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Retired colonel on the rise of Javelin missiles, as Biden seeks to aid Ukraine


President Biden made the case today for billions of dollars of new spending for Ukraine. He toured an Alabama factory that makes javelins. He says the missile has become very popular.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: They've been so important. There's even a story about Ukrainian parents naming their children - not a joke - their newborn child Javelin or Javelina.

SHAPIRO: Earlier today I spoke with Mark Cancian about this weapon. He's a retired Marine colonel and an expert on military spending. And first, I asked him to describe it for us.

MARK CANCIAN: The Javelin is the top end of the infantry anti-tank weapons. It is a fire-and-forget weapon, that is you lock it onto the target, you pull the trigger, the missile fires, and it goes off on its own. It will home in on the target. The shooter can then go hide. It has a long range, up to 4,000, little more than 4,000 meters. And it also has a top attack capability. In other words, it can go straight at a target or it can go up in the air and come down on top of a target. That's important because tanks have much thinner armor on top, so they're much more vulnerable.

SHAPIRO: It seems like kind of the go-to weapon of this war. Has it been that way in conflicts for a while, or is there something unique about Russia's invasion of Ukraine that makes it particularly suited to this conflict?

CANCIAN: Well, the Javelin has become the iconic weapon of the war. It caught everyone's imagination. You know, there's Saint Javelin. There are Javelin songs. The reason I think it caught people's attention is because the Russians have a very mechanized military. They've got lots of armored vehicles. The Ukrainians needed as many anti-tank weapons as they could get. So we supplied these kinds of weapons early on in the conflict, and that was critical in allowing the Ukrainians, who were mostly light infantry, to hold back these Russian armored formations.

SHAPIRO: So these are particularly good for perhaps an overpowered military with less heavy equipment to take on a bigger, heavier, more armored military like Russia's.

CANCIAN: They are. And they're also very good for a military that may not be all that well trained because it doesn't take very long to learn how to use it. It is important to note that Javelin is only one of many kinds of anti-tank weapons that have been provided to the Ukrainians. There's another one that's called NLAW. It's also guided. It's not quite as sophisticated. It's been provided a much larger number. So many of the attacks we're seeing probably came from other kinds of anti-tank weapons. But the Javelins are the most capable, and they've certainly caught the public's imagination.

SHAPIRO: And in just a couple of months, the U.S. has already sent 5,500 Javelins to Ukraine. Biden is now asking Congress for another $33 billion in aid to Ukraine, 20 billion of which is for military aid. Any guess how big a chunk of that is to purchase Javelins specifically?

CANCIAN: I think we can guess. And the answer, unfortunately, is zero. And the reason is that we've given about a third of our inventory to Ukraine already. The stocks are getting low. There's some risk on certain U.S. war plans that there may not be enough for our own purposes. I think what you're going to see is that the United States will provide a broad spectrum of weapons to Ukraine, including some anti-tank weapons, just not the Javelin in particular.

SHAPIRO: So these can't just be churned out like pizzas. If they are so essential to the Ukrainian war effort, what does that mean if the U.S. has kind of gone through the stockpile that it's comfortable sharing already?

CANCIAN: Yes, production is a big problem. We've provided, as you say, over 5,500 Javelins to Ukraine. The United States have been producing about 600 or 800 a year. So you can do the math and figure out how long it would take to replace those missiles. Now we can ramp up production. That takes time. It's also important to note that they're moving into a different phase of the conflict, providing different kinds of equipment. Now we're providing artillery, for example, armored vehicles. So the aid package is going to be a broader than it has been before.

SHAPIRO: Mark Cancian is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington. Thank you for talking with us.

CANCIAN: Thanks for having me on the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.