The RPG-7 Is a One-Man Dealer of Death
Cheap and simple, it's one of the deadliest weapons in the world
The RPG-7–the fin-stabilized, rocket-propelled anti-tank launcher–changed the face of warfare when introduced in 1961, captured the imagination of game studios and became a go-to Hollywood prop.
The classic 1980s film Red Dawn portrayed ordinary American high school students blowing up Soviet tanks with captured RPGs as they shouted “Eat me!” You can hardly make it through a lot of video games games without tripping over the weapon.
But in the real world, the RPG-7 is one of the deadliest weapons on the planet because of its preponderance, ease of use and sheer destructive power. Perhaps the only other single weapon more widely available is the Kalashnikov assault rifle.
“The RPG-7 anti-tank grenade launcher is one of the most common and most effective infantry weapons in contemporary conflicts,” writes Lester Grau, an analyst with the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth and author of The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan.
“It is rugged, simple and carries a lethal punch. Whether downing U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in Somalia, blasting Russian tanks in Chechnya, or attacking government strong points in Angola, the RPG-7 is the weapon of choice for many infantrymen and guerrillas around the world.”
The RPG isn’t to be underestimated.
For American soldiers, the weapon is responsible for their single deadliest day in Afghanistan. On Aug. 6, 2011, Taliban insurgents fired up to three RPG rounds at a CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopter.
According to U.S. military officials who investigated the crash, the second round struck one of the three aft rotor blades of the helicopter, destroying the aft rotor assembly.
The helicopter crashed less than five seconds later, killing all 38 people including 25 American special operators, five U.S. Army National Guard and Army Reserve crewmen, seven Afghan commandos and one Afghan interpreter. One U.S working dog died in the crash.
The loss of life surpassed the 19 deaths during 2005’s Operation Red Wings–the operation portrayed in the film Lone Survivor. Those deaths were also the result of a Chinook helicopter downed by RPG fire.
Ruchnoy Protivotankovyy Granatomyot-7 translates into English as “hand-held anti-tank grenade launcher, Type 7” – not “rocket-propelled grenade.” The concept behind the RPG-7 is nothing new. It is the direct descendant of shoulder-fired, rocket-propelled weapons from World War II such as the American M-9 Bazooka and the German Panzerfaust.
The weapon consists of a muzzle loaded, 40-millimeter diameter tube about a yard long that accepts a number of rocket-powered, oversized grenades including high-explosive anti-tank and fragmentation rounds.
Equipped with an optical sight, the launcher weighs a little more than 15 pounds. The round has a maximum effective range of about 300 yards versus moving targets and about 500 yards against stationary targets.
Extremely simple to use, the operator loads the grenade, presses a cocking lever on the rear of the launcher’s pistol grip, aims and fires the weapon. Next, a gunpowder booster charge ejects the RPG round from the tube, the rocket fires and fins deploy which help keep the grenade on target.
When a high-explosive round hits an armored target, tandem charges detonate. That’s a system where a weaker initial charge explodes to blow a hole for the secondary HEAT charge to penetrate the target’s armor–including reactive armor.
The rounds are very effective. They can burn through steel armor up to 500 millimeters thick. It’s a Hell of a punch from weapon that costs about $900 to purchase and fires a $100 round.
Nearly nine million RPG-7 launchers have proliferated around the world and to every continent including Australia. Although Russian-manufactured units abound, Bulgaria, China, Iran, Iraq, Romania and Pakistan all produce the weapon.
Little wonder the RPG-7 is often called “the Kalashnikov of anti-tank weapons,” and for good reason. An Afghan tribesman or Somali pirate can learn how to load and fire one in 20 minutes.
It’s not just used against armored vehicles, tanks and helicopters. Civilian vehicles, residential buildings, bunkers, and aircraft have all felt the sting of an RPG round.
What’s more, defense against RPGs is difficult. Armored vehicles can use so-called “slat armor,” essentially steel bars or caging mounted on vital areas of the vehicle, to defeat an RPG round by causing it to explode before the shaped charge can contact armor.
Slat armor helps–about half of the time.
Most helicopters are by necessity made of lightweight metals such as aluminum honeycomb. It isn’t practical to armor Chinooks and Black Hawks. Instead, pilots learn to use different maneuvers and to avoid certain patterns while flying to make it more difficult for an RPG-7 operator to shoot down the bird.
But even with the use of those tactics, some estimates indicate that the United States lost up to 100 aircraft in Afghanistan and Iraq due to RPG fire. The majority of the hits didn’t blow the helicopters out the sky, but damaged them so badly that they had to be scrapped.
With a success rate like that, the RPG-7 is here to stay. It’s a cheap but effective killer of high-technology weapons such as helicopters and tanks, perfect for either the armies of wealthy nations or the foot-soldiers of revolution and insurgency.