Meet the Missile That Started the MANPADS Craze
America’s FIM-43 Redeye provoked the Soviets
Whether in the hands of terrorists in Iraq, or in a display case at a ritzy international air show, man-portable air defense systems — or MANPADS — have become a common sight throughout the world.
They’re the product of decades of innovation, and an ever-lasting cat-and-mouse game between intelligent guidance systems and the aircraft countermeasures that try to confuse them.
But all of these missiles owe their existence to the first generation of MANPADS … and the missile that started it all, the U.S. Army’s FIM-43 Redeye.
The Redeye came about because of a post-World War II need for a light air defense system that could protect American troops from low-flying aircraft. But the weapon’s conceptual heritage dates back to the war, when shoulder-fired weapons made their combat debut.
The United States fielded the iconic M-9 “bazooka” anti-tank rocket, based on a prototype originally developed in World War I. Toward the end of the war, the German army took the concept of the shoulder-fired rocket and aimed it upwards.
In 1944, the Germans began work on the Fliegerfaust, which looked like a cross between a Gatling gun and a bazooka. Early prototypes had nine barrels designed to fire 20-millimeter rockets at low-flying aircraft, but the war ended before the Fliegerfaust ever went into production.
In 1948, the U.S. Navy produced the 2.75-inch Folding Fin Aerial Rocket — also known as the Mk-4 “Mighty Mouse” — to give fighters a chance at knocking out increasingly faster enemy aircraft. Once fired from its launch tube, the fins on the Mighty Mouse would flip out, providing stabilization in flight.
By the mid-1950s, the Navy developed a smarter air-to-air weapon, the AIM-9 Sidewinder. The Sidewinder, improved continuously since the 1950s, started out as a short range air-to-air missile that used an infrared guidance system to lock onto the engines of enemy aircraft.
At the time, the Army and Marine Corps struggled developing large-caliber, radar-equipped anti-aircraft guns — which didn’t have much success. That’s when Convair came up with an innovative new proposal, according to a lengthy in-house Army history of the FIM-43 Redeye.
In 1955, a Convair team thought of taking an infrared seeker similar to the one used in the Sidewinder, and attaching it to a 2.75-inch folding fin rocket. A single soldier could then launch the rocket from a hand-held tube.
The idea had promise, and following a feasibility study, the Army picked the company’s Redeye design — named for its infrared seeker — to go into research and development.
In 1967, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was among the troops who tested an early version of the missile at White Sands Missile Range. By 1968, the Army deployed the Redeye for use in the field.
The Redeye’s passive homing seeker worked by identifying the infrared heat emanating from the engines of an aircraft and chasing after it. In practice, it was more effective when fired at the rear of a target, rather than head-on.
The missile was an engineering feat, but it was by no means perfect — especially by the standards of more modern MANPADS.
For one, the FIM-43’s infrared seeker was far from infallible. It could only scan in one band of the light spectrum, making it possible for aircraft countermeasures, such as flares, to trick the missile into diverting its course.
Even a hit wouldn’t necessarily take out its target. The Army assessed the kill probability for the Redeye to be 30 percent against “high-performance jet aircraft,” and up to 50 percent against other low-flying aircraft.
While the U.S. had been hard at work on the Redeye, the Soviet Union was busy cooking up a MANPAD missile of its own. The 9K32 Strela-2, which NATO would later designate as the SA-7, became the Soviets’ answer to the American missile.
The SA-7 first entered the Soviet arsenal in 1968, but the West wouldn’t catch a glimpse of it until 1969, when it showed up in the hands of the Egyptian military.
By 1970, the Egyptians were firing SA-7s at Israeli aircraft, and Tel Aviv was sharing intelligence about the missiles — gleaned from fragments found in Israeli aircraft — with Washington.
While the Redeye and SA-7 were similar, the missiles weren’t identical. Nonetheless, the CIA concluded that the Soviet SA-7 had benefited from the Redeye’s development.
“Information on the U.S. Redeye shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile facilitated the development of the Soviet SA-7,” stated a 1982 Special National Intelligence Estimate on illicit Soviet acquisition of Western technology.
It wouldn’t be long before the Soviets transferred the SA-7 to groups outside state control — an early sign of the proliferation threat that MANPADS have posed ever since they first rolled off the production line.
Today, American officials worry about terrorists looting MANPADS from Syrian army arsenals, or taking them for stockpiles sent to rebels via Qatar.
Though the geopolitical context was different, American concerns in the early 1970s were eerily similar.
During a meeting of senior national security officials during the Yom Kippur war, CIA Director William Colby delivered an “unpleasant report” to National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The agency had received intelligence indicating the Soviets were arming and training Fedayeen terrorists in Aleppo with the SA-7.
“You could sit on the bank of the Potomac and knock out any plane going into the airport,” Colby warned.
Despite the concerns, the U.S. also proliferated the Redeye to non-state actors in the 1980s. Washington provided the missiles to “Contra” rebels trying to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
The Redeye’s newer, more capable successor, the FIM-92 Stinger — initially dubbed Redeye II — would become the most important weapon on the Afghan battlefield in the 1980s for its ability to destroy Soviet helicopters.
Redeyes are a relatively rare sight in conflict zones today. They’re too old and there’s too few of them. But their SA-7 counterparts have grown to become the most proliferated MANPADS in the world.