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FGR-17 Viper

Anti-tank rocket launcher

FGR-17 Viper

Though developed in response to the shortcomings of the M72 LAW, the Viper ended up being one of the worst weapons of its type ever adopted, and its history is a cautionary tale for the arms industry

 
 
Country of origin United States
Entered service 1983
Caliber 70 mm
Weight 4 kg
Length (collapsed) 690 mm
Length (extended) 1 117 mm
Muzzle velocity 257 m/s
Sighting range ?
Range of effective fire (against tanks) 250 m
Range of effective fire (against stationary targets) 500 m
Armor penetration 300 m

 

   The General Dynamics FGR-17 Viper was a disposable anti-tank weapon that was intended to replace the M72 LAW. It was strikingly similar to its predecessor, but not just in its appearance --- like the LAW, the Viper demonstrated scandalously poor performance (which had surprisingly proved worse than even that of the M72 LAW in its darkest days), and this ultimately led to the cancellation of the entire project after only a few launchers had been delivered.

   The developmental history of the Viper is exceptionally intricate, and far too long to be recounted here. Readers interested in a more complete background into the matter should read "Dream Weapon a Nightmare", by Frank Greve (Knight-Ridder Newspapers, May 2nd 1982).

   The effort to develop what would become the Viper go back to the US Army's experiences with anti-tank rocket launcher in the Vietnam War. In 1967, Gen. William Westmoreland ordered captured RPG-7s and PG-7 rockets sent back to the US for testing and evaluation. The Army was impressed by the RPG-7's performance, and assigned the Army Missile Command at the Redstone Arsenal to reverse-engineer it in order to figure out how it worked so well. It was then decided in 1972 to apply the findings of the RPG-7 evaluation to the development of a new RPG weapon, in a program dubbed "ILAW" (Improved Light Anti-tank Weapon). A team at Redstone led by Major Steven C. Walker and civilian engineer Bernie Cobb were assigned to develop it.

   However, the program was hamstrung by counter-productive red tape from the very beginning. Army doctrine mandated that the weapon weigh 3.17 kg (7 lbs) or less, and produce no more than 180 db of noise when fired; this entailed that the warhead would ultimately weight only 0.45 kg (1 lb) and a relatively modest propulsion system, which didn't bode well for a weapon that was meant to be better-performing than the M72 LAW. An unrealistically-low unit cost was demanded as well, ultimately being set at less than $100. Events in the 1973 Yom Kippur War had also demonstrated that the LAW was wanting against even T-55s and T-62s, and the West was aware that the Soviet Army was developing even more heavily-armored tanks, but the ILAW's 300 mm Rolled Homogenous Armor Equivalency (RHAe) penetration requirement (the same penetration as the LAW) was never expanded. The decision to use carborene as the ILAW's rocket fuel was also an awkward decision, as this substance was water-soluble (which would result in erratic firings as motors exposed to moisture over time began to rot), and produced a stupendous amount of smoke. Carborene rockets were also extremely loud, which put the rest of the rocket's design on a slippery slope in order to achieve the demanded 180 decibel cap. A satisfactory prototype finally emerged in 1974 however, and after 400 test firings, it was selected as the definitive design of the ILAW. It seemed at the time that the ILAW would become a viable weapon after all, but this weapon was not the one the Army ultimately bought.

   By 1974, the Army had reassigned Walker and Cobb elsewhere as the ILAW's development was moved forward, replacing most of their team with personnel that had little to know prior knowledge of the ILAW. Political fallout from the then-recent Lockheed C-5 scandal had also changed DoD procurement trends, resulting in ongoing programs being forced to let the contractors do all of the design work. Despite the performance of the prototype, the design was now entirely up to the bidders. Three companies made bids for the ILAW in 1975, with the winning design being that of General Dynamics. In January of 1976, this weapon was designated the XM312 Viper (at some later point, it was re-designated as the FGR-17). General Dynamics (GD) won the bid by simply undercutting all of their competition, offering the Viper for just $78 each. It seemed almost too good to be true --- as the Army would soon realize, it was.

   The Viper was a far cry from the ILAW prototype. Instead of conformal folding fins, which had given the prototype outstanding accuracy and stability, the Viper had tiny fixed fins with a much smaller surface area, resulting in a tremendous loss of accuracy, an increase in instability in crosswinds, and a tendency for the fins to break-off during launch. Attempts to fix the problems with the fins weren't entirely successful, and set the program back by 6 months and $5 million. Instead of using the prototype's threading for joining the warhead and motor, they were joined in the Viper by a cheap process called "magneforming", which ended up causing the rocket to occasionally break in half during flight; something GD could have learned by observing that the M72 LAW initially had the same problem because *it too* had originally been magneformed. The Viper was also too loud, and another $10 Million in research & development over the course of 5 years failed to totally solve the problem. The first project manager of the Viper program, Col. Hubert O. Lacquement, wasn't able to fix any of these problems, and warned his superiors that the Viper was going to be trouble; for this candor, he was forced to retire. The new program manager basically purged the program of experienced personnel, and the resulting brain drain exacerbated the issues. GD did much the same on their end, only worsening the problems with the new weapon --- especially since all the personnel who knew the expenses of the program were transferred.

   The Army eventually received intelligence by 1978-79 that proved the latest Soviet tanks had much stronger armor, but the 300 mm armor penetration requirement for the Viper still remained unchanged. Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) didn't finally begin until 1980, with field testing spanning from 1980-81; both two years behind schedule. After more than 70 continuous months of development by GD, the Viper failed to meet even the performance demonstrated by the 1975 Army prototype. The Viper's field testing went badly, and its potential against contemporary Soviet tanks finally came to question for the first time by 1980. The Army found the Viper unable to meet most of its design requirements, but instead of canceling the Viper, they decided after a closed-door meeting on December 22nd 1980 at Huntsville, Alabama to secretly cancel the requirements instead. The mandatory weight cap of 3.17 kg (7 lbs) was "relaxed" to 4 kg (8.98 lbs), to allow GD to strengthen the tube (which increased the unit cost by $100), because several had burst during live-fire testing. After the Viper proved unable to meet the waterproofing requirement of no leaks after 2 continuous hours of immersion (all of them became waterlogged within 4 minutes), the waterproofing requirements were changed to 48 hours of rainfall. After repeatedly failing to penetrate targets equal to the strength of the frontal armor on a T-62, the penetration requirement for the Viper was reduced by 14%.

   When Congress and the press began to question the validity of the Viper, the Army and GD changed their story, removing most references to the word "tank" from their literature, and re-branding it as an "Anti-Armor Weapon". They further contested that because 60% to 80% of all Soviet armor in the field would be light armor (such as the BTR-70 and BMP-1), and that tanks would still be vulnerable from the sides and rear, the Viper was still worthwhile. Few were impressed. Retired Army Brigadier General Eugene M. Lynch in particular, a former infantry commander and veteran of three wars, with outstanding experience in anti-tank warfare, flatly stated to the press, "...that's only if the Soviets perform as stupidly as we have projected them to perform in order to validate our weapons. If [the] Viper encounters T-80 tanks and a guy gets a helluva hit and the tank keeps on coming, you're out of business with that weapon. Mentally, he no longer trusts it. The Generals who promote weapons like the Viper tend to be the bravest guys in the world because they know they're never gonna get shot at. But they're not worried about putting some 19-year old in a position where he's not even gonna be able to fight back", and further noted that Warsaw Pact heavy armor assaults invariably receive strong infantry and artillery cover.

   According to Congressional testimony during the Viper program's tenure, the Soviet Army alone was expected to have at least 22 000 T-64, T-72, and T-80 tanks in service by 1985, backed-up by some 20 000 T-55s and T-62s. It was quite troubling, and no one pretended that the Viper had a reasonable chance to defeat the T-64, T-72, or T-80, and then the M72 LAW --- with only slightly less performance, and the same armor penetration capability --- had proven dangerously lacking against even the T-55 and T-62.

   Soon realizing just how poorly the Viper performed, the Army BuOrd carefully re-wrote its regulations and guidelines to forbid any other weapon from being compared to it. The most troublesome "threat" was the West German Armbrust anti-tank rocket launcher, which had outstanding performance and many unprecedented design advantages, but the Army had a solution; their director of combat support systems, General Lawrence F. Skibbie, had made it official policy that no other weapon was permissible as an alternative to the Viper if it exceeded 5.44 kg (12 lbs) in weight or 762 mm (30 inches) in length. As it happened, the Armbrust by "coincidence" weighed 5.89 kg (13 lbs) and was 787 mm (31 inches) long. Army and GD literature on the Viper and praise Army military leaders began to emphasize that it was the best-performing weapon of its class, for its weight, size, and time period. They never mentioned that the rest of the world's major military powers had largely abandoned the development and/or procurement of all comparable-size weapons in favor of significantly heavier equivalents, like the APILAS, AT4, and RPG-22. GD also published brochures and statements extolling the Viper, which contradicted the Army's own internal reports and evaluations, even though knowledge of these problems was widespread throughout the defense community.

   A 1981 GAO report on the Viper expressed disappointment in the new weapon, dismissing it as "largely ineffective", but the Army ignored these findings. However, the same GAO report by itself convinced the US Marines to cancel their own order of Vipers, with one spokesman stating they needed a weapon able to defeat Soviet tanks, "...not just p*** them off". Another expert on the Viper was just as blunt at a 1981 Marine symposium --- asked how well soldiers using the Viper would fare against the latest Soviet tanks at 250 m or less, he replied that "Let's just say that along with its pop-up sight, [the] Viper should come equipped with a pop-up Medal of Honor".

   As the Viper program became increasingly hopeless, the Army's efforts to stifle criticism became increasingly unethical. A virtual witch hunt was conducted against uniformed and civilian personnel who questioned or criticized the weapon, and swiftly replaced them with and/or promoted personnel who vocally praised the weapon, and the Army also buried at least 3 OMB reports that recommended the Viper's cancellation. At one point, the top engineer in the DoD's procurement system wrote a report to Congress recommending the Viper's cancellation; however, the Army intercepted the report and secretly re-wrote it with a strategically-placed extra sentence, that later played a pivotal role in preventing the Viper's cancellation.

   By 1982, the Army's Viper purchase plan had expanded dramatically, into 649 100 launchers at a cost of $882 Million --- which was actually *beyond* the R&D expenses that had led to the unit cost increase to $787. In only 6 years, the cost of the Viper had increased by over 1 000%. Neither General Dynamics nor the Army could explain, when pressed on the matter, why the Viper's cost rose so quickly. Top Army officials (predictably) blamed the 33%/year cost overruns entirely on inflation, but Army cost analyst Ray Summar admitted, "I can't back [the] figures up. Instead of 33 percent, inflation would only account for about 12 percent a year". As the costs continued to skyrocket, GD talked the Army into a sole-source contract, which not only gave them a de-facto monopoly of Viper production, but also guaranteed that competition-induced price reductions would never happen. And as with most weapons developed by the US military, most of the expenses were hidden until it entered low-rate initial production; when this occurred in 1980, the Viper's unit cost suddenly spiked by $533. By 1983, the unit cost had increased to a steep $1 310 (a 1 670% increase over the price guaranteed in the contract, and 500% more than an M72A5 was worth), and it was still rising.

   As the costs rose, the number ordered plummeted. Gone was the original plan for 1.7 million launchers, which by the beginning of the 1980s had declined to 889 100 authorized by Congress. When the Marines backed-off, the number fell to 649 100 launchers. By FY1982, Congress would only allow a purchase of 60 000, unless the Army and GD could fix the Viper's problems and reign-in out of control cost increases. By 1983, only a few-thousand were authorized, and then only for continued testing and evaluation.

   Ultimately, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) put an end to all the charades, and issued the Viper program an ultimatum in late 1982; fix all the problems and sell each launcher for only twice the (then-) current cost of the M72 LAW (the latest version in use cost about $200) that very year, or kiss the program goodbye. The Army and GD responded that these conditions could not be fulfilled, and the response from Congress and the OSD was the Viper's cancellation.

   Soon after, Congress forced the US Army to buy an "Off The Shelf" (i.e., already developed) weapon as a rapid replacement for the Viper, which put the Army in a unique situation; no such weapons were produced at the time by US companies, forcing the Army for the first time in its history to import a weapon in this class from abroad. After evaluating several candidates later in 1983, the Army selected the FFV (now SAAB-Bofors) AT4 single-shot recoilless gun as the winner, a variation of which was produced under license in the US by ATK as the M136.

   The FGR-17 was strikingly similar to the M72 LAW --- so much so, a cynical observer might have suggested that it was symptomatic of a US Army that was bankrupt of imagination. The outer tube is cylindrical and stocky, with multiple metal brackets. The front of the tube features a rectangular cover for the front sight on top, and another rectangular cover on the right side for the trigger group and the rear sight. The venturi is bare metal, thin, and relatively short, and is covered by a heavily-flanged plastic cap when not in use. The muzzle is also covered with a plastic cap, with a distinctive star shaped pattern on the front. There is one significant difference between the LAW and the Viper, however; the Viper's inner tube is extended *forward* from the outer tube, a highly unorthodox arrangement reminiscent of the French SARPAC anti-tank rocket launcher.

   The composition of the Viper is similar to that of the LAW, with reinforced fiberglass tubes, sheet steel brackets and fixtures, and stamped steel sights. Simple plastic is used for various other minor components, such as the sight covers.

   The projectile fired by the Viper is very different than that used in the M72 LAW, with a full-bore cylindrical body down most of its length, a long and finely-tapered conical nose, and a pinched area between the rocket motor and the thrust nozzle. A radial cluster of ten tiny folding fins on the motor section spring-out when the projectile leaves the launch tube. The body panels appear to be constructed from brass and aluminum, while the Viper's brochure claims the motor is made of fiberglass; little else is known of the Viper's construction.

   The complete firing procedure for the Viper has never been published; though unlike the M72 LAW, which requires the covers from both the muzzle and venturi to be removed, only the venturi cover on the Viper is removed in preparation for a launch. According to the GD brochure for the Viper, it takes just 13 seconds to prepare the weapon to fire. The Viper could be fired from the same positions as the M72 LAW.

   The backblast area of the Viper has never been published, but was presumably similar to that of the M72 LAW. However, the Viper was also much smokier than the LAW, which presented both a visibility problem (especially if several were fired in short order from positions very near one another) and a survivability problem (the extra smoke was an excellent target indicator for the enemy).

   The FGR-17 Viper's production and development ended permanently, when Congress terminated the last of its funding in 1983. Some 1 400 Vipers had been produced by the cancellation of the program, most of which had already been delivered to the Army. No longer deemed suitable for front-line use, they were all diverted to training roles, in which the entire inventory was gradually expended by the end of the 1980s. No live Vipers still exist, and only a handful of deactivated examples remain, in museums and possibly private collections.

   A few-thousand rocket launchers had cost the US military more than $250 million, and it appears the Viper's damage is still ongoing; as of 2016, the US arms industry still hasn't developed an original weapon in the same class (the US military's current personal anti-tank weapons are variants of Sweden's AT4, Israel's B-300, evolutions of the obsolete M72 LAW, and a few odd surplus weapons), and it remains to be seen if they ever will be able to do so.

 

Variants

 

   ILAW: The prototype for what would become the Viper was a radically different weapon, with a different launcher configuration, different fins, and even different construction methods.

   Trainer model: Contains a reloadable spotting rifle rather than a rocket. This rifle fires a 7.62 mm tracer round whose velocity and trajectory match that of the FGR-17 Viper rocket. Did not enter production or service.

 

Similar weapons

 

   M72 LAW: The US-made 66 mm M72 LAW was the first disposable, direct-fire infantry anti-tank weapon of the Postwar Era, and was the spiritual predecessor to the Viper. The LAW has long been lambasted for having insufficient performance and penetration, but later models have significantly improved its performance. And unlike the Viper, the LAW is very inexpensive.

   SARPAC: French disposable 68 mm anti-tank rocket launcher, very similar to the Viper. It is one of the few weapons of this type with a telescoping tube whose inner tube extends forward rather than aft, just like the Viper. Though unlike the Viper, it has a very unusual sighting system, with the fore and aft sights joined at the top by a flat strip of metal. Also unlike the Viper, the SARPAC was inexpensive, safe, and found several buyers.

   Miniman: This Swedish disposable anti-tank weapon cut against the grain, with a non-telescoping tube, a recoilless gun operation (rather than being a rocket launcher), and a 74 mm bore that was slightly larger than the norm. Three nations operated the Miniman, but it became obsolete very early in its service life.

   RPG-18: Soviet disposable anti-tank rocket launcher. It was a Soviet clone of the LAW, but with a 64 mm bore.

   M79 OSA: Yugoslav 64 mm disposable anti-tank rocket launcher similar to the LAW, but more so to the RPG-18.

 

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