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Blowpipe

Man-portable air defense missile system

Blowpipe missile

Though simple and a success on the market, the Blowpope system was a failure in combat

 
 
Country of origin United Kingdom
Entered service 1975
Missile
Missile length 1.39 m
Missile diameter 0.76 m
Fin span 0.28 m
Launcher weight 6.2 kg
Missile weight 14 kg
Missile weight with launcher 22 kg
Warhead weight 1.81 kg
Warhead type HE or HEDP
Range of fire up to 3.5 km
Altitude of fire 2 km
Guidance Radar-guided

 

   The Blowpipe is a man-portable Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) system; a weapon also commonly called a  MAN-Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS). It was developed in the United Kingdom by Short Brothers and Harland, and is now officially a Thales product. It is a highly unusual weapon for its class, due to its guidance and fuzing method, but its defining attributes also ended up making the Blowpipe the most ineffective MANPADS weapon ever fielded.

   The Blowpipe's development began in 1966, when the British government published a request for proposals to the industry for a small, shoulder-fired SAM system. Several designs were presented to the MoD, with the Blowpipe eventually selected as the winner before the decade was out, but in hindsight the decision was clearly premature; most of the Blowpipe's development was incomplete, and in 1968 the Secretary of State for Defence indicated that the MoD still wasn't entirely sure they needed a MANPADS weapon.

   Work proceeded slowly in the Blowpipe’s development, during which a series of Parliamentary discussions highlighted how much trouble the program was having. In a review of the program by Parliament on May 2nd 1969, it was stated by MP Sir John Morris that the Blowpipe's development was "...proceeding satisfactorily but is at too early a stage for any firm production order". Two years later, little had apparently progress been made, and in another review by Parliament on February 11th 1971, Minister of State Lord Balniel stated that "The development programme for this missile continues to make progress although it will still be some time before it is completed". A contract for missiles and launchers was finally signed in September of 1972, but the program remained troubled.

   It was stated before Parliament by Under-Secretary Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith on March 16th of the same year that the Blowpipe was "...in an advanced stage of development and some successful trials with it have been carried out", and that it "...should be in service in about two years' time", which suggested good news. However, in a July 24th 1973 discussion of the Blowpipe's development, MP Peter Blaker revealed that flight testing and ground trials were still ongoing (more than 6 years after the MoD had committed to the Blowpipe); and yet, despite a deficit of progress, that a contract for ..."the supply of a substantial quantity of Blowpipe missiles and associated equipment" had already been signed the previous September. Asked by Parliament on June 25th 1975 as to how many Blowpipes had already been ordered, Under-Secretary Robert C. Brown replied that "It is not the practice to reveal details of this kind".

   The Blowpipe's development was officially completed by 1975, and it entered service in the same year. However, significant problems remained, some of which were never mitigated. For example, yet another discussion in Parliament (this one on March 25th 1976) revealed that 1 out of every 10 fuzes used in the Blowpipe was defective (by Parliament's own order, the fuze had been made by Blackburn instead of Short); yet, the chief concern of this discussion had been the continued employment of Short's workers, rather than the effectiveness of their product. The notion of the Blowpipe's "low" costs soon after came into question on June 10th, when it was revealed that Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel were so reluctant to expend the missiles in training due to their costs, that personnel qualified for the weapon's use only launched two per-year. Further inquiries in 1977 and 1979 revealed that by the latter year --- despite the program already being more than a decade-old --- the Blowpipe still hadn't been issued to more than half the formations meant to have them. Though despite the rocky development and introduction of the Blowpipe, they were soon to be overshadowed by its actual performance in battle, which will be described further below.

   The Blowpipe is issued in a storage and transportation container that doubles as its launch tube. This tube has a highly unorthodox layout, with a very long and narrow cylindrical section containing the booster for the missile, at the front end of which is a much wider and shorter cylindrical tube containing the missile itself (giving the complete tube a "potato masher"-like appearance). This container-launcher is hermetically sealed and not meant to be reloaded, and is simply discarded on the spot when the launcher is fired. In addition, the container-launcher is itself transported in the field inside an additional storage container, which is best described as resembling a bottle with an elongated neck.

   The control unit for the weapon is a separate component that clamps onto the launch tube, just behind the wider structure in front. It is horseshoe-shaped and slides onto the tube from the venturi, forming the complete weapon when it is fitted. The radio command antenna is located on top of the control unit, while the optical sight used to aim the missile is located on the left side, dictating that the Blowpipe may only be fired from the right shoulder. The controls for the launcher are located on the lower right side of the control unit. Once the engagement has been completed (e.g., the missile has hit or missed its target), the control unit is removed and re-attached to a loaded tube, and the spent tube is discarded.

   The missile itself has a more conventional appearance. Its fuselage is long, narrow, and cylindrical, with a sharply-pointed nose. The delta-shaped front fins pivot to steer the missile and are located just behind the nose cone, just inside the wider front portion of the tube before launch (in fact, because these fins don't fold, they are the main reason there is a wider front section). The aft fins are also delta-shaped, with a steeper angle, though they're folded around the missile while its still in the tube, and are used in flight only for drag stabilization. A cluster of four short antennae are located directly behind the forward fins, which serve as receivers for the guidance system. It is also notable that the Blowpipe missile strongly resembles the Rapier, Crotale, and Roland in appearance (though it is obviously a much smaller missile), which like the Blowpipe are radio command guided SAMs.

   Like most of the UK's prior SAM systems, Blowpipe employs radio command-guided, and has a Manual Command Line-Of-Sight (MCLOS) interface; meaning, the Blowpipe is directly controlled by the operator using a joystick, not unlike a radio-controlled toy aircraft. A radio beam emitted continuously from the control unit is used to guide the missile, which will self-destruct the instant contact is lost (which can be used deliberately to abort an attack while the missile is already in the air). The missile is tracked after launch via four flares in the tail, which are visible with both day and infrared sights. The obvious advantage of this system is that it can be steered directly into the target, even in a head-on engagement, and potentially used against ground targets as well, and also that passive electronic counter measures (such as chaff) have no effect.

   However, there are significant disadvantages to radio command guidance. For one, the probability of kill ratio degrades rapidly over distance (as the missile is difficult to control, and can only hit what the operator can see), and the operator most constantly keep a specific target in his sights until it is destroyed. Radio command guidance is also subject to radio and radar interference, and in the face of enemy radio jamming, the missile simply can't be guided at all. The main advantage of radio command-guided missiles was supposed to be a high probability of kill ratio against aircraft in a head-on engagement, but combat experience has proven this false; in practice, no missiles have ever been very effective in a head-on engagement against aircraft. Finally, because a continuous radio transmission is required to control the missile, the attack is instantly telegraphed to enemy aircraft with radar warning receivers. The instant guidance is initiated; it goes without saying, but hitting a highly evasive aircraft in a line-of-sight attack with a user-controlled missile is almost impossible.

   Two different warheads were manufactured for the Blowpipe. The first is a generic High Explosive (HE) warhead, designed simply to destroy an aircraft by its blast and splinters. The second is an High Explosive, Dual-Purpose (HEDP) warhead, with a shaped charge. The HEDP can penetrate strong materials and thin armor, while still producing a sizable blast radius. Both warheads weigh 1.81 kg, and employ an impact-triggered fuze --- and consequently, the Blowpipe will not detonate until it either physically strikes something solid, or flies long enough for the self-destruct system to activate.

   The propulsion of the Blowpipe is in two stages; a Royal Ordnance/Imperial Metal Industries solid propellant booster rocket, and a Crake solid propellant sustainer rocket. Ignition of the booster is initiated by thermal batteries in the fire control module. Charging the batteries requires approximately one second, while the booster rocket's burn duration is another 0.2 seconds. The protective plug on the front of the launch tube is ejected by overpressure inside the tube from the ignition of the booster, and is clear of the launcher by the time the missile launches. By design, the sustainer motor doesn't ignite until the missile is some distance away from the launcher, in order to avoid hitting the missile crew with its exhaust.

   The trial by fire for the Blowpipe was the Falklands War, during which it was used by both sides. More than 200 were launched by both sides, 95 by the British alone, but the results were shocking --- initial reports showed that the British Blowpipes had shot-down only 9 aircraft, and further inquiries revealed only one aircraft (Argentine Aermacchi MB.339 #0766) had actually been destroyed. The Argentine forces had the same experience, having launched over 100 Blowpipes at British aircraft, but only scoring one confirmed kill (RAF Harrier GR3 #XZ972). Even Blowpipes launched at helicopters failed to destroy the targets. When British and Argentine combat records were cross-referenced later in the 1980s, the evidence confirmed that MB.339 #0766 and Harrier GR3 #XZ972 were indeed the only aircraft shot-down by Blowpipes, after numerous launches by both sides. Simply put, the Blowpipe's trial by fire was a fiasco.

   The poor showing of the Blowpipe in the Falklands is even more grim, when one also considers that none of the Argentine aircraft had radar warning receivers or self-protection jammers, and little jamming support was available to the British forces. This suggests that the Blowpipe would have been essentially unusable against the Warsaw Pact, who not only had extensive jamming capabilities, but had also equipped all of their combat aircraft with radar warning receivers by the time the Blowpipe entered service.

   The second conflict in which the Blowpipe was employed was the Soviet War in Afghanistan, in which the Mujahedeen rebels were clandestinely supplied with Blowpipe missiles via US and British intelligence services. Its performance in this conflict was even worse, with the Mujahedeen reporting that they abandoned all further attempts at using the Blowpipe after 12 launches at Soviet helicopters, and there is no evidence at any further attempts by the Mujahedeen to engage aircraft with Blowpipes. While many have defended the Blowpipe on the basis that the rebels were inadequately trained, the Mujahedeen reported great success with the FIM-92 Stinger (despite having no more training to use that weapon either), and all the engagements were against helicopters, whose slow-moving and low-flying flight profile makes them the easiest aerial targets in combat.

   Not only had the Blowpipe performed far worse than advertised in combat conditions, but its service life and quality control had proven wildly overstated as well. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Canadian Forces deployed Blowpipes to Saudi Arabia, and discovered during testing that a third of them (9 missiles in 27 launches) misfired or failed to guide. Though by the time the war was over, it had seen no Blowpipes launched in anger.

   The third and so far final combat use of the Blowpipe was during the 1995 Alto-Cenepa War between Peru and Ecuador. During this war, the Ecuadorean Army used Blowpipes against Peruvian helicopters, but no evidence exists that any were shot-down. The claims offered by the Ecuadorean Army are suspect as well; for example, they claim to have shot-down a Bell 212 and a CH-47 Chinook of the Colombian Air Force, which might have been believable had the Colombian Air Force ever flown any Bell 212s near the combat zone, or ever had any CH-47 Chinooks. The only Colombian helicopter loss that both sides are officially in agreement upon was Mi-8TV #EP-587. Assuming the reports are accurate, this was the third Blowpipe kill --- and to date, the final one.

   Blowpipes have been discovered in Taliban weapon caches throughout the Afghan War, even by May 2012, but there is no evidence that any have been launched during that conflict.

   The Blowpipe has been operated by Afghanistan, Argentina, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Malawi, Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman, Portugal, Qatar, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. There were negotiations between the United State and United Kingdom governments over the possible sale of Blowpipes to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels in 1987, but there is no evidence that this plan ever reached fruition.

   There was also a variant of the Blowpipe known as the Submarine Launched Airflight Missile (or SLAM), designed to be launched from the periscopes of submarines, which was developed for the Israeli and Brazilian navies. The Royal Navy added the SLAM to the HMS Aeneas in 1972 in an evaluational capacity, but she was decommissioned and scrapped only 2 years later; no further Royal Navy orders were forthcoming. Similarly, Israel deleted the SLAM launchers from its Gal class submarines, and never again operated this weapon, while Brazil apparently never ended up buying the SLAM at all. Several nations in the Developing World still operate the Blowpipe by 2016 however, with Nigeria in particular officially stating it remains in their inventory.

   Several of the Blowpipe's operators have already retired it, including Portugal, who replaced them with FIM-92 Stingers. The UK retired its entire Blowpipe inventory in 1985, only 10 years after it first entered service. It was replaced in British service by the Javelin --- an evolution of the Blowpipe, which should not be confused with the US-made FGM-178 Javelin anti-tank guided missile. Canada has also retired all of its Blowpipes in favor of the Javelin, though they have since retired the Javelin as well, and without replacement.

   Production of the Blowpipe ended in 1993, with a total of 34 382 missiles and approximately 3 000 launchers were made. It was replaced in production and development by the Javelin. The Blowpipe is no longer available for production. According to Forecast International's article on the Blowpipe and Javelin SAM systems, a Blowpipe missile cost $55 570 in 1999, while the control unit and friend-or-foe identification system combined cost a combined $94 000. By contrast, Forecast International's 2008 article on the FIM-92 Stinger rated its unit cost at between $35 000 and $36 467 --- in other words, the Blowpipe failed to be more affordable than contemporary IR-homing MANPADS, a promised end-result which had been one of its biggest selling points.

   Between its short service life with first-line nations and disastrous combat results, the Blowpipe is not likely to proliferate any further, and the nations still operating it are likely to retire their Blowpipe inventories in the near future.

 

Variants

 

   US variant: Northrop developed a licensed version of the Blowpipe with a semi-active laser guidance system in place of the usual radio command system. It was offered to the US armed forces as a competitor to the Raytheon FIM-92 Stinger, but was not accepted into service. No other sales were achieved, and this joint Short-Northrop venture was eventually abandoned.

   SLAM: The SLAM (Submarine Launched Airflight Missile) was a submarine-launched version of the Blowpipe. It was deemed a failure soon after entering service, and quickly retired.

   Javelin: Improved Blowpipe with higher flight performance and a Semi-Automatic Command to Line of Sight (SACLOS) control system. In fact, the launcher and fire control systems used for both the Blowpipe and Javelin are identical. This made the Javelin an attractive candidate for replacing the Blowpipe, since nothing needs to be changed to use it. Five nations have operated the Javelin. Note that this weapon is completely unrelated to the US-made FGM-178 Javelin anti-tank guided missile.

   Starburst: Advanced version of the Javelin, with semi-active laser guidance. Originally marketed as the "Javelin S15". Five nations operate the Starburst.

   Starstreak: The Starstreak is essentially a Starburst with a much higher flight speed and a kinetic energy warhead, consisting of three penetrator darts. Five nations operate the Starstreak.

   ForceSHIELD: New product name for the Starstreak, as of 2012.

   A vehicle-mounted launcher for the Blowpipe was developed, which was demonstrated on an M113 tracked armored personnel carrier chassis. This launcher does not appear to have entered production.

 

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