America Fights Russia By Delivering Handheld Anti-Tank Missiles: Similar Tactics in Syria and Ukraine

Ukraine became a client for the American Javelin handheld anti tank missile in 2018, when orders were placed for 37 launchers and 210 missiles. Hundreds more launchers and missiles were subsequently delivered both as aid and in further arms purchases, as part of a broader trend towards growing defence cooperation between Ukraine and NATO following the installation of a pro-Western government in Kiev in early 2014. 

Ukraine’s conventional forces are considered largely obsolete, with its tank forces dating back to the 1970s and its aircraft to the 1980s with little modernisation since, making the deployment of modern handheld weapons in infantry units an effective means of countering Russian armour asymmetrically. Efforts by the United States and its Western allies to increase costs for Russian forces for war with Ukraine by providing such armaments is notably far from unprecedented and mirrors prior efforts to equip various non-state insurgent groups in conflict with Russian and allied forces with similar handheld armaments that would complicate counterinsurgency efforts. 

While the best known example of this was the provision of Stinger surface to air missiles to Afghan jihadist insurgents to fight the Afghan Military and the Soviet Union in the 1980s, a more recent example was the provision of TOW anti tank missiles to Syrian Islamist insurgents for combat against Syrian government and Russian forces. 

The TOW is a predecessor to the Javelin which is still widely deployed by several dozen countries, and has a direct line of fire from the launcher to the tank. The Javelin by contrast was designed to strike targets on their top armour, similarly to the Chinese YJ-18. The TOW uses wire guidance where the Javelin uses an electro optical infra-red sensor, providing a ‘fire and forget’ capability which allows the launcher to quickly redeploy. 

While the Javelin is a more capable missile, modern variants of the TOW proved capable of threatening export variants of Soviet era tanks such as the T-72B and were supplied in large numbers to insurgents in Syria. An assessment of these deployments was given by international security scholar A. B. Abrams in the 2021 book: World War in Syria: Global Conflict on Middle Eastern Battlefields where Abrams observed regarding Syrian and Russian efforts to recapture Aleppo from jihadist groups: 

"The initial phases of the offensive, which began as early as October 26, 2015, required the capture of the Aleppo countryside and surrounding villages before a push into the governate’s capital could finally be pursued. SAA [Syrian Arab Army] and allied [Russian and Hezbollah] forces made only slow gains in the first two weeks and faced multiple dug in and heavily armed insurgent groups. The American TOW anti-armour missile was deployed in particularly large numbers, having been provided by the CIA, Saudi Arabia and other hostile parties, and proved dangerous against older Syrian tanks. 

The wire guided missiles were delivered from a CIA-run depot in Turkey, and militants only received replacements if they were able to provide CIA operatives running the operation with video evidence that the weapons had been used in combat. This resulted in several video clips appear- ing online showing TOW missile strikes against Syrian targets. According to insurgents contacted by Reuters, their forces had received new batches of TOW missiles specifically to counter the SAA offensive in late 2015, which resulted in significant losses during the army’s advance. As Issa Al Turkmani, a commander of the Western backed Sultan Murad Islamist group, which was heavily involved in combatting the SAA in the early stages of the Aleppo offensive, stated: ‘We received more supplies of ammunition in greater quantities than before, including mortar bombs, rocket launchers and anti-tank [missiles]. We have received more new TOWs in the last few days ... We are well-stocked after these deliveries.’” 

A key difference between supplies in Afghanistan and Syria, and those in Ukraine, is that the former two were arming non state actors and thus had dubious legality, where Ukraine as a UN member state retains the right to import arms. As a result the CIA was responsible for illegal deliveries in Afghanistan and Syria, while the entirely legal deliveries to Ukraine can be pursued openly by the U.S. government. 

With the U.S. having announced within 48 hours of the conflict’s beginning that it would deliver more Javelin missiles to Ukraine, possibly alongside Stingers, escalated supplies of similar weapons to Western-aligned states and non-state actors across the world on the frontlines with Western adversaries remains a significant possibility in the coming years. The value of such low cost supplies in harming adversaries such as Russia, Syria, and previously Afghanistan and the USSR, provides a strong incentive to increase efforts to develop more capable handheld weapons that can impose further costs on adversaries in future conflicts. 

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