Shoulder-launched missiles could make Ukraine war nightmare for all sides

Portable firepower is flooding into Ukraine from Europe, the US and Russia

Live updates: follow the latest news on Russia-Ukraine

With conflict now raging across most of Ukraine, many European countries have surprised observers by sending thousands of shoulder-launched anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, following on from initial US and British deliveries prior to Russia’s February 24 military assault.

Two weapons have made headlines – the UK-Swedish developed New Generation Light Anti Tank Weapon (NLAW) which has a short range of around 800 metres but can plunge down on the thin roof armour of tanks, as well as having advanced sensors to track and close in on moving targets, and the Javelin anti-tank missile launcher.

The latter has a range of more than 4,700 metres but comes with a huge price tag of more than $200,000 per system, compared to the NLAW, which is close to $30,000.

Apart from these weapons, a lot more portable firepower is heading into Ukraine that could prove decisive for either side or – perhaps just as likely – prolong the conflict as each side struggles to gain the upper hand.

Russia is also fielding deadly man-portable missiles in huge numbers, and while the defenders can use them against massed tank attacks, they are also effective against defensive infantry positions. The history of their deployment shows how game-changing they can be.

FIM-92 Stinger

The supply of thousands of Stingers anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine from the US, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Germany could revive grim memories of the Soviet Afghan war.

Russia enjoyed complete air supremacy against tens of thousands of lightly armed Afghan mujahideen resistance fighters, following the massive Russian intervention in 1979 to prop up the Communist Afghan government. As a result, the mujahideen could be easily crushed by massive aerial bombardments, even in strongholds such as the Panjshir Valley, which was briefly taken under heavy air assault in 1982.

But in September 1986, US-supplied Stinger missiles given to resistance fighters shot down three Russian helicopters in Jalalabad, changing the war: Russian aircraft would have to fly higher for safety, making their sorties riskier and less accurate than low-level strafing attacks.

SA-18 anti-aircraft missile

While Ukraine has surprised analysts by keeping its air force operational, including Turkish-supplied drones, Russian infantry are equipped with this shoulder-launched anti-aircraft system.

Early variants of the SA-18, or Igla, had a lower range than the Stinger, but newer variants can reach targets up to 6,000 metres away. In the right hands, the Igla is a formidable weapon.

Syrian rebels claimed to have used it successfully against the Syrian air force in 2012 and 2015. During the Azerbaijan-Armenia war over Nagorno Karabakh, Armenia claimed an Igla had successfully shot down at least one drone – something the system's designers claim it is adept at.

Panzerfaust 3

Taking its name from the Second World War German light anti-tank weapon, which had a remarkably short range of just 60m and could not penetrate the frontal armour of most tanks of that era, the Panzerfaust is still “short range” by today’s standards.

The latest variants have just a range of just 600 metres. That compares to the range of more than 3,000 metres for the Russian T-90 TANK’s main gun, the 125mm 2A46. As with most anti-tank weapons, that means the person firing it must be well hidden until attackers come within range, and be able to move quickly after firing.

But the Panzerfaust is still a formidable threat to armour, with recent variants containing a double explosive charge, one to detonate explosive reactive armour defences that are common on many Russian tanks, while the second charge penetrates the armour.

M72 Light Anti Tank Weapon

Developed by the US in the late 1960s, this was the primary US infantry anti-tank weapon until the 1980s when it was replaced by the more powerful AT4. At the time, it would have struggled to take on the frontal armour of the commonly used Russian T-72 tank, but could pose a serious threat to the sides and tops of most Russian tanks at close range in urban settings.

The most recent variant, donated to Ukraine by the Netherlands, the Enhanced LAW has an armour penetration of 450mm rolled homogeneous armour steel plate (a stand-in material used to represent modern armour thickness).

That's significantly more powerful than prior variants but still only about half the penetrative power needed to cut through the latest T-72 variant's frontal armour protection, which is equivalent to 950mm of steel.

Several units of the Turkish version of the M72, the HAR-66, were captured from ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, possibly after being taken from Turkish-backed rebels.

9M133 Kornet

Russia’s Kornet anti-tank missile is one of the world’s deadliest, with the latest versions having a range up to 8,000 metres for anti-tank engagement. The laser guided missile has excellent armour penetration, disabling some of the world’s most well-protected tanks, including US M1 Abrams tanks in Iraq and Israeli Merkavas, when Hezbollah used the system during the 2006 war with Israel.

Kornets were also captured in large numbers from the Syrian army by rebel groups in the ongoing civil war and caused extremely heavy armour losses among government units.

Stugna-P

Ukraine’s locally developed anti-tank missile has a claimed 4,000 metre range and a top attack mode, and has been used in the conflict with separatists in Donbas since 2014. The government has distributed thousands of units and launchers, but little is known about how effective the system is in combat.

Updated: March 06, 2022, 4:19 PM
EDITOR'S PICKS