Will the US run out of Javelin anti-tank missiles to give Ukraine before Russia runs out of tanks?
April 13, 2022
- The US has supplied Ukraine with thousands of Javelin anti-tank missiles.
- But it’s nearing a point where it must reduce transfers to maintain a stockpile for US forces.
- Will Ukraine inflict enough Russian losses to cause stalemate before it runs out of Javelins?
The United States has supplied Ukraine with thousands of Javelins, the anti-tank missiles that have become the iconic weapon of the war, but the US inventory is dwindling.
The United States has probably given about one-third of its stock to Ukraine. Thus, the United States is approaching the point where it must reduce transfers to maintain sufficient stockpiles for its own war plans. Production of new missiles is slow, and it will take years to replenish stocks.
The Russians have numerous armored vehicles, but their supply of trained crews and level of morale are declining. Will Ukrainian anti-tank weapons inflict enough Russian combat losses to produce a battlefield stalemate before Ukraine runs out of its most effective anti-tank weapons?
Javelins ― the iconic weapon
To review, a Javelin is a long-range guided anti-tank missile that can be carried by one person. Javelins have become the iconic weapon of this war, with pictures of Mary Magdalene, dubbed St. Javelin, holding a weapon and even a Javelin song.
It is the most sophisticated, capable, and expensive weapon out of the wide range of anti-tank munitions that NATO and other countries are providing to Ukraine. The United States says it has provided 7,000 to Ukraine.
Infantry anti-tank weapons have allowed Ukrainian forces, which are mostly light infantry, to defeat Russian mechanized forces despite their much greater firepower.
It is important to note that Javelins are the most capable and best known of the anti-tank weapon systems but not the most numerous. That distinction goes to the NLAW, an anti-tank system with guidance but not as sophisticated as a Javelin’s and lesser range.
The United States has not published figures about its Javelin inventory, so this must be deduced. According to the Army budget books, total production has been 37,739 since production began in 1994.
Every year, US forces use some missiles for training and testing. Thus, there may be 20,000 to 25,000 remaining in the stockpiles. These 7,000 systems represent about one-third of the US total inventory.
That fraction doesn’t sound like much; after all, two-thirds of the inventory remains. However, military planners are likely getting nervous. The United States maintains stocks for a variety of possible global conflicts that may occur against North Korea, Iran, or Russia itself.
At some point, those stocks will get low enough that military planners will question whether the war plans can be executed. The United States is likely approaching that point.
The obvious answer is to build more missiles (and launch units, the control box that goes on the missile). The United States has been buying Javelins at the rate of about 1,000 a year. The maximum production rate is 6,480 a year, though it would likely take a year or more to reach that level. The delivery time is 32 months; that is, once an order is placed, it will take 32 months before a missile is delivered.
This means that it will take about three or four years to replace the missiles that have been delivered so far. If the United States delivers more missiles to Ukraine, this time to replace extends.
It’s not just Javelins
The United States is providing a wide variety of other systems, such as small arms, tracking radars, and armored trucks (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle). However, the numbers being provided are relatively small compared to likely inventories.
For example, the United States has sent the Ukrainians 50 million rounds of ammunition. That sounds like a lot, but total US ammunition production for military and civilian purposes is 8.7 billion per year. Deliveries to Ukraine comprise less than 1% of that.
One system for which inventories and replenishment rates are limited is the Stinger anti-aircraft missile. According to the White House fact sheet, the United States has provided 2,000 Stingers to Ukrainian. The United States has not purchased any since 2003. At that time, the total production was stated as 11,600 missiles (from the FY 2000 budget documents).
With testing and training losses of 1% a year, the remaining inventory would be about 8,000. So, the United States has sent about a quarter of its inventory to Ukraine.
In 2003, the last time the United States procured Stingers, production rates were stated as 275 with standard shifts (called “1-8-5”) and 720 at maximum production rate. Production lead time was 24 months. That means it will take at least five years to replace the inventory drawdown (two years for lead time and three years for production).
The problem is that the production line is apparently kept alive only by a small number of foreign sales, so it may take longer than 24 months to ramp up. Further, the Department of Defense (DOD) has been thinking about the next generation of short-range air-defense systems and may not want to buy more of what it considers an outmoded technology.
So there may be an extended period of risk when the inventory is low, but a replacement is not in the pipeline.
How many targets are there for all those anti-tank weapons?
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) The Military Balance, the Russians have 2,800 tanks and 13,000 other armored vehicles (reconnaissance and infantry fighting vehicles) in units with another 10,000 tanks and 8,500 armored vehicles in storage.
Open-source intelligence indicates that the Russians have lost about 1,300 armored vehicles. The bottom line is that the Russians are not going to run out of armored vehicles anytime soon.
What the Russians may run out of are trained crews and morale if the Ukrainians chew up enough armor. The Russians have lost about 40,000 troops, a quarter of their initial combat force, with especially high casualties in their elite units. Reinforcements and replacements can restore some of the numbers, but skills are deteriorating and morale, never high, seems to be declining.
So it is a race. Will Russian combat losses produce a battlefield stalemate before Ukraine runs out of its most effective anti-tank weapons?
This piece was originally published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on April 12, 2022.
Mark F. Cancian is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.