Anti-Tank Guided Missiles or ATGMs have become a defining symbol of the Ukrainian fight against Russian invasion. They have destroyed countless armoured vehicles and provided endless material for viral social media clips. But why have ATGMs been so effective in the war so far, and could that be about the change? 

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ATGMs explained

This is the Stugna-P. A Ukrainian made anti-tank guided missile or ATGM and these are Ukrainian soldiers using one to great effect against Russian vehicles near Kherson in the south of the country. Alongside Javelin's and NLAWs which have received far more press attention, ATGMs like the Stugna have proved highly effective during the war in Ukraine. They've destroyed countless Russian armoured vehicles and provided endless material for viral social media vlips. But why have ATGMs been so successful and is their role changing?

David Galbreath - Univeristy of Bath: Anti-tank missile systems in particular have been really important in these in this kind of first year of the of the of the war. But in particular what we see now this is a different kind of era of warfighting. And we could imagine that artillery is going to play an ever greater role in this war.

To understand the effectiveness of modern ATGMs we first need to go right back to the inception of anti-tank weaponry. See ever since the birth of the tank during the First World War there has been an arms race between anti-tank weapons and tank armour one of the most important developments was HEAT or high explosive anti-tank ammunition. This example comes from a German Panzerschrek from the Second World War, itself a copy of the American Bazooka. HEAT rounds, also known as shape charges, have their explosive in a hollow cone with a thin metal lining. When the explosive ignites it turns the lining into a jet of liquid metal which moves fast enough to penetrate even the thickest of armour. But with those advancements came in evolution in tank armour.

David Galbreath: Rather than having just rolled homogeneous armour the Soviets had started using this reactive explosive armour. These new weapon systems are primarily a response to that evolution in armour. So they themselves have to make sure that they are piercing the armour, they themselves are having to shoot further, and they are having more sophisticated targeted systems. It's really starting to become a quite advanced package.

Weapons like the Javelin and the Stugna use tandem heat charges. They use a small initial explosive to activate the explosive reactive armour, before a second main charge arrives to penetrate the armour itself. Modern ATGMs also have much improved guidance systems. This LAW80, the precursor to the modern NLAW, has an integrated spotting rifle with 9mm tracer rounds to improve the probability of a first time hit. By contrast the NLAWs being used in Ukraine use a predicted line of sight system. The user tracks the target for two to three seconds before firing, then the guidance system calculates the flight path to the target while the soldier gets to safety. Meanwhile other ATGMs like the Javelin are even more advanced.

David Galbreath: So what happens is the Javelin system projects a missile. Once it's cleared of the user that missile then ignites and does an arc on top of the tank. And so therefore you're targeting the weakest layer of armour. Other systems target over tanks in order to do something similar, but they're actually not able to detonate in the same kind of way as the Javelin system.

But ATGMs aren't just highly effective modern weapons, they're also a great fit for Ukrainian strategy. They provide a cost-effective way of countering Russia's huge stocks of armoured vehicles with which Ukraine cannot compete. In the early phases of the war reservists like these ones in Kyiv were trained with a plethora of anti-tank weapons like NLAWs and AT-4s.

David Galbreath: Both of those systems actually are kind of point-and-shoot weapon systems. And so therefore they're actually quite easyto train around and also themselves quite mobile and so therefore you can get people deployed very quickly and be able to actually to operate very much in a mobile way.

It’s no surprise then that ATGMs have become a defining symbol of the Ukrainian cause – exemplified in the online memes of St Javelin among others. The weapons represent vital western support for the war effort and the seemingly David vs Goliath struggle with which Ukraine is engaged. That their video feeds can be so easily shared on social media should not be underestimated. The posts solidify the idea that Ukraine is winning the war. But that does not mean that they are risk free for their operators.

David Galbreath: What we see in particular are these anti-tank missile systems is that, in many cases, they're somewhere between 500 to a thousand meters. Of course that puts you in within the range of a tank and its weapon systems. But we also see a fire and forget quality to them that means that you could be quite quick in being able to move off. That mobility is kind of fundamental to the way that we think about kind of modern warfare.

But there's another reason why Ukrainian ATGMs have been so effective and that's because the Russian strategy has been playing directly into their hands. On paper, Ukrainian soldiers should have been able to get close to Russian armour. But in reality, Russian tanks moved along main roads and exposed fields without infantry, artillery, or aircraft protecting them. Ukrainian forces with ATGMs were able to pick off the first and last vehicles in slow-moving Russian columns before artillery finished off the rest.

David Galbreath: Prosecuting a ground war without air support is extremely difficult. In fact what's developed in the case of Ukraine is that we see a level of air denial to the Russians. And so that means that your ground forces become particularly vulnerable towards mobile weapon systems. And so it's causing a lot of problems for the ability for the Russians not only to be able to actually take territory, but the real problem is is their ability to hold territory outside of major cities.

Those days of mobile armoured warfare and isolated Russian thrusts are over. Russia has now moved on to the defensive across Ukraine and more than eight months into the conflict, it has become overwhelmingly a positional battle. Drones, artillery, and long-range weapons reign supreme as Ukraine tries to weaken Russian supplies and logistics. And so the role of the ATGM has shifted as well. Missiles are increasingly being used for static targets like bunkers and observation posts. This recent footage of Ukrainian soldiers near Bakhmut is reminiscent of British soldiers using LAW and Milan systems during the Falklands conflict over 40 years ago.

David Galbreath: If you think about the counter-offensive in Ukraine at the moment we can see that those anti-tank missile systems have been very effective and being able to push the Russians back. But in particular what we see now is a different kind of era of warfighting and we could imagine that artillery is going to play an ever greater role in this war. And if you think about the Donetsk and luhansk you can see that actually from 2014 onwards that's the way that that war had developed itself.

More recently Ukrainian forces have begun mounting their Stugnas or newly donated American TOW missiles to light armoured vehicles like these American soldiers seen here. These weapons have more firepower and a longer range than their infantry carried counterparts and the TOW missile in particular uses wires to transmit guidance information to the missile, offering extra resistance to electronic countermeasures. Going forward then the future role of ATGMs seems uncertain. Not only is artillery playing a larger part in the fighting, but new missiles might be harder to come by. As the war drags on towards the year mark, Ukraine's western backers are having to take a hard look at their own supplies of weaponry.

David Galbreath: If you think about something like the NLAWsor the Panzerfaust 3s, many of them have already been used. The US has given about 7,000 Javelins to Ukraine, but we have to keep in mind that it can only make slightly less than 7,000 a year and of course the United States is in a far better position to be able to actually produce those Javelins. These smaller states which have smaller stocks actually kind of suffer a depletion of resources.

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