Advancements and Evolutions: The Journey of Infantry ATGMs

In the modern era, any formidable military force must be equipped with anti-tank missile systems specifically designed for infantry. These weapons serve as a crucial line of defense against heavily armored threats and fortified structures. The realm of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) is in a perpetual state of development, continuously yielding fresh results and unveiling intriguing trends. Let’s delve into the world of infantry ATGMs and explore the fascinating evolution of this essential weaponry.

The Tale of Generations

In the realm of anti-tank systems, encompassing those tailored for infantry use, a commonly accepted classification categorizes them into three principal generations. This classification system provides a means to distinguish between various complexes based on their level of development and the applied technologies. The first generation encompasses the earliest designs of this class that transitioned into production and operational use. Notable examples include the Soviet 9K11 Malyutka complex and the French SS.10.

The defining characteristic of the 1st generation was its uncomplicated design and the absence of any form of automation. Operators had to manually search for targets, launch missiles, and guide them to their destination. This manual control approach had inherent limitations concerning launch range and accuracy.

Advancements and Evolutions: The Journey of Infantry ATGMs
Cut-away layout of the American TOW missile

In the 1960s and 1970s, the 2nd generation ATGMs emerged, ushering in advanced observation devices and semi-automatic controls. Operators now only needed to identify and maintain visual contact with the target, while the missile’s flight was automated based on certain guiding principles.

The majority of modern ATGMs currently in service belong to the 2nd generation. In Russia, this generation saw the introduction of products like the 9K111 “Fagot” and 9K111-1 “Competition.” Among foreign counterparts, examples include the American BGM-71 TOW and the French MILAN.

The mid-1990s witnessed the advent of the 3rd generation, symbolized by the American FGM-148 Javelin. Similar developments emerged in other countries, characterized by the presence of fully functional homing heads on the missiles, enabling the “shot and forget” principle, which yielded distinct advantages.

Advancements and Evolutions: The Journey of Infantry ATGMs
Missiles of various modifications for the TOW complex

While advertisements from foreign developers reference 4th and 5th generations of anti-tank systems, universally accepted criteria for these generations have yet to materialize, allowing for some creative interpretation and marketing.

Taking the Israeli company Rafael as an example, they categorize certain members of their Spike family as 4th generation systems. Some missiles in this line are equipped with optical-electronic seekers and feature fiber-optic connections with ground-based anti-tank systems, offering both homing capabilities, including retargeting during flight and direct operator control. The 5th generation, according to Rafael, envisions future complexes integrating artificial intelligence, among other innovations.

The Cost-Efficiency Conundrum

Traditionally, introducing new-generation weaponry leads to the gradual obsolescence of previous models, resulting in their eventual replacement. This pattern held true when transitioning from the 1st to the 2nd generation of anti-tank systems. However, with the emergence of the 3rd generation, certain factors prevented the phase-out of previous-generation products, and they continue to remain relevant and popular in several countries. Some nations do not even plan to switch to the latest generation of ATGMs.

Advancements and Evolutions: The Journey of Infantry ATGMs
French MILAN on an armored car. Photo MBDA Systems

The primary factors contributing to this decision revolve around technical and economic considerations, with cost playing a pivotal role. For instance, the export price of the 3rd generation Javelin missile, equipped with a seeker, exceeds $200, whereas missiles from previous generations cost significantly less. In past export contracts, a Kornet missile, a 2nd generation ATGM, was priced at approximately $25,000 to $30,000. The situation is similar for control units.

The stark difference in cost between ATGMs of different generations often fails to justify the technical advantages of newer models. In some cases, products like the FGM-148, due to their reduced size, even lag behind their predecessors in terms of core characteristics. Consequently, when evaluating cost-effectiveness, the 2nd generation of ATGMs emerges as the more pragmatic choice.

Progress in Precision and Control

The pivotal innovation introduced with the 2nd generation of ATGMs was incorporating control units equipped with electronics capable of managing target tracking and missile flight. The ongoing development of control units and the integration of novel technologies have been key drivers of progress in this field.

During the early stages of 2nd-generation development, the primary objective was to enable all-weather and day-and-night use of these systems. This was achieved by introducing advanced optics featuring night vision capabilities. Simultaneously, electronic improvements were made, focusing on enhancing reliability and speed.

An essential aspect of rocket control development revolved around finding efficient means of guiding the missile. In the initial 2nd-generation systems, the wired control method, inherited from earlier designs, was retained. However, in these newer complexes, commands for rocket maneuvering were generated in the control unit and transmitted to the missile via a slender, unwinding cable. While this method was technically simple, it proved vulnerable to external interferences.

The wired connection was replaced with a radio channel in several domestic and foreign developments. Radio command guidance systems gained widespread use in anti-tank systems for land and air platforms. Nevertheless, effective alternatives for infantry complexes were also devised. For example, the “Kornet” has laser-beam control in all its variations. In this approach, the missile autonomously follows the laser beam directed at the target by the control unit. While this guidance method is more intricate than the wired method, it offers enhanced reliability and immunity against interference.

Advancements in the 2nd generation set the stage for innovations in the hypothetical 4th generation, as conceived by the international defense industry. In projects like the Spike family, a simple copper wire was replaced with optical fiber, enabling high-speed two-way communication between the missile and the control unit. This connectivity opens the door to revolutionary new modes and capabilities.

The Arsenal of Combat Capabilities

As the name implies, anti-tank systems are designed to neutralize armored targets, featuring specialized warheads to accomplish this task. Nearly all ATGMs employ shaped charges of varying mass and configuration. These charges have evolved over time, and alternative combat equipment options have emerged.

The Journey of Infantry ATGMs
Israeli product Spike-LR, related to the 3rd generation. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Early anti-tank missiles carried straightforward monobloc-shaped charges. In recent decades, tandem warheads have gained prominence. These warheads incorporate a compact, lightweight leading charge designed to defeat and disable dynamic protection units. The main charge then penetrates through the created gap. Tandem warheads are specifically engineered to target well-protected armored vehicles’ frontal or lateral aspects. Alternative solutions have also been proposed to simplify the missile’s task. For instance, a variant of the TOW ATGM features a cumulative warhead positioned at an inclined angle, directing downward during flight.

It activates as the missile passes over the target, with the cumulative jet striking the vehicle’s roof. The FGM-148 Javelin and certain other contemporary systems employ a “top-down” attack mode, wherein the missile descends onto the target, exploiting the weakened part of the armor.

ATGM crews now encounter a broader spectrum of threats beyond just tanks in response to the evolving battlefield. Consequently, missiles equipped with diverse combat equipment are required. While developing the Kornet complex, missiles with high-explosive and thermobaric warheads were introduced.