Defense Media Network

Man-portable Battlefield Missiles

The state of the art in air defense and anti-tank missiles

Land-launched missiles fall into two primary categories: man- or small-unit-portable (anti-tank, anti-aircraft, anti-personnel, including small structures and vehicles) and the larger battlefield missiles and missile defense systems. This article will focus on the state of the art and global market in the first category, with the second being covered in the next issue of Defense.

Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), such as Stinger and Mistral, have been among the highest demand weapons of the past three decades, from national armies to revolutionaries, insurgents, and terrorists. U.S.-supplied shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, for example, were key to the Afghan defense against Soviet invaders in the 1980s.

The first man-portable anti-tank missile (commonly referred to as a rocket when unguided) to enter service in combat was the French Nord SS.10 in the mid-1950s. But the broader category of surface-to-surface missiles began during World War II with the German V-1 “buzz bomb,” which was first used against London in 1944.

PLA's FN-6 Shoulder Fired Surface To Air Missile

China is offering its third-generation FN-6 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile for the international export market. Chinese Military Review photo

Technology evolution moved anti-tank rockets from aimed but unguided (Bazooka, Panzerschreck, Panzerfaust, PIAT, RPG-7) to manual guidance (which left the operator exposed and vulnerable throughout the missile’s flight) to fire-and-forget systems using electro-optical sensors or W-band radars to lock onto their targets and provide terminal guidance.

Shoulder-, pedestal-, or small vehicle-mounted missiles and rockets have significantly enhanced both attack and defense capabilities of far-forward ground combat troops. However, in recent years they also have become major threats in the hands of non-state groups, from insurgents to terrorists, especially in the form of the ubiquitous rocket-propelled grenade launcher, or RPG, continually improved over decades and produced by more than 40 countries. However, as unguided rocket launchers, various RPG variants are not covered in this article.

Today there are more than 70 known types of small anti-tank missiles in production in some two dozen nations; a dozen nations have produced about 48 types of small surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), although not all are still in production.

As with all weapons, the “state of the art” (SOTA) in man-portable rockets and missiles varies sharply by user.

For major military and technology powers, such as the United States and Israel, SOTA largely comprises fourth-generation systems mainly for their own use or limited sale to close allies. The majority of new production or excess inventory exports to stable governments involve Gen-3 systems. Transfer sales to third party buyers – and weapons acquired through theft and the chaos of revolution – include both Gen-3 systems and tens of thousands of older weapons that have flooded the world in recent decades.

Both future improvements and legitimate sales also have been affected by tight budgets, massive existing inventories, and changing combat priorities.


Anti-Air Systems

While the broad air defense segment is expected to remain the single largest element in missile sales worldwide this decade, since the turn of the century the legal MANPADS market has seen a sharp decline. That has not been due to a lack of demand or a replacement technology so much as a saturation of the market by existing systems. In addition, many potential customers are more concerned about the proliferation of ballistic missiles than short-range combat needs, a priority change reflected in their budgets.

According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), more than half a million MANPADS have been produced, meeting the needs of most legitimate governments, but also meaning tens of thousands may have entered the black market.

French Mistral SAM missile launcher

U.S. Marines with the Low Altitude Air Defense section of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 (Reinforced), 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, sight in on a simulated target using a French Mistral SAM missile launcher with help from French soldiers during bilateral air defense training in Djibouti Aug. 12, 2012. Photo courtesy of the Low-Altitude Air Defense section, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit

Comparatively little effort is going into the development of new man-portable missiles, with much of current – and shrinking future – R&D funding going instead to missile defense, from Israel’s Arrow to America’s PAC-3 (PATRIOT Advanced Capability) and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, nee Theater High Altitude Area Defense).

Teal Group anticipates a decline in man-portable sales by the end of the decade, as sales of the relatively new types taper off and saturation of the market is reached,” according to senior missiles analyst Steve Zaloga. “The medium SAM [divisional-level air defense] area is expected to experience growth in the later portion of the forecast period, though this is partly due to the growing complexity and cost of the missiles involved.”

Man-portable SAMs first entered service in the 1960s, with the first generation of MANPADS including the U.S./General Dynamics FIM-43 Redeye, UK/Thales Blowpipe and Soviet SA-7 Grail (9K32 Strela 2).

The SA-7 was the first to be used in combat, against an Israeli jet near the Suez Canal in 1969, then heavily in the closing two years of the Vietnam War (it was credited with downing about 45 U.S. and allied aircraft). It was used by both sides during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, has been part of almost every regional conflict of the past 45 years, and eventually was acquired by some 70 nations and an estimated dozen paramilitary and terrorist organizations. Most, including Russia, still list it as an active system.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...