel carriers must be taken – like all wartime estimates – with a grain of salt.
But Ukrainian forces surprised the Kremlin and the world with the ferocity of their resistance. A major factor in this success was the FGM-148 Javelin shoulder-launched anti-tank missile, supplied to Ukraine by the United States and the United Kingdom
US President Joe Biden this week announced the shipment of another 9,000 anti-tank systems, which he described as “portable, high-precision, shoulder-mounted missiles that Ukrainian forces use to great effect in destroying invasion tanks and armored vehicles”. .”
Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have found the guns particularly irritating. Last week, he ordered his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, to deliver all captured javelins to pro-Moscow separatist forces in Donbass.
Incredible drone video of an ambush of a column of Russian tanks allegedly taken by the 6th Regiment near the Brovary region of Kyiv Oblast. The audio appears to be an intercept of a Russian officer calling his superiors to report the ambush and the death of the regimental commander pic.twitter.com/Fyk3jao7mL
This is the first major war between developed countries in a long time, and war planners around the world are watching it closely.
For Canada, a lesson is in order. The Canadian Forces possess very few anti-tank guided missiles and none of the types of shoulder-fired missiles that have been used so successfully by small mobile infantry hunting and fighter teams. russian armor ambush in Ukraine.
Canada also lacks the shoulder-launched Stinger missiles that were used to shoot down Russian planes.
From the Cold War to budget cuts
In the past, Canada had more anti-tank guided missiles and had stockpiles of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft guided missiles.
Canada’s last man-portable surface-to-air missile was retired in 2005. It was not replaced in part because the Taliban did not have an air force.
“Many countries, including Canada, saw a change in the type of conflict they would be involved in between the mid-1990s and the mid-2010s,” said retired Vice Admiral Darrel Hawco, who was head of force development for Canada. Armed forces.
It was the era of asymmetric warfare, fighting groups like the Taliban that lacked aircraft and heavy armor and had few weapons beyond line of sight.
“Countries like Canada have declared the likelihood of a massive Cold War-style armor-on-armor war to be extremely low, and so many countries have deprioritized these types of weapons in favor of improved countermeasures. self-protection,” Hawco said.
Instead, Canadian military planners preferred to invest in armored vehicles capable of withstanding roadside bomb attacks or counter-battery radars capable of locating the source of incoming mortar rounds. Blowing up Russian tanks was not a priority.
The result, Hawco said, is that Canada “today lacks a sufficient supply of modern anti-tank weapons.”
Rely on the memories of older soldiers
As Canadian infantry lost their anti-tank weapons, they also lost the skills to use them, which affected their ability to train Ukrainians, according to a 2016 service document presented to the Canadian Forces College.
“The infantry battalions’ lack of expertise in using direct fire was highlighted during the recent deployment of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, on Op UNIFIER in Ukraine,” the newspaper said. Operation Unifier is the Canadian Forces mission to train the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
“As part of their mentoring role, they were to be able to train Ukrainian forces in the proper use of anti-armour weapons against modern tanks. ‘due to residual capability of soldiers who served in Anti-Armour Platoon.’
The young soldiers who had come of age in the lightly armed Canadian infantry of the 21st century did not have the same training as their older counterparts.
TOW, the tank killer
Canada once possessed large quantities of tripod-mounted TOW guided missile launchers – a large part of NATO’s response to Soviet tank superiority.
John McLearn served 44 years in the Canadian Army, from Afghanistan to Bosnia and the Middle East, primarily as an infantry officer and pioneer. He remembers a time when anti-tank guided missiles were standard kit.
“A Canadian-based battalion would have eight TOW missiles, all within the anti-armour platoon. The German battalions” – those expected to face the Russian tanks – “had 18 TOW missiles each.”
But by the end of the Cold War, most of Canada’s TOW weapons were sold off or expired. The rest was stored and only released and redistributed when Canada deployed troops to Latvia in 2017.
TOW missiles are not state of the art. They don’t have the latest “shoot and forget” guidance systems that allow the user to shoot and run, letting the missile find the tank on its own.
Older TOW systems use second generation wire guidance which requires the shooter to keep the sights locked to the tank until impact. Newer ones use more sophisticated guidance systems. All TOWs in Canada’s arsenal have been upgraded and use newer technology than older cable guidance systems.
TOW missiles are proven tank killers up to a distance of almost 4 kilometers, but Canada has very few of them.
“There are about 40 systems left. They’ve been brought up to the most modern standards,” McLearn said.
Canada recently purchased from the Israeli company Rafael a small number of Spike anti-tank missiles – a true gun-and-forget weapon launched from a tripod – but just enough to equip its special operations regiment for deployment to Iraq. .
The Hail Mary option
Defense against tanks is “layered” and uses different weapons at different ranges, McLearn said. Distant tanks can be targeted by Canadian CF-18s or its deadly M777 howitzers.
TOW missiles are used on closer tanks. But many Russian vehicles destroyed in Ukraine are targeted at very close ranges – often 300 meters or less.
Canada has provided Ukraine with two types of shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons: the reusable Carl Gustaf and the disposable single-shot M-72. Both are unguided devices that fire projectiles in a straight line.
The 84mm Carl Gustaf can be very effective at close range, although it is difficult to use on a moving target. The smaller M-72 (Canada donated 4,500 to Ukraine this week) cannot beat the armor of a typical modern battle tank, McLearn said, making it the last line of defense in what he called a “Hail Mary” situation.
But M-72s can be very effective against thin-skinned support vehicles such as tankers, tank transporters, and lighter personnel carriers. As Ukrainian forces have shown, targeting these vehicles can quickly halt the enemy advance.
Canada’s 2017 blueprint for future defense policy – “Strong, Secure, Engaged” – only mentions anti-tank guided missiles once and does not place them among the 21 priorities established for the Canadian Army.
Instead, these priorities show a continued focus on counterinsurgency missions in recent years, with a call to “modernize the fleet of improvised explosive device detection and disposal capabilities.”
A premature “peace dividend”
The Stinger man-portable surface-to-air missile is another shoulder-fired lifeline for Ukrainian forces.
The Stinger was the scourge of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, where the United States distributed it to the mujahideen to shoot down Russian helicopters and sometimes jet fighters.
Russian planes have improved considerably since then, but so has the Stinger. President Biden announced on Wednesday the dispatch of hundreds more to Ukraine.
Former Canadian fighter pilot Murray Lee, who has written about the lack of ground-based air defenses in Canada, said the country once had shoulder-launched and vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft systems, but no longer.
“We were looking for peace dividends, like most western governments, and the government at the time decided we didn’t need this equipment,” Lee said. “So we got rid of it and didn’t worry about replacing it. Counterinsurgency warfare had no air threat.”
General Wayne Eyre, Canada’s Chief of the Defense Staff, said air defense was a priority for him. Lee said the lesson from the war in Ukraine is that any revised air defense posture should include shoulder-launched man-portable missiles.
The Stinger missile, he said, can be bought off the shelf and soldiers can be trained to use it in a day or two.
And while an expensive, self-contained anti-aircraft system like the Patriot can be disabled in a single attack, having many Stingers spread across units spreads the risk.
Lee said Canada doesn’t need to choose between short-range handheld systems like the Stinger and long-range systems like the Patriot. As with anti-tank defence, air defense is layered, so small, short-range systems like the Stinger can play a role, while Patriot installs – which can hit incoming cruise missiles over the horizon and target 24 kilometers from the ground – can play another .
But Lee said shoulder-launched guided missiles are an increasingly important tool in modern warfare. They also have the advantage of being highly portable, making them easy to share with friends and allies.
“You could put 100, 200 Stingers on crates in a C-130 [transport aircraft] and get them there in a heartbeat.”