It was the Ukrainian quid for an American quo that helped launch a constitutional crisis.
A powerful U.S. anti-armor missile prized for its ability to knock out the world’s toughest tanks has emerged as the unlikely center of the impeachment dispute sparked by a fateful July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky.
Mr. Trump is accused of linking an offer to sell the Javelin Close Combat Missile System, better known simply as the Javelin, to a request for a “favor” from Mr. Zelensky to investigate Mr. Trump’s political rivals. The phone call is the central element in the ongoing impeachment dispute between the White House and the House of Representatives.
“We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps,” Mr. Zelensky told Mr. Trump, according to a later White House account of the conversation. “Specifically, we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”
Kyiv’s intense interest in more Javelins isn’t hard to understand. Military leaders say the Javelin is a game-changer in any fight against armored forces. It can be operated by a single soldier, weighs about 50 pounds and is highly effective against a variety of targets at extended ranges during day or night and in all weather conditions.
Locked in a grinding civil war against Russian-backed separatist militias in its eastern half, Ukrainian officials have made no secret of their appetite for more Javelins, which the Trump administration greenlighted for sale last year.
“The Javelin can really defeat any armored vehicle that any military currently fields,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center of National Defense at the Heritage Foundation.
One of its selling points is a tandem warhead. The front blasts a gap into the tank’s explosive reactive armor, and the secondary warhead punches into the vehicle. The Javelin also is a “fire and forget” weapon, unlike systems that require the operator to guide the missile to the target.
“Once you have your target, the warhead is going to find its way there. Meanwhile, you can seek cover,” Gen. Spoehr said. “You’re no longer a target.”
The Javelin is the replacement for the bulky M-47 Dragon anti-tank guided missile. It had a maximum range of about 1,000 yards, compared with the 4,000-yard targets that a Javelin can hit. A large back blast when a Dragon was fired could reveal the position of the operator to enemy forces. That is not the case with the Javelin.
The missile “pops out and then the rocket motor ignites,” Gen. Spoehr said. “There’s not a giant signature. As a gunner, you’re much less susceptible to having somebody returning fire immediately.”
In March 2018, Mr. Trump approved the $47 million sale of 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles and 37 launchers to Ukraine. It was the first lethal military assistance that the U.S. provided to Ukraine in the separatist war. The Obama administration repeatedly expressed reluctance to sell the Javelin and other lethal weaponry to Kyiv for fear of provoking Russia and expanding the conflict.
On Oct. 3, the State Department approved the sale of additional 150 Javelin missiles and related equipment to Ukraine with a price tag of just under $40 million, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.
“This proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by improving the security of Ukraine. The Javelin system will help Ukraine build its long-term defense capacity to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity in order to meet its national defense requirements,” the Defense Security Cooperation Agency said in a statement.
The Javelin’s symbolic worth may be as valuable as its battlefield capabilities for Ukraine, which is perpetually pressed by a bigger and stronger Russia across the border.
“You see a little bit of a bounce in the step of a Ukrainian soldier when he or she has had the opportunity to embrace this system that allows them to better defend their turf,” Gen. Tod Wolters, the head of U.S. European Command, said last week at the Pentagon.
Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who was defeated by Mr. Zelensky in an election this year, hailed the arrival of the first Javelins last year as a “dream come true.” The missile, he said, “is a symbol of cooperation with our American partners.”
Officials said Ukraine should have no trouble absorbing the system into its armed forces and the sale should not alter the basic military balance of power in the region.
About 20 countries are thought to be using the Javelin system. The weapon also has been reported to be in Libya.
Ian Brzezinski, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center on International Security, has argued that the U.S. delivery of Javelins would “substantively increase Ukraine’s ability to impose costs on Russian forces.”
In an assessment posted on the think tank’s website last year, Mr. Brzezinski carries symbolic weight not just for the Ukrainians but for the Russians as well.
“The Javelins will also likely reanimate among Russian commanders uncomfortable memories of the role that U.S. shoulder-mounted Stinger air defense missiles played in forcing the Soviet Union’s retreat from Afghanistan in the late 1980s,” he wrote.
Javelins alone will not force Russia out of Crimea and the Donbas region, but they “substantially increase” Ukraine’s ability to level the playing field, Mr. Brzezinski said.
The Javelin is a multipurpose weapon. In addition to its usefulness as a “tank killer,” the missile can take out a bunker or even moving targets.
“If you want the munition to go through the roof, just toggle ‘top attack’ mode,” Gen. Spoehr said. “The missile will choose to attack the target from the roof.”
The Javelin does not require a great deal of training before an operator is proficient.
“A little bit of training, and all of a sudden you’ve got a guy who can defeat any vehicle that any military can field,” Gen. Spoehr said. “I’m not aware of any technology that can defeat a Javelin right now.”