Defense Media Network

Man-portable Battlefield Missiles

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

Attacking Ground Targets

Anti-tank has been the primary use for small surface-to-surface (STS) weapons systems, especially in the past 25 years or so. However, other missions, weapons, and targets have evolved with the increase in other types of armored vehicles and a declining expectation of major tank warfare in the future. Both small anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and other STS weapons range from single soldier-carried shoulder-launched to squad-transported tripod-mounted to vehicle-mounted systems.

The current U.S. inventory of man- and small-unit-portable STS missiles includes the BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided), FGM-148 Javelin (not to be confused with the old UK Javelin MANPADS), and unguided rockets upgraded with semi-active laser guidance and control kits, such as the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS II), which connects to the front of 2.75-inch unguided rockets. With it, thousands of existing “dumb” weapons can be upgraded to fill what had been a critical gap between unguided rockets and heavy guided anti-tank missiles.

Javelin Anti-tank Guided Weapon

Royal Marines of 40 Commando firing a Javelin anti-tank guided weapon during Exercise Noble Mariner. The combat-proven Javelin has become the premier man-portable fire and forget weapon system. UK MoD photo/Crown Copyright

Raytheon Missile Systems is manufacturer of the majority of U.S. man-portable systems. “The TOW weapon system, with the multi-mission TOW 2A, TOW 2B, TOW 2B Aero and TOW Bunker Buster missiles, is the premier long-range, precision anti-armor, anti-fortification and anti-amphibious landing weapon system used throughout the world today,” according to the company’s official description.

“Javelin is the premier one-man portable and employable fire-and-forget medium-range missile system in the world. Designed to take the fight to the enemy, the compact, lightweight Javelin is ideally suited for one-soldier operation in all environments.”

The top surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) in service today include:

  • Russian Kornet, a tripod-mounted missile with an integrated thermal site and technology to challenge explosive reactive armor
  • MBDA Eryx, short-range, tripod-mounted SACLOS missile
  • Israeli Spike, also fired from a tripod against medium, long, and extended range targets
  • U.S. TOW
  • U.S. Javelin
  • U.S./Israeli FGM-172 SRAW (Short-Range Assault Weapon), a lightweight anti-tank missile also known as the Predator SRAW, intended as a complement to the longer-range Javelin.

Current and Future, Good and Bad

While better guidance, longer range, and larger warheads have increased infantry lethality against light and medium tanks as well as other “soft” vehicles and buildings, they also have been subject to the iconic armor versus anti-armor cycle. As a result, even the most advanced small STS missiles are largely ineffective against the composite and reactive armor of modern main battle tanks.

As with their SAM counterparts, however, such easily transported and used STS weapons, in the hands of insurgents, terrorists, and criminal organizations – such as narco-cartels – hold considerable threat to military, law enforcement, other government, and civilian targets. The transfer of such weapons from legitimate government buyers to illegal users has proliferated with the collapse of purchasing governments and the increase in sales under less stringent export restrictions by producing nations.

In some cases, that can involve a “bad to worse” scenario, where designated rogue governments, such as the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, collapse into the chaos of civil war. In Libya, where an international embargo on such sales was relaxed after Gaddafi swore he had halted support for terrorism, the upheaval left stockpiles of man-portable weapons open to seizure by criminal, insurgent, and terrorist groups.

Despite their role as the world’s top exporters of such weapons, the post-Cold War United States and Russia have been united, officially at least, in efforts to limit proliferation. American sales of shoulder-fired weapons are limited to nations that agree to allow inventories by U.S. inspectors. After Russian helicopters came under fire from such systems in Chechnya in 2002, that nation’s sales contracts also began to include inspection provisions.

Even so, Russian weapons sales are not as heavily controlled as those of the United States, which the Obama administration has been seeking to relax. That also is the case with Germany, which long has imposed the tightest weapons export restrictions of any European nation. In both cases, supporters of more relaxed export controls have cited competition in the global weapons market and the need to bolster domestic industries.

Whatever the result of those proposals, no such restrictions impair sales by other producers nor purchasing nations reselling man-portable systems, from China and Iran to North Korea and Eritrea. Those range from China’s FN-6 to Iran’s Misagh, a knockoff of the Chinese design.

“It’s a shame that a few rogue suppliers could ruin all the good work that’s being done,” according to Federation of American Scientists analyst Matt Schroeder, co-author of a book on small arms proliferation. “It doesn’t take many [MANPADS] to pose a real, global terrorist threat.”

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, was equally blunt in his assessment of what many consider a rapidly evolving global security crisis.

“I’m very concerned about the proliferation of weapons, notably shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, which we assess there were perhaps as many as 20,000 in Libya as the [revolution] began. Many of those we know are now not accounted for – and that’s going to be a concern for some period of time,” he told lawmakers.

The State Department Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, already concerned about the widespread distribution of outdated SAMs and SSMs with more terrorist than military capability, increased its efforts in the wake of the Libyan revolution. During his reign, Gaddafi had amassed the largest inventory of MANPADS of any non-producing nation; of an estimated 20,000 MANPADS, only some 5,000 were recovered. Many of the remainder may have been destroyed in the conflict, with others still in areas controlled by the new Libyan government. But the concern is thousands also now may be in the hands of terrorists.

Similar concerns about the transfer of shoulder-launched weapons to terrorists and other non-state users now center on the previous revolution in Egypt and ongoing civil war in Syria, as well as what may happen to weapons stores in Iraq and Afghanistan with the withdrawal of American forces.

“Today many of the older systems have almost no military utility, since they are ineffective against modern military aircraft equipped with countermeasures. Yet a number of countries still possess large stockpiles of these outdated systems,” Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro said in a report on the challenge of MANPADS proliferation. “While these outdated weapons may be of little use to a host country’s military, they are prized systems for smugglers and terrorists. This makes improperly secured stockpiles of MANPADS a prime target for smugglers and for terrorist groups like al Qaeda.

“Just as nuclear proliferation has been a major concern in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, so too is the proliferation of MANPADS … built to be portable, easy-to-use and readily transferable, making them an ideal weapon for terrorists seeking to attack airliners. By using infrared sensors, the first generation of MANPADS could lock onto an aircraft’s heat source to guide the missile to impact.”

In a decade of tight budgets and changing battlefield priorities, the state of the art in both shoulder-launched air defense and anti-tank missiles is unlikely to see much change beyond the Gen-4 capabilities already in place. The real change is more likely to be the increasing acquisition – and use – of such weapons by non-state groups.

With the aging Soviet-built SA-7 being sold on the black market for as little as $5,000, only the failure of components such as batteries – many no longer available – reduces the danger of those to the targets of 21st century terrorists. Even so, the presence of hundreds of thousands of such weapons continues to give individual soldiers and small units added lethality on the battlefield – and non-state actors a greater capability to wreak havoc on governments and civilians.

This story was first published in Defense: Fall 2012 Edition.

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