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Anti-Tank Rocket Launchers

Anti-tank rocket launchers

Rocket launchers are the most widely employed man-portable direct-fire heavy weapons in service today

 
 

   The rocket launcher is one of the most powerful weapons in the soldier's arsenal, and is the primary infantry anti-tank weapon of modern armies. These weapons are also commonly called RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades). They fire a relatively heavy munition at a high muzzle velocity on a flat trajectory, in order to attack enemy forces from a stand-off distance.

   These weapons propel a munition by means of a built-in rocket motor, which in modern rocket launchers is typically expended before the projectile even leaves the launch tube. The exhaust gasses are allowed to escape unhindered through a venturi at the aft end of the tube, and the result is that projectile is launched with little to no recoil. This is similar to the operating method of a recoilless rifle or gun (because of this, all three of these weapons are sometimes collectively classed as "rocket launchers" or "recoilless weapons"), except that the propellant charge is contained within the projectile itself, rather than loaded into the weapon behind it. While this doesn't allow for as massive or versatile a warhead as a recoilless rifle would have, since the propellant mass it typically much smaller, it does allow for a much more compact and simple projectile; and with it, usually a more compact and simple launcher.

   There are also some weapons that aren't so easy to define. For example, every projectile for the RPG-7 is rocket-propelled, but a black powder charge is used to literally shoot the rocket out of the launch tube long before its motor even ignites, to prevent the user from being hit in the face by the exhaust. Similarly, the Carl Gustaf is most definitely a recoilless rifle, that uses a huge gunpowder charge to fire projectiles from the tube like tank gun rounds, but newer ammunition types are also rocket-boosted for increased range, basically turning the Carl Gustaf into a de-facto rocket launcher.

   The first rocket launchers were anti-tank weapons, and were a solution for how to make anti-tank munitions as portable as possible, while still allowing them to be used in direct fire like artillery. The first of these was the M1 Bazooka, used by the US armed forces starting in 1942, and was hailed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower as one of the four weapons that "won the war" --- alongside the Jeep, the C-47 Skytrain, and the Atom Bomb. These early rocket launchers were unreliable, and weak performers by modern standards, but they set in motion a revolution in small arms development, and an arms race between tanks and anti-tank weapons that still continues today.

   The Cold War saw the beginning of an aggressive arms race not only between improvements in the rocket launcher and improvements in tank armor, but also in the competing weapons of the East, West, and third parties. Many new technologies found their way into these weapons, such as first-stage boosters, lightweight launch tubes made of fiberglass or carbon fiber, enhanced "after-armor" effects, countermasses, improved optics, and so on, while constantly improving shaped charge technology has allowed for substantial increases in armor penetration. For example, the latest anti-tank munitions in the 66 mm bore range can now penetrate upwards of 400 mm of steel armor, while the first such munition for the M1 Bazooka in World War 2 could only penetrate up to 100 mm of steel armor. That was no small improvement, as the limit for armor penetration of a given shaped charge is typically six times the diameter of the weapon's bore; for a hypothetical example, shaped charge munition with a 100 mm diameter should logically penetrate up to 600 mm of steel armor. Weapons of around 100 mm in bore such as the RPG-29 Vampir and Alcotan-100 launch shaped charge munitions with significantly greater penetration than just 600 mm of steel armor, which shows just how far the technology has evolved.

   As a result, the arms race between tanks and anti-tank munitions has been quite intense. Early rocket launchers were adequate to penetrate tanks with some 75 mm of face-hardened armor, a type of steel common in World War 2-era tanks); early Cold War tanks incorporated rolled homogenous armor steel at 100 mm or more in thickness, often with sloped or elliptical arrays. Rocket launchers became larger in bore, penetrating up to 300 mm of rolled homogenous armor; the latest tanks responded by re-proportioning and thickening their armor even more. Munitions of only 90 mm in bore could penetrate more than 400 mm of rolled homogenous armor by the 1970s, making the amount of single-layer steel armor required to defeat them impractically massive for tanks to carry; the tank responded by incorporating composite armor, spaced armor, spall liners, or some combination of the three. Improvements in shaped charge munition technology and still-increasing munition bore diameters allowed rocket launchers to penetrate over 600 mm of rolled homogenous armor by the 1980s, enough to defeat all but the strongest composite armor arrays; the tank responded by improving composite armor even further, incorporating composites, ceramic, heavy metals, and other exotic materials into their internal layers, and by carrying arrays of Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) bricks on their exterior, which blunt the penetration of shaped charges by explosively hurling a metal plate into them as the offending projectile detonates. Rocket launchers by the 1990s began launching projectiles with tandem shaped charge warheads, the first charge of which would prematurely detonate ERA, leaving a "chink in the armor" for the main charge to exploit; the tank responded by incorporating ERA bricks that were resistant to precursor charges, and active protection systems that literally shoot-down offending projectiles. As long as this ingenuity prevails on both sides, the tank and anti-tank munitions will remain continuously locked in this struggle.

   Moreover, while rocket launchers are traditionally viewed as anti-tank weapons, they are also commonly used to attack enemy troops, structures, and fortifications, as these are constant and almost omnipresent threats on the battlefield (by contrast, most militaries don't operate any tanks, and some even lack any kind of armored vehicles). As shaped charge munitions are of limited use in these roles, rocket launchers and ammunition have been developed expressly to defeat these other threats, which are instead armed with alternative munitions, such as High Explosive Fragmentation (HE-FRAG),  High Explosive Dual Purpose (HEDP), or incendiary fillers. The late Cold War period has also given rise to a new variety of high explosives called Fuel-Air Explosives (FAE) or thermobaric munitions; now a common fixture in rocket launchers, these warheads ignite their filler after a smaller munition explodes inside, causing the main warhead to atomize into a cloud. When that cloud ignites, the result is a detonation significantly greater in velocity and diameter than a basic high explosive munition would allow for, and the effects are exceptionally nasty against personnel (especially if they're inside a confined space where the warhead detonates, such as inside of a building). Innovations like these have turned the rocket launcher into a man-portable general-purpose fire support munition.

   Whether they are large or small, reloadable or disposable, anti-tank or general-purpose, rocket launchers are found in virtually every military today, and they will likely remain a staple weapon on the battlefield far into the foreseeable future.

 

Notable rocket launchers

 

   M1 Bazooka: The famous Bazooka was the first infantry rocket launcher ever fielded, and is the forerunner of every weapon of this type developed since. It is also called the "2.36-inch Bazooka", for its bore (66 mm). The Bazooka was the brainchild of US Army officer Edward Uhl, who had sought a solution of how to effectively deliver the new M6 anti-tank grenade, and it was used throughout World War 2 and beyond.

   Panzershreck: The World War 2-era Panzershreck was initially meant to be a reverse-engineered M1 Bazooka, but the design went in a very different direction when German engineers discovered its flaws while testing captured examples. Sweeping changes were made in the design, notably the addition of a face shield and an increase in bore to 88 mm. It proved shockingly effective in combat during World War 2, so much so that the Allies employed captured Panzershrecks whenever possible, and even developed their own weapons based on its design just after the war. These include the US M20 Super Bazooka, the Canadian Hiller, the French 73 mm LRAC, and the Soviet RPG-1.

   RPG-7: The RPG-7 was actually a later development of an extremely similar weapon from an earlier era, the RPG-2, but it was the newer weapon that really took-off on the market, and on the battlefield. One can't turn on the TV these days without seeing the RPG-7 in a news feed from some troubled corner of the world, and with countless millions manufactured in dozens of different nations and literally more than a hundred different users, the RPG-7 will continue to be a major force on the battlefield in the future. It therefore has a strong argument for being one of the most important rocket launcher ever fielded.

   M72 LAW: America's answer to the RPG-2 and the RPG-7 in the early 1960s was a collapsible, disposable, single-shot rocket launcher of exceptionally small size and cost. This allowed virtually every infantryman to carry their own anti-tank rocket, which eliminated a number of problems associated with reloadable rocket launchers, and the LAW was the first weapon of this type since the Panzerfaust of World War 2. The M72 LAW was tremendously successful in distribution and operational service, as evidenced by the fact that they are still in full-scale production today.

   LRAC F1: Developed by France as a replacement for the M20 Super Bazooka, the LRAC F1 was a reloadable 89 mm rocket launcher with a number of exceptionally modern features for its time. However, one of these features was unprecedented; its ammunition was carried inside a hermetically-sealed fiberglass tube, which was plugged into the chamber of the launcher to form its second half when in use. The expended tube was then discarded, and a new round loaded (if available). The LRAC F1 itself was a successful and widely-distributed weapon, but its innovative loading method also carried-over to many other weapons, including the Israeli B-300, the Yugoslav M79 Osa, and the Soviet Union's RPG-29 Vampir.

   Armbrust: This West German rocket launcher is generally another "LAW clone", but it introduced a few very important innovations too important to ignore. Notably, it was the first weapon since the First World War-era Davis Gun to employ a "countermass", which hugely reduced the smoke, flash, and shockwave of the backblast, allowing the Armbrust to be fired from relatively confined spaces. Another innovation that the Armbrust was the first weapon to employ was a tube-sealing system, which closed the muzzle and venturi as the rocket left the tube; this made the weapon significantly quieter, and eliminated nearly all of the smoke and flames created when the weapon was fired.

   RPG-29 Vampir: Like the RPG-7, it isn't the design or performance of the Soviet RPG-29 Vampir that set it apart, but rather its success. It was a 105 mm weapon that boasted a tandem HEAT warhead, and a loading method similar to the LRAC F1, so while the weapon was formidable for its time, it wasn't particularly innovative. The RPG-29 is also very successful and widespread, though it failed to completely supersede the RPG-7 as originally intended. What sets this weapon apart is that it has been used effectively against numerous well-armored main battle tanks, to include the T-72, the T-90, the Challenger 2, the Merkava Mk.2, and the M1A1 Abrams.

   MATADOR: This new joint German-Israeli-Singaporean rocket launcher is intended to engage structures and light armor, rather than main battle tanks. It employs an innovative HEDP warhead with two selectable settings; one which causes the warhead to operate as a shaped charge for armor penetration, while the other causes it to crash into the target before exploding, creating an effect similar to a High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) munition. The MATADOR is also basically a scaled-up Armbrust with a new warhead.

 

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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Anti-tank rocket launchers

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