TCS Daily

The Mighty RPG

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - March 31, 2003 12:00 AM

You're going to be hearing a lot about RPGs - rocket propelled grenades - in coming days. They are the weapons of choice for small Iraqi units that are resorting to creative guerrilla tactics because employing company size or larger units in open combat with coalition forces would be foolhardy and fatal.

Just over a week ago, Iraqi troops from the Republican Guard's Medina division gave a little clinic in helicopter ambush, meeting a line of Apache Longbow copters with a well planned and executed wall of fire from machine guns, antiaircraft guns and RPGs. The Iraqis were dispersed along both sides of a street in a residential area near Baghdad, some firing from the rooftops of houses.

The Iraqis badly damaged 30 of the Apache helicopters, foiled their attack on Republican Guard armor and sent them limping back home. They also disabled two Abrams main battle tanks - an unsettling occurrence. A counterattack and air strikes by U.S. forces killed most of the estimated 100 Iraqis involved in the ambush. But it was a lesson in effective small unit action. The Iraqis appear to have torn a page or two from tactics used by Mujahideen fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan 1979-89. And one of their principal weapons is a Soviet-made one, the RPG-7.

The Soviets introduced the RPG-7 (for Raketniy Protivotankoviy Granatomet) back in 1961 to give its infantrymen a weapon against NATO armor. It had several antecedents inspired by at least two World War II weapons - the American Bazooka and more particularly the German Panzerfaust.

It has since become one of the most common weapons in the world, prized by insurgent forces. The Soviets made millions of them, sold them all over the world and licensed their manufacture. It was RPG-7s that were used by Somali rebels to down two U.S. Blackhawk helicopters in Mogadishu in October 1994.

More than 40 armies use them today and they are made under license in Bulgaria, China, Romania, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq. There are many other versions of RPGs made around the world, including the U.S. M-72 LAW, a throwaway weapon. Some propelled grenades can be fired from the muzzles of standard infantry rifles

The Soviet-designed weapon consists of a cheaply made but rugged shoulder-fired launcher. It looks a little like a crude submachine gun with leaf blower pipe bolted onto the back of it. This pipe, to exhaust the rocket flames, projects back over the shoulder of the person firing it. The RPG-7 fires a variety of slightly oversized grenades (high explosive, smoke, anti-personnel, armor piercing etc.). The grenade/warhead has a small solid-fuel rocket attached to it. This is loaded into the muzzle at the front of the launcher.

When the shooter pulls the trigger it strikes a percussion cap that ignites the rocket. A flash rips back through the barrel and out the rear of the launcher. There is very little recoil, but you don't want to be behind the launcher, as the rocket flames shoot back as much as 20 yards. As the warhead spurts out of the muzzle, folded fins spring out from the base at its rear, stabilizing its flight like an arrow.

RPG-7s have a practical range of about 50 or 60 yards in the hands of the average soldier. But in skilled hands a moving target can be hit at around 300 yards and 500 yards against a stationary target, like a bunker, is not unheard of. The launcher is rugged, easy to operate and weighs just a little over 15 pounds. If you've seen photos of guerrilla fighters all over the world chances are you've seen them carrying RPG-7s slung over their shoulders, usually with cone-shaped grenades loaded in the muzzles. Coalition forces have been coming across thousands of these launchers and grenades.

In the Soviet-Afghan war, Mujahideen fighters formed hunter-killer teams of about 20 men, with as many as 15 of them carrying RPGs. In close combat, where neither air strikes nor artillery could be employed by the Soviets (because of fratricide fears) the RPGs were deadly weapons. Their most effective use was in ambushing Soviet armor and helicopters.

In the armor attacks, Afghanis would catch a column of vehicles in confined areas, like a mountain pass or village street. In classic style, the first and last vehicles in the column would be brought under attack. Large numbers of RPGs would be fired from close range with great daring and skill. The first RPGs would be fired at tank "vision blocks" the periscopes or vision slits. Then other fighters would fire armor piercing rounds at the tanks reactive armor. Once the first RPG had blown a hole in this armor, second and third RPG men would fire rounds into the hole, often destroying the tank or killing the crew.

One of the favorite Mujahideen tactics against helicopters was a direct frontal shot or barrage of shots from about 100 yards away as the chopper was approaching. Chechen rebels used similar tactics with RPGs in the bloody war in Chechnya that began in December 1994. They also proved adept at firing at Russian tanks from the basements of buildings, hitting the more vulnerable undersides of the big T-72s. The tanks were unable to lower their main guns enough to fire back into the basements.

The Soviets and later the Russians learned from bloody experience to deal with RPGs. They used walking "walls" of high explosive fragmentation (antipersonnel) artillery shells to clear areas. They sent screens of infantry ahead of their tanks to pick off RPG gunners. And they learned to keep vehicles and helicopters moving and in undpredictable maneuvers.

U.S. and British forces, which may have been surprised at first by the ferocity of the RPG attacks, are well trained to deal with them and are adapting. For one thing, anyone firing an RPG is in a very dangerous position. When fired an RPG gives off a large and unmistakable signature. The whoosh of rocket fire out the back kicks up dust and gravel. The round often leaves a whitish-gray trail of smoke behind it, leading directly back to the gunner. RPG gunners must move and seek cover as soon as they fire or they will be killed by counter fire from alert troops. Many a Mujahideen who paused for a moment to see the effect of his RPG round died in a hail of bullets before the Afghanis refined their tactics and learned to shoot and look later.

The RPG is still an ugly weapon in a firefight. The blast radius of one of the antitank rounds is about 4 to 5 yards. Modern body armor such as coalition troops are wearing offers a fair amount of protection but it can magnify internal injuries due to blast overpressure on those close to the exploding warhead.

Coming days should see some furious firefights as American and British troops encounter Iraqis with RPGs. In many cases, air strikes and withering suppressive fire from beyond the range of the RPGs can pretty much obviate the danger. But forewarned units taking proper countermeasures should find this venerable soldiers' weapon an annoyance but not a decisive factor in encounters as they press on toward Baghdad.

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