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The War Nerd April 29, 2004
Most Valuable Weapon: the RPG
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
The RPG got its start against our guys in Vietnam. The Viet Cong and NVA used them as squad-level anti-armor weapons, and they were so damn good at it that we never got our money's worth from the tanks and APCs we sent over. Our APC back then was a really lousy dumptruck, the M113 -- basically a light-tank chassis with flat slabs of aluminum on the sides and top.

Sometimes you can see how good a design is just by the way it looks. One look at an M113 and you can see that this was a lousy vehicle. It was about as tall as Yao Ming, which meant it was a real big target. The aluminum armor didn't have firing ports, so the soldiers inside just had to put their helmets over their balls, close their eyes and hope the crew would open the hatch and let them out ASAP. The armor was just thick enough to slow the thing down, but not nearly enough to stop an RPG round. Which is no surprise when you know that an RPG armor-piercing round can penetrate 300mm of rolled steel -- more than a foot of steel. Not a bad punch for such a little weapon to pack.

GIs who'd seen what an RPG hit could do to an M113 got in the habit of saying, "I'll walk, thanks." The RPG warhead does something called "spalling," which means the warhead turns the aluminum side armor of an APC into molten shrapnel which goes zipping through the guts of everybody inside like a Benihana chef's knife, only it's a knife as hot as the surface of the sun.

If GIs in Nam did have to ride an M113, they wore a lot of St. Christopher medals and sat on top. They were a lot less scared of getting shot by a sniper than of being hit by an RPG sitting inside.

We had nothing like it and still don't. We had the LAW, another shoulder-fired rocket originally designed to penetrate armor, but it wasn't nearly as easy to carry, because it didn't have the reuseable launcher the RPG featured. If you wanted to throw a dozen rockets at an enemy bunker, you had to carry a dozen LAWs along, whereas the RPG gunner needed just one launcher and a sack full of warheads.

Nam was just the beginning of the RPG's career. Just think back to Mogadishu 1993. The whole Blackhawk Down mess happened because some Afghan Jihadis who'd retired to Mogadishu -- guess it was nice'n'restful compared to Kandahar -- showed the Somalis how to use the RPG-7 as an anti-aircraft weapon, which its Russian designers never even thought of. The RPG was the key to the whole battle that ended up killing 18 Ranger and Delta guys (Jeez, remember when 18 GIs dead was supposed to be "unacceptably high" losses?), getting us to bug out from Somalia, and getting Ridley Scott's directing career back on track.

First the Somali RPG gunners, firing up from the streets where they'd dug holes to channel the big rocket backblast, hit our Blackhawks, bringing them down in the maze of slums. That drew our troops into the slums, where everybody from toddlers to grandmas started potshotting them with AKs.

The Afghans worked out how to use RPGs as AA back in the 80s, fighting the Soviets. I guess it was a little bit of poetic justice that the first helicopters to get brought down were Russian. The Afghans didn't have much to use against choppers except captured Russian heavy 14.5 cal. machineguns, which didn't have enough punch to bring down the Mi-24. And Reagan, the wimpiest hawk that ever flew, waited five long years to give the Mujahideen the Stingers that could take down an Mi-24 every time. So the Afghans started playing around with using the RPG against Russian CAS.

They came up with some great improvisations. There's nothing like war to bring out the inventor in people! One thing the Afghans figured out was how to use the self-destruct device in the warhead to turn the RPG into an airburst SA missile. See, the RPG comes with a safety feature designed to self-destruct after the missile's gone 920 meters. So if you fire on up at a chopper from a few hundred meters away, at the right angle, you get an airburst just as effective as SA missiles that cost about a thousand times more.

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Gary Brecher
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Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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Save The eXile: The War Nerd Calls Mayday
The future of The eXile is in your hands! We're holding a fundraiser to save the paper, and your soul. Tune in to Gary Brecher's urgent request for reinforcements and donate as much as you can. If you don't, we'll be overrun and wiped off the face of the earth, forever.

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