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Multiple-barrel rocket-propelled flamethrower

M202 rocket launcher

Developed as a replacement for the US Army's flamethrowers, the M202 FLASH was one of the first incendiary rocket launchers

Country of origin United States
Entered service 1978
Caliber 4 x 66 mm
Rocket weight 6.85 kg
Weight (empty) 5.22 kg
Weight (loaded) 12.07 kg
Length 883 mm
Length (traveling order) 686 mm
Muzzle velocity 114 m/s
Rate of fire Selective fire (see text)
Sighting range 500 m
Range of effective fire (point target) 200 m
Range of effective fire (area targets) 750 m


   The M202 FLASH (Flame Assault SHoulder weapon) is a 4-barrel rocket launcher designed to deliver incendiary munitions over distances impossible for a man-portable, flow-stream flamethrower. It has largely replaced the conventional "backpack" style flamethrower in the US military, and enables infantry to attack targets normally engaged at close range with flamethrowers with precise attacks from more distant positions, significantly increasing the operator's odds of success and survival.

   This weapon is a further evolution of the XM191 rocket launcher, which was developed in the 1960s and fielded-tested in the Vietnam War. It employed a 66 mm rocket based on that used in the ubiquitous M72 LAWS, adapted for delivering an incendiary filler instead of the more familiar armor-piercing shaped charge warhead. While the XM191's revolutionary new 4-barrel design was considered successful, its napalm-filled rockets were considered wanting. The result of further design and experimentation resulted in a formidable weapon that launches rockets filled with a chemical far more destructive than basic napalm. The resulting M202 FLASH became operational with the US Army and Marines far too late to participate in the war that inspired its development, but has long served the US military.

   The design and layout of the M202 FLASH are relatively simple. In its collapsed form, the launcher more closely resembles a metal container than a weapon, with an elongated cubic shape, a rectangular profile, flat sides, and rounded edges. It is carried either by a sling over a rifleman's shoulder, or by a carrying handle on the front cover. The weapon is readied by releasing the latches on the top of the front and rear covers (which are hinged underneath, and thus hang below the weapon when not in use), and upon loading a 4-round clip, this component effectively forms the rear half of the complete weapon.

   The sight is located on the upper left side of the weapon toward the front, and may be folded down when not in use. Although it resembles a telescopic sight at first glance, the ring contains a single, flat pane of glass, with no magnification. The sight reticule details are for ranges in 100 m increments, from 0 m to 500 m.

   The trigger assembly also folds-up against the launcher when not in use, and extends into a pistol grip with a trigger ring. In addition to the trigger itself, there is also a fire selector, whose positions include a safety setting, which will not permit the weapon to fire while safed.

   Unusually for an RPG-type weapon, the M202 FLASH has a selective fire capability. In the primary fire mode, it will launch a rocket every time the trigger is pulled; in its secondary fire mode, it will instantaneously launch all rockets still loaded. This system is advantageous, as it allows single rounds to be launched with relatively high accuracy, or multiple rounds launched simultaneously to saturate a larger area.

   The accuracy of the M202 FLASH varies with distance. It can penetrate a bunker aperture at 50 m, or an average-size window at 125 m. The effective range against vehicles or weapon positions is 200 m, while an infantry squad at 500 m. The maximum range is 750 m, though at this distance the M202 FLASH is only effective against area targets. All of these figures reflect a 50% hit probability when simultaneously launching a full clip of 4 rockets, so it can be surmised that single shots are more accurate.

   The 66 mm rocket launched by the M202 is based upon the type used in the LAWS-series anti-tank rocket launcher, but with a 0.6 kg Thickened Pyrotechnic Agent (TPA) fill instead of a HEAT warhead. The TPA used in these rockets is a material known as M235, a triethylaluminum (TEA) compound; this is an aluminum-based incendiary compound so volatile that it combusts instantly on contact with air, and burns at 1 200-2 200C. The resulting flames are literally "white hot", and so intense that even close proximity to the ignition can instantly cause severe skin burns. The resulting blast is also bright, and extremely loud, spread-out over a radius of some 20 m, and can be expected to have a considerable psychological effect against the enemy. As a result, the M202 FLASH is expected to be highly effective in suppressing enemy fighting positions.

   Ammunition for the M202 FLASH is seldom issued individually, as the M74 4-round clips are usually factory-loaded. The clips are shipped in a rectangular metal container similar in appearance to the launcher itself.

   The rocket arms after launch at a distance of between 5 m and 14 m, but caution is still required when launching it, as a ricochet could cause the round to break-open and release the M235 filler (which, as previously mentioned, will combust immediately). Moreover, the arming radius is also less than the blast radius, though this may be advantageous when firing a rocket into a structure or other enclose space.

   As it was not designed as a penetrating munition, the 66 mm rocket is essentially useless against vehicle armor and most other hard targets; it will burst or shatter on impact. However, it will easily penetrate most glass, plywood up to 25 mm thick, and even some types of wooden doors at short ranges. The impact fuse of the M234 warhead will detonate it almost immediately after penetrating a solid object, creating a formidable mid-air fireball that can turn a large interior chamber into a 1 200-degree furnace in seconds. The rocket will not penetrate particularly hard obstacles, such as stone, brick, or cinder blocks.

   Although the 66 mm rocket has no effect against armor plates, it is still capable of causing significant harm even to armored vehicles. A competent armored vehicle crew will immediately button-up if one of these rounds strikes their vehicle or lands nearby, which restricts their field of view. Even a tank can potentially be felled with the M202 FLASH, if it is hit on the engine deck or rear grille --- the M235 filler burns more than hot enough to quickly destroy any armored vehicle engine, and it would likely spatter into the engine compartment if the attack is successful. The effect of a direct hit on a hatch --- or if an M74 rocket is successfully fired into the vehicle itself --- requires no explanation. Armored vehicles riding atop wheels are especially vulnerable to the M202 FLASH; it can burn through vulcanized rubber in seconds, setting the tires uncontrollably on fire, and the M235 filler is too volatile and energetic to be extinguished.

   However, the M202 FLASH is also potentially very dangerous for its operator, as well as any adjacent friendly forces. As noted above, the burst radius exceeds the arming distance, but the M235 filler from M74 rocket warheads that are somehow broken-open (such as through improper storage, rough handling, shell splinters, small arms fire, and so on) will ignite immediately. And given that four M74s are packed into a single clip, the secondary explosion would be as lethal and spectacular as it is instantaneous. For these reasons, the US military have been understandably leery of the M202 FLASH ever since it first entered service, and training efforts have been impacted accordingly.

   As it does not have a counter-mass feature, the M202 FLASH is too dangerous to fire from a confined space, or if a large, nearby vertical obstacle is directly behind the operator. The danger area of its back-blast is roughly a 15 m by 15 m square behind the operator, and this area must be clear of personnel and vulnerable equipment or munitions prior to firing. In addition, a conical area 15 m at the top, 38 m at the base, and 25 m deep directly behind the danger area effectively forms the "caution area"; personnel may safely remain in this area, but adequate caution for eye and ear protection (and possibly against debris kicked-up by the back-blast) must be observed. Although it is theoretically possible to launch the M74 rocket directly over or past friendly troops (as it does not have a trailing wire, disintegrating sabot, or widely-expanding fins), this practice is inadvisable due to the volatile nature of its M235 filler.

   There are no dedicated operators for the M202 FLASH in the US Army, and the weapon is issued on an "as needed" basis, typically one per platoon. Specific soldiers are trained for its use in advance, although the simple design and operation of the M202 FLASH allows personnel with little instruction to operate it effectively.

   Surprisingly, after nearly 4 decades after its introduction, the M202 FLASH remains in active service. Its deployment to the front lines of the War on Terror has also been confirmed, with leaked documentation proving that the weapon was stocked in Afghanistan. What has not been confirmed, however, is what role (if any) the M202 FLASH has played in that conflict. What *is* clear from this information is that any large force of hostile personnel attempting to storm a US military garrison would probably have a very nasty surprise waiting for them.

   The only known operators of the M202 FLASH are the US military and the South Korean Army. It is no longer in production, and due to the controversy surrounding incendiary weaponry in the Western world, is not likely to be offered for export. The unit cost of the weapon and its ammunition are unknown.

   The M202 FLASH has had some exposure in popular culture (notably in the 1980s action film, "Commando"), though its incendiary effects are seldom portrayed. Its true nature as a stand-off flame weapon remains relatively obscure.




   M74: 4-cell clip containing an incendiary rocket for the M202, with a thickened pyrotechnic agent filler.

   XM96: Crowd control 4-cell rocket clip, with CS tear gas warheads. Did not enter operational service.

   HEAT round: The Army also proposed developing a loadable rocket based on that used in the M72 LAWS with a HEAT warhead, but this does not appear to have been developed. This would have been a simple feat to achieve, as the M74 was developed from the M72.




   XM191: Forerunner of the M202 FLASH. The rockets launched from the XM191 were similar in design, but used napalm as a filler.

   M202: Initial production model.

   M202A1: Definitive production model. It is unclear how it differed from the basic M202.

   KM202A1: Licensed copy of the M202A1 manufactured in South Korea. Used only by ROKA forces.

   M202A2: This is an improved M202A1, but as with that weapon, it isn't clearly defined how it differs from the M202.


Similar weapons


   RPO-A Shmel: Single-shot disposable rocket-propelled flamethrower, manufactured in Russia. It launches a much larger munition than the M202 FLASH with a different thermobaric filler. Used by Russia and other nations.

   FHJ-84: Two-shot reloadable incendiary rocket launcher, manufactured in China. Launches a larger 84 mm rocket with a different filler than that of the M202 FLASH. Used by the People Liberation Army, and possibly other nations.



   Article by BLACKTAIL

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Video of the M202 incendiary rocket launcher

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