Infantry: June 28, 2002


With the rising probability of urban warfare in the United States military's future, weapons designers have been looking for new products to put in the hands of American troops. One answer might already be sitting on warehouse shelves. The M-47 "Dragon" was originally designed to allow a single soldier to defeat armored vehicles, fortified bunkers, concrete gun emplacements, or other hard targets. McDonnell Douglas developed the "Dragon" guided anti-tank missile in 1970, production began in 1972 and it became operational with U.S. Army forces in Europe in 1975. The US "Dragon" has been twice redesigned, evolving into the present "Superdragon" by 1990. 

The current version is capable of penetrating 18 inches of armor (400+ / 500 mm) at a maximum effective range of 1,500 meters, so it's day as a killer of premium Main Battle Tanks has passed. However, thermobaric warheads have proven their value many times in recent combat and the M-47 'Dragon' could lend itself to an easy Service Life Extension Program.

For example, the USAF's BLU-118/B recently used in Afghanistan has the same penetrator body as the standard BLU-109 weapon, but with the high explosive fill replaced by a new thermobaric explosive. Termed "thermobaric," the new explosive belongs to a class of fuel-rich compositions that release energy over a longer period of time than standard explosives, thereby creating a long-duration pressure pulse when detonated in confined spaces. The effect can be devastating.

Of particular noteworthiness was the speed with which the BLU-118/B was fielded. On 11 October 2001, the Defense Reduction Threat Agency organized a quick-response team that included Navy, Air Force, Department of Energy and industry experts to identify, test, integrate and field a rapid solution that would enhance weapons options in countering hardened underground targets. The fast-paced program culminated on 14 December 2001, with a successful flight test of the GBU-24 laser-guided weapon using the BLU-118B warhead launched by an F-15E. On 2 March 2002, the USAF dropped two of the 2,000-pound bombs on Taliban positions during Operation "Anaconda".

The Russians have also fielded the RPO-A, a recoilless infantry flame thrower that has already seen extensive combat in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Chechnya. The 11 kg (25lb) shoulder-fired, recoilless "rocket" launcher contains a 4.4 lb (2 kg) thermobaric explosive fill and the blast effect has been likened to a 122mm HE artillery or 120mm mortar projectile. While users on both sides of recent conflicts like the weapon, the RPO-A's effective range is only 600 meters (1,000 meters maximum).

So, could DTRA make lightning strike twice and put a 'new' and effective weapon in our troops' hands, in record time and for minimal cost? The US Army has 7,000 M-47 systems in its inventory, with approximately 33,000 Dragon missiles and the US Marine Corps has another 17,000 Dragon missiles in inventory. The M-47 system has a maximum effective range of 1000-1500 meters and a warhead weight of 11.88 lb (5.4 kg), although the launcher and round are a hefty 37.33 lbs (16.9 kg). The 'Dragon' can also be tricky for untrained operators, since one needs about 200 meters to 'catch' the missile and it has a tendancy to dump it's round short of the target.

There are no perfect solutions, but the idea does have merit as a potential stand-off weapon for taking out precision targets in a MOUT environment from 200 - 1,500 meters. Simply replacing the High Explosive fill in some Dragon missiles with Thermobaric compound may be a cheap, fast way to put a weapon in the hands of American troops that has all of the punch of a 155mm howitzer round with far less chance of inflicting collateral damage. That'd be a pretty good deal any way you look at it. - Adam Geibel


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