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Man-portable Battlefield Missiles

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

The Redeye – precursor to the far more effective FIM-92 Stinger – first saw action in Vietnam, but reached its peak use in Afghanistan when the United States delivered 50 systems to the anti-Soviet mujahideen. While it has been replaced in most militaries by the Stinger or similar advanced SAMs, the Redeye at one time was in the inventories of 11 nations and four non-state users – the Afghan and Bosnian mujahideen guerrilla groups, the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, and UNITA, an Angolan revolutionary group from 1965-2000, but now that nation’s second-largest political party.

Both sides used the Blowpipe during the 1982 Falklands War, but of more than 100 fired, only two confirmed kills were reported – a British Harrier GR3 jump jet and an Argentinean Aermacchi MB-339 light attack jet. Even so, it eventually was acquired by 15 nations, most of which still list it as part of their active weapons inventories, although the remaining U.K. Blowpipes are reported as “in storage,” having been replaced by the Javelin and then the Starstreak HVM (High Velocity Missile).

The early systems were generally more cumbersome than their predecessors and proved increasingly less effective as target aircraft became faster and more agile and pilots developed better evasive maneuvers and countermeasures. Current MANPADS also incorporate better guidance systems, improving accuracy and overall battlefield utility.


The Swedish Saab Bofors Dynamics RBS-70 possesses an integrated sighting solution, enhanced gunner aids, unbeatable range and unjammable laser guidance system. SAAB Group photo

Since the end of the Cold War, the General Dynamics/Raytheon Missile Systems Stinger has represented about 58 percent of worldwide MANPADS production (excluding Russia and China), followed by the Thales (nee Short Brothers) Javelin, Swedish Saab Bofors Dynamics RBS-70, and the MBDA Mistral (although MBDA is multi-European, Mistral is considered a largely French missile).

There have been three shoulder-launched variants of the “fire-and-forget” Stinger, originally designed by General Dynamics and now produced by Raytheon. The Basic Stinger used passive infrared (IR) homing (heat seeker) guidance, along with an integrated friend-or-foe interrogator to ensure the target was an enemy aircraft before firing. The Stinger POST (Passive Optical Seeker Technique) incorporated a dual IR and ultraviolet (UV) detector, allowing it to discriminate between a target, countermeasures, and background clutter.

Production on both ended in 1987, although the Basic remains popular with many Third World and black market users. In all, more than 70,000 Stingers – including air-to-air and ship-launched variants – have been produced, with more than 270 confirmed aircraft kills; some 15,000 late model Stingers are in stock with all four Department of Defense (DoD) services.

That current model is the Stinger RMP (Reprogrammable MicroProcessor), with additional microprocessor power and reprogrammable external software, allowing upgrades without expensive hardware retrofits to meet evolving threats.

The RMP was rushed into service during Operation Desert Storm. After that conflict, the Army ordered a Block I upgrade, including a new Roll Frequency Sensor/Seeker, a smaller battery, an improved computer processor and memory and a ring laser gyro, all to improve precision and performance. The Army’s FY 2003 budget proposal for the upgrade claimed it would “support the Army’s Air and Missile Defense strategy until 2021.” Further developments did not involve the missile so much as the launch system.

Starstreak LML missile at launching

A Starstreak LML missile at launching. The Lightweight Multiple Launcher (LML) system is a tripod-based system providing a multi-engagement capability against low-level air targets utilizing the Starstreak missile. The Starstreak is a unique laser beam riding system which, by virtue of its extremely accurate laser guidance and fast time of flight, can defeat a variety of threats including aerial targets such as unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters and also surface targets such as armored personnel carriers, static installations, or terrorist platforms. Photo courtesy of K. Best ©THALES

“Indeed, the distinction between the high end of the MANPADS and the low end of the medium SAMs is becoming increasingly blurred,” Zaloga wrote in Teal Group’s 2012 Air Defense Missiles Overview.

“Virtually all these programs are now suffering from age-induced production declines. None of the major players has a new generation system available and sales in recent years have been very cool. As a result, sales of Russian and Chinese MANPADS have begun to dominate the market. China has begun to export MANPADS in very large numbers, mainly in the developing world.”

With fewer restrictions on weapons technology export than the United States, Russia has had growing success not only exporting its Stinger-class SA-16 Gimlet (Igla-1M), but also licensing production in Bulgaria, Poland, and North Korea, with others expected in this decade.

That also applies to China, which has begun offering its latest Gen-3 system – the FeiNu-6 (FN-6), also known as the Flying Crossbow – for international export; known customers to date include Malaysia, Cambodia, Sudan, and Peru.

The proliferation of Russian and Chinese MANPADS already has resulted in their use against civilian airliners. As more and more of these missiles fall into the hands of terrorists and insurgents, pressure is expected to grow for international restrictions on their sale and possession. That probably would have a greater impact on the sale of shoulder-launched missiles, such as Stinger and Gimlet, than on pedestal or vehicle-mounted small SAMs, such as Mistral and RBS-70.

Such restrictions also could hasten the end of some missiles in this class, at least in terms of new production.

“Both Stinger and Mistral are a bit long-in-the-tooth and the inventories will start suffering from age expiration in the forecast period [through 2020],” according to Zaloga. “A few options are possible, including further evolutionary development or the design of follow-on systems.”

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