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The War Nerd April 29, 2004
Most Valuable Weapon: the RPG
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
Page 3 of 3
When the Chechens took on the post-Soviet Russian army in 1994, the good old RPG was the key weapon once again. By this time, the Russians must've been cursing the name of the man who designed the thing. What the Chechens found out in their first war against the Russians in 1994 was that the RPG is the perfect weapon for urban combat. The Russians sent huge columns of armor into the streets of the city, and the Chechens waited on the upper floors, where they couldn't be spotted by choppers but still held the high ground. They waited till the tanks and APCs were jammed into the little streets, then hit the first and last vehicles with RPGs -- classic anti-armor technique. That left the whole column stopped dead, and all they had to do was keep feeding warheads into the launchers, knocking out vehicle after vehicle by hitting it on the thin top armor. The Russians were slaughtered, and they had to pull back and settle for saturating the city with massed artillery fires, which killed lots of old ladies but didn't do any harm to the fighters. So basically the RPG singlehandedly lost the Russians their first Chechen War.

Which brings us to Iraq, now. The first key to the RPG's effectiveness is availability, and it turns out that the one thing Iraq had more than enough of, in spite of all those sanctions, was RPG launchers and rounds. Saddam's army had an official license from the Russians to produce RPGs in Iraqi factories, and they made so many that, when Saddam went down, there were piles of launchers with plenty of anti-armor and anti-personnel rounds in most Iraqi towns. And after the Iran-Iraq War and Gulf War I, so many Iraqi men had trained on the RPG that there were plenty of gunners and instructors to teach the new generation how to use it.

Everything about the RPG design seems like it was designed to be used in Iraqi cities. It's got one of the shortest arming ranges of any shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons, which means you can fire it at a Hummer coming right down the street. It's light enough, at 15 pounds, for even the wimpiest teenager to run through alleys with. It's simple enough for any amateur to use -- the original non-camera example of "point and shoot."

US doctrine for countering the RPG always stressed looking for the flash when it's fired, and the blue-grey smoke trail it leaves. There are two problems with that, though. In the first place, unlike, say, the TOW, the RPG is unguided, so once it's launched, it doesn't do much good to kill the gunner. You're still going to get hit. Second, it's not easy to see the blast or the smoke trail in one of these Iraqi "urban canyons." Too many walls to hide behind.

Our doctrine also used to stress laying down heavy fire in the general direction of the RPG launcher, to suppress further firings and hopefully kill the crew. But when you're fighting in the middle of an Iraqi city, that kind of general fire is going to kill a lot of hunkered-down civilians along with the RPG crew. And that doesn't look good on TV. More importantly, it makes you a lot of new enemies among the people whose cousins got shot.

Even if the RPG doesn't disable a vehicle, the blast radius of the anti-armor round is four meters, which means anybody in the area is going to be seeing little birdies for a good few minutes, deaf from the blast, temporarily blind, not to mention very scared and pissed off. Once you've got the occupying troops in a position like that -- I mean literally blind and deaf -- you're in a guerrilla strategist's idea of Heaven. Troops in that mood tend to start firing blind, which makes everybody hate them even more, which suits the guerrilla right down to the ground.

The next question about the RPG is how it's done in its first big combat test against a whole new generation of US Armor that was designed to counter it, like the M1 Abrams, Bradley, and Stryker. I'll talk about that in my next column.

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Gary Brecher
Browse author
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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Everybody complains about celebrities, but nobody does anything about them. People, it’s time to stop fretting about whether we’re a celebrity-obsessed culture—we are, we have been, we’re going to be—and instead take practical steps to clean up the celebrity-obsessed culture we’ve got...


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