Artillery: July 16, 2002


The Russian RPG (rocket propelled grenade) 7 was developed 40 years ago as a cheap, lightweight anti-tank weapon. It was based on a similar German weapon developed during World War II. The launcher weighs 18 pounds and the standard anti-tank rocket weighs about five pounds. No one thought of using it as a general purpose artillery weapon, but that's what has happened. The RPG-7 has become the "poor man's artillery." The Afghans and Somalis have been particularly energetic using RPG-7s in this manner. One thing that these users discovered was that the RPG grenade has a self destruct mechanism that detonates the warhead after it has traveled 700-900 meters. This is a necessary safety measure, otherwise unexploded grenades will sit around until some civilian (or friendly soldiers) picks it up or kicks it and sets it off. With a little practice, RPG-7 gunners can figure out how to get into a position to fire on enemy troops and get an airburst. This will shower troops fragments from above, even if they are in a trench or behind cover. Noting the popularity of the RPG-7 as portable artillery, many nations are providing anti-personnel rockets. The standard RPG-7 rocket contains a shaped charge explosive for punching a whole through armor. The new rockets either have fragmentation warheads or more expensive thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) warheads. The thermobaric rocket, if fired into a building, has the same effect of about five pounds of high explosive (about the same amount found in a 120mm mortar shell.) For aimed fire, the max range of the RPG-7 is about 500 meters. But rockets can be had in many third world arms bazaars for as little as ten dollars each. A warlord with some cash to spare can train some very expert RPG-7 gunners by purchasing them plenty of rockets. And that's exactly what has happened in Afghanistan and Somalia. In addition to delivering very accurate fire on American troops, Afghan RPG-7 gunners have scored about a dozen hits on helicopters. Oh, and the real rockets don't look anything like what it usually portrayed in the movies. When you fire an RPG-7, there's a bang and the rocket boogies down range at a high rate of speed. If you look closely, you can spot the rocket when it's about hundred meters out, as it will continue to slow down until it just falls to ground. All the propellant for the rocket is used before it leaves the launcher, except for a small booster charge that ignites when the rocket is safely away from the user. 


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