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RBS 70

Man-portable air defense missile system

RBS 70

The innovative Bofors RBS 70 was the first laser-guided man-portable air defense weapon

 
 
Model RBS 70 Mk.1 RBS 70 Mk.2 Bolide
Country of origin Sweden
Entered service 1977 1995 (?) 2005 (?)
Missile length 1 320 mm
Missile diameter 106 mm
Fin span 320 mm
Missile weight 16.5 kg 17 kg 17 kg
Weight with launcher 51.5 kg 51.5 kg 52 kg
Warhead weight 1.1 kg 1.6 kg 1.6 kg
Warhead type High explosive dual-purpose
Velocity 530 m/s 580 m/s 680 m/s
Range of fire 6 km 7 km 8 km
Altitude of fire 3 km 4 km 5 km
Guidance Laser beam riding

 

   The RBS 70 is a Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) system developed in Sweden by Bofors (now SAAB-Bofors). It is a Man-Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS), designed primarily for use by personnel such as infantry and paratroopers, to give them an equalizer against hostile aircraft and helicopters. It is unique in being the first weapon of this type to employ laser beam-riding guidance, instead of the infrared homing guidance system then (and still) prevalent in MANPADS systems.

   The development of the RBS 70 began in 1967, in response to a Swedish military requirement for a MANPADS weapon that could be used if necessary in extreme arctic weather conditions, with as small a logistical footprint as possible. Though these demands were daunting, the first pre-production examples of the RBS 70 were completed in 1973, and delivered to the Swedish Army later that year. Exhaustive field trials of these weapons took place in 1974-75, during which over 100 missiles were launched. The weapon was deemed satisfactory by the Army at the end of these trials, and the first full production order was placed in June of 1975 for the RBS 70 and its associated fire control equipment. Following further development and production, the RBS 70 was declared operational in 1977.

   The launch tube for the missile is hermetically sealed, and issued as a complete round of ammunition; it is not meant to be opened, nor the missile removed. It is a simple cylindrical tube with broad collars around the muzzle and venturi, a pair of mounting brackets on the midsection, and two flat disk-shaped covers on each end. It is issued with two removable octagonal caps on each end, which double as shock absorbers. An additional oblong-shaped cover is mounted over the brackets on the base of the tube; this cover serves as both a shock absorber, and a shoulder pad when the missile is carried, and is removed by unfastening a pair of nylon straps. The optional friend-or-foe identification (IFF) unit is carried in an additional box-like metal container.

   The missile itself is cylindrical, with an elongated and finely-tapered nose, and a boattail-shaped thrust nozzle. A cylindrical booster is fitted to the base of the missile, which is no longer attached to the fuselage the time the missile leaves the tube. Two tandem sets of four fins are located aft, both in a 90-degree crucifix pattern. The forward fins are steeply-swept, with a distinctive dogtooth leading edge; they are recessed forward into slots in the missile's outer fuselage and spring-out into place as it leaves the tube. The aft fins are delta-shaped, and are wrapped around the missile while its still in the tube, springing-out into shape as it takes to the air.

   Unlike most MANPADS weapons, the RBS 70 is too large and heavy to be supported entirely by the user's shoulder, and may only be fired from a tripod. Rather than legs, this tripod has three stabilizers and a central mast, which rotates through 360 degrees and also features a simple seat for the operator on the left side. Located opposite of the seat is a mounting bracket for the IFF system, contained in a metallic box-like fairing. The mast is topped by a launch tube, while the face of the mast top is dominated by the fire control unit.

   The fire control unit itself is large, broad, and rectangular, with a large disk-shaped electro-optical sight window on the front left side, and bulky rectangular shock absorbers on all of its corners. The sight window is covered by a rectangular hinged cover when not in use, both of which are swing away from the window when the launcher is set up. The eyepiece for the sight is located on top of the fire control unit on the left side. A distinctive U-shaped harness (which more than anything else resembles a toilet seat) is also located on the front of the fire control unit; this includes two broad shoulder straps and a waist belt, allowing the operator to carry the fire control system short distances on his back if necessary.

   Information on the composition of the RBS 70 has not been published in its entirety, but it is clear that its tripod, guidance module case, and the case of the IFF system are made of steel, the launch tube body is made of reinforced fiberglass, the straps and lanyards are composed of nylon, and the shock absorbers are composed of firm foam rubber. The missile itself is mostly metallic, with solid fuel rocket motors, but little else is known.

   As noted above, the RBS 70 is guided using a laser beam-riding system. A conical laser beam is emitted from the electro-optical window of the control module, which is received by a sensor in the tail of the missile. The missile is able to locate and travel along the center of the beam, allowing the operator to steer it into the target using a Semi-Automatic Command Line-Of-Sight (SACLOS) interface --- in plainer terms, the missile flies along the axis of the crosshairs throughout the entire engagement, and simply keeping the crosshairs directly on the target continuously until the missile reaches it almost guarantees a hit.

   Although this guidance method is very simple, it is not foolproof, and soldiers employing the RBS 70 require considerably more training than required to operate most infrared-guided SAMs. For example, traversing the sights too quickly will cause the beam to steer off the missile faster than the missile can change course to stay inside it, resulting in guidance being lost. Laser beams are also subject to blooming and dimming when shone through fog, haze, clouds, smoke, dust, and so on, sometimes making the RBS 70 more difficult (or even impossible) to guide under these conditions. When multiple launchers are engaging targets in the same direction simultaneously, missiles crossing paths with the wrong laser beams could also become confused, or even start to follow the wrong beam.

   The RBS 70 briefly caused major concern in most of the world's air arm, as it was billed as a weapon that was impossible to detect or defeat with electronic counter-measures. It had no radar that could be confused with chaff and jammers, and no infrared seeker head that could be led astray by flares. However, not long after the these advantages emerged, so too did effective counter-measures; the advent of laser detectors and dazzlers allows aircraft fitted with them to detect the fire control system's laser beams, and rapidly burn-out the laser designator used to control the missile. As such, laser beam riding SAMs no longer have the edge over more conventional radar, infrared, and radio command guided weapons that they once did.

   The manufacturer's webpage nonetheless states as late as October 2016, that the RBS 70's guidance is "unjammable". While technically true, it is irrelevant against a target equipped with both a laser detection system and an automatic laser dazzler; such electronic counter measures have been in widespread use on armored fighting vehicles for decades, and are rapidly proliferating in aviation use as well. A laser detector alone would give an aircraft in the crosshairs more than enough time to foil the missile with an evasive maneuver, and it should come as no surprise to SAAB-Bofors that combat aircraft could carry these --- as noted above, the RBS 70 itself has one, which why it can be guided by laser beams from the ground in the first place.

   However, the most serious operational drawbacks of the RBS 70 stem from a combination of both its guidance method *and* it's large size. It is difficult to guide a SACLOS missile from a moving platform (for most such missiles, in fact, it is impossible to do so), so the launcher must remain stationary from the moment the operator begins to take aim, out to at least when the missile reaches its target, and the tripod requires lengthy set-up and take-down times; these present serious drawbacks when using the RBS 70 on a mobile platform, such as a truck flatbed. The size of the complete system also makes adequate cover and concealment much more difficult to acquire than a shoulder-launched weapon, making an RBS 70 team proportionately more detectable and vulnerable, and the lack of a "fire and forget" capability further increases their exposure, as does the much larger footprint of personnel and equipment required to operate the system. For example, a single soldier armed with the ubiquitous FIM-92 Stinger can emerge from a camouflaged bunker, launch a missile at a hostile aircraft, and immediately return to cover inside of 30 seconds, but a crew of 3 soldiers operating only a single RBS 70 launcher require at least as long just to haul the launcher and associated equipment and begin to emplace it.

    The sights for the original RBS 70 had a 40° field of view, which was increased to 57° in the RBS 90 (along with the guidance beam diameter) and all subsequent models. Attachable night sights are provided for all models in the form of the A SAAB Vectronics (now FLIR Systems Inc) clip-on night device, a close loop cooled infrared imaging device. This night device operates in the 8 micron to 12 micron infrared band range, and is also usable in broad daylight or in low-visibility conditions other than darkness (such as smoke or fog, although the effectiveness of thermal sights is degraded in these conditions), but it only has a 12 x 8° field of view. FLIR Systems Inc has also recently developed an improved passive thermal sight for the RBS 70 series, the awkwardly-named BORC, which employs QWIP (Quantum Well Infrared Photodetector) technology.

   The Raytheon Cossor IFF880 digital Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system may also be connected to the sights, and when used to interrogate an unidentified aircraft in the user's sights, it projects a warning symbol onto the periphery of the sight if the target's IFF signal returns as friendly or civilian. Multiple emplaced RBS 70 launchers may also be networked together with a C3I system centered around a radar site. With the Ericsson Giraffe 75 radar for example, up to 9 RBS 70 launchers with a distribution of up to 4 km between each launcher can form a battery, and control a 175 km² area of airspace.

   The missile is a two-stage weapon, which is ejected from the launcher and propelled to initial velocity by a cartridge-like solid fuel booster rocket, which simply falls off of the missile after it is launched. A larger second-stage rocket motor inside the fuselage serves as the sustainer; it has two combustion chambers and four exhaust nozzles on the tail of the missile. The missile leaves the tube at a velocity of only 50 m/sec, but the sustainer motor increases its speed to over 500 m/sec approximately 6 seconds after launch, which is also roughly when the last of the fuel is expended. The RBS 70 Mk.1 missile attains a velocity of approximately 530 m/sec at a range of 1.75 km, but the peak velocity data varies with different models.

   The RBS 70 is unusual among SAMs, in that it employs a shaped charge warhead instead of a basic HE-FRAG munition. It will not detonate until the deactivation of two independent safety mechanisms, which occurs while the missile is in flight. This 1.1 kg munition has a hollow charge with a copper charge liner, which is distorted by the blast into a needle-like penetrator that can pierce armor. However, this is a  High Explosive Dual-Purpose (HEDP) warhead rather than a more typical High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) warhead --- the sides of the hollow charge ogive are lined with some 2 000 to 3 000 3 mm tungsten pellets (the exact number depends on the variant), which are sprayed off to the sides of the missile when the charge detonates. This creates an impressive "double threat", as the warhead's proximity fuze detonates the missile as it passes closely by an aircraft, showering it with shrapnel, while a nose-on direct hit will send a shower of copper charge liner spatter through an offending aircraft's fuselage. It is also quite obvious from this warheads’ design that the RBS 70 has a competent "dual-purpose" capability against many ground targets as well. The armor penetration of the copper penetrator has never been published (nor apparently estimated by any journalists), but it is presumably capable of penetrating any armor plates on any lightly-armored armored fighting vehicle (for example, an M113 Gavin armored personnel carrier or a BRDM-2 armored scout car). Whether it can pierce the frontal armor of most main battle tanks is doubtable.

   The primary launch platform of RBS 70 is the aforementioned portable tripod, although it can also be launched from a short mast fitted to a variety of other platforms. In practice however, the tripod is used on most vehicles and vessels. A crew of 3 is required to carry the complete stripped-down weapon system in the field (one of whom carries one or more missiles), but once emplaced, only the soldier seated on the tripod is required to operate it.

   There are six models of the RBS 70, spread over four generations. The first-generation model was simply designated "RBS 70", though today it is often referred to as the "Mk.0" to distinguish it from later developments. An improved version with an increased range was introduced in 1990 as the RBS 70 Mk.1, a unique variant of which with improved optics and guidance (the RBS.90) was procured exclusively by the Swedish Army. All previous models were quickly replaced in production and development by the RBS 70 Mk.2 (effectively the third generation), which was introduced in 1995 and has sweeping improvements that include a much longer range and a more powerful warhead. The fourth and current generation is the Bolide missile, with radically improved performance, lethality, and guidance, and was introduced in 2005, replacing the Mk.2 in development and complementing it in production ever since. An improved version of the Bolide was unveiled in late 2011 as the RBS 70 NG, though while the fire control system and information systems are greatly improved.

   The first combat use of the RBS 70 was during the Iran-Iraq War. Details of the system's performance in that conflict are scarce, although it is known to have first been deployed by the Iranian armed forces between January and February of 1987, and that it took a heavy toll on Iraqi aircraft; out of some 42 fixed-wing aircraft that Iraq lost to Iranian SAMs, it is said that more were lost to the RBS 70 than any other SAM. Another example was during the 1992 Venezuelan coup d'état attempt, in which an RBS 70 shot-down a rebel OV-10 Bronco on November 27th. However, the performance of the RBS 70 had also apparently proved wanting in these conflicts, as indicated by the sudden rush to develop and introduce the Mk.1, Mk.2, and RBS.90 variants in the early 1990s.

   The RBS 70, it is used by at least 18 nations. Known operators of the RBS 70 include Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Norway, Pakistan, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand, Tunisia, the UAE, and Venezuela.

   In some of these nations, the RBS 70's service life is nearing its end. Norway has already retired theirs, and as previously mentioned the Swedish armed forces announced in 2011 that they intend to replace it in service with a ground-launched version of the IRIS-T missile --- a stunning reversal, as the IRIS-T is infrared-guided, and too large to be used as part of a MANPADS system.

   The advent of the RBS 70 NG was also a rather interesting affair, given its timing; SAAB-Bofors publicly revealed it in September of 2011, following the aforementioned announcement that the Swedish Army was planning to replace the RBS 70 with an IRIS-T. It would appear in this context that the hidden agenda of the RBS 70 NG is to pre-empt the acquisition of the IRIS-T, by undercutting it. As of late 2016, whether the RBS 70 NG succeeds in this capacity remains to be seen.

   At present, the RBS 70 Mk.2 and Bolide remain in production, with the RBS 70 NG likely to follow in the immediate future. The unit cost has not been formally published, but a single Mk.2 missile is believed to cost about $100 000.

 

Variants

 

   RBS 70: Original production model from 1977. It is sometimes referred to as the "Mk.0".

   RBS 70 Mk.1: Improved RBS-70 with an increased range, introduced in 1990.

   RBS.90: Further development of the Mk.1 introduced in 1991, with improved guidance and optics, to include a wider-angle laser and sight, a passive thermal imaging capability, and a fire control unit that mounts two or three launch tubes instead of one. The RBS.90 model was developed especially for the Swedish armed forces. It is also called the RBS 70 Mk.1+.

   RBS 70 Mk.2: Successor to the Mk.1 series, with a further increased range, and increased armor penetration as well. Introduced in 1995.

   Bolide: Further development of the Mk.2 first introduced in 2005, with radically improved performance. The name is often capitalized as "BOLIDE". Employs the BORC thermal imaging sight, and has uncooled laser diodes (previous models required Freon coolant).

   RBS 70 NG: The latest weapon in the series, the RBS 70 NG ("Next Generation") employs improved sights and optics, and a telemetry system allowing for improved training and after-action analysis. The missile itself is apparently the same as that of the Bolide.

   Lvrbv 701: The Lvrbv 701 ("Luftvärnsrobotvagn 701") is an armored, fully-tracked air defense vehicle utilizing the RBS 70. It utilizes a chassis converted from the retired 1950s-era Ikv 103 self-propelled howitzer. Sweden was the sole user of the Lvrbv 701, and retired them all by 2000.

   ASRAD-R: The ASRAD-R (Advanced Short Range Air Defense System - RBS) is a turret utilizing a MANPADS missile, Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, and an infra-red search and track. First demonstrated on an M113 Gavin chassis, it was adopted by several nations on a variety of platforms. The missiles used in this system vary, and include both the FIM-92 Stinger and the Bolide.

   ItO 2005: Mobile air defense system including an ASRAD-R turret and the Bolide missile system, mounted on a Sisu Nasu chassis. Operated by Finland.

 

Similar weapons

 

   ADATS: The ADATS (Air Defense/Anti-Tank System) is similar in concept to the RBS 70. However, the ADATS uses semi-active laser guidance, and is not a MANPADS weapon; it fires a significantly larger and more powerful missile.

   Starburst: British MANPADS weapon developed from the Javelin system, utilizing a laser-beam-riding missile. It is the most similar weapon system to the RBS 70 in service today.

   Starstreak: Further development of the Starburst, with a new kinetic energy warhead. The manufacturer claims it is the fastest short-range SAM system ever fielded.

 

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Video of the RBS 70 man-portable air defense missile system

 

 
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