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Friday, May 06, 2016

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Weapons of the War in Afghanistan: Anti-tank/Assault Part I

Weapons of the War in Afghanistan

View of gate at the Korengal Outpost at the beginning of winter, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan.

In the world of war, weapons and technology are ever changing, each war is characterized by the weapons and tactics used to fight it. As new environments and enemies are encountered, the parties to those wars develop new - more effective tactics, technologies, and weapons to counter and defeat their adversaries. The ingenuity seen in war has existed since (and most certainly before) the first wars of recorded history and continue to this very day. 

Keeping with that theory, let’s take a look at the weapons that have characterized the wars and conflicts that the United States has been a party to over the course of it’s history. During the course of this series, I aim to breakdown the weapons used in each conflict by their classification, and to which party they were employed by. Having served in combat operations in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, I would like to start our series with the War in Afghanistan. 

For our sixth installment, let’s take a look at the most commonly encountered Anti-tank/Assault weapons in the War in Afghanistan. These weapons will be recoil-less weapons, rocket propelled grenades, grenade launchers, and shoulder fired missiles.

Monsoon season in the Korengal Valley as seen from Firebase Vegas.

Part I: The United States

M136 AT4

The AT4 is just about the most common of the shoulder fired rockets that you will find throughout the Army.

The M136 AT4 is a 84mm, lightweight, self-contained, anti-armor weapon. It consists of a free-flight,fin-stabilized, rocket-type cartridge packed in an expendable, one-piece,fiberglass-wrapped tube.

The AT4 may be considered a disposable, low-cost alternative to a Carl Gustav recoilless rifle. The AT4 took many of its design features from the Carl Gustav, which operates on the principle of a recoilless weapon, where the forward inertia of the projectile is balanced by the inertia of propellant gases ejecting from the rear of the barrel. But unlike the Carl Gustav, which uses a heavier and more expensive steel tube with rifling, the disposable AT4 design greatly reduces manufacturing costs by using a reinforced smoothbore fiberglass outer tube. In a recoilless weapon, the barrel does not need to contend with the extreme pressures found in traditional guns and can thus be made very lightweight. This fact, combined with the almost complete lack of recoil, means that relatively large projectiles (comparable to those found in mortars and artillery systems) can be utilised, which would otherwise be impossible in a man-portable weapon.

    • Cartridge: 84mm HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank round)
    • Effective Range: Point target 300 m, Area target 500 m, Maximum range 2,100 m
    • Weight: 14.8 lbs / 6.7 kg
    • Rate of Fire: Single use.
    • Capacity: Single use.

            Infantryman checking the perimeter of OP Rock after a night attack on the OP, Firebase Vegas, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan.

            M72 LAW
            The M72 LAW has been around for a while now, but is still an effective weapon within the 200 meter range. It is light and compact, easily carried by infantry on patrol in the rugged and hostile mountains of Afghanistan. Having a couple of these on hand when setting in on an ambush, or finding yourself caught in an enemy's ambush is always a good thing.

            The M72 LAW (Light Anti-Tank Weapon) is a portable one-shot 66 mm unguided anti-tank weapon. The weapon consists of a rocket packed inside of a launcher made up of two tubes, one inside the other. While closed, the outer assembly acts as a watertight container for the rocket and the percussion cap-type firing mechanism that activates the rocket. The outer tube contains the trigger, the arming handle, front and rear sights, and the rear cover. The inner tube contains the channel assembly, which houses the firing pin assembly, including the detent lever. When extended, the inner tube telescopes outward toward the rear, guided by the channel assembly, which rides in an alignment slot in the outer tube's trigger housing assembly. This causes the detent lever to move under the trigger assembly in the outer tube, both locking the inner tube in the extended position and cocking the weapon. Once armed, the weapon is no longer watertight, even if the launcher is collapsed into its original configuration.

            When fired, the striker in the rear tube impacts a primer, which ignites a small amount of powder that "flashes" down a tube to the rear of the rocket igniting the propellant in the rocket motor. The rocket motor burns completely before leaving the mouth of the launcher, producing gases around 1,400 °F (760 °C). The rocket propels the 66 mm warhead forward without significant recoil. As the warhead emerges from the launcher, six fins spring out from the base of the rocket tube, stabilizing the warhead's flight. The early LAW warhead, developed from the M31 HEAT rifle grenade warhead, uses a simple, but extremely safe and reliable, piezoelectric fuze system. On impact with the target, the front of the nose section is crushed causing a microsecond electric current to be generated, which detonates a booster charge located in the base of the warhead, which sets off the main warhead charge. The force of the main charge forces the copper liner into a directional particle jet that, in relation to the size of the warhead, is capable of a massive amount of penetration.

            A unique mechanical set-back safety on the base of the detonator grounds the circuit until the missile has accelerated out of the tube. The acceleration causes the three disks in the safety mechanism to rotate 90 degrees in succession, ungrounding the circuit; the circuit from the nose to the base of the detonator is then completed when the piezo-electric crystal is crushed on impact.
            • Cartridge: 66mm HEAT rocket
            • Effective Range: 200 m
            • Weight: 5.5 lb / 2.5 kg 
            • Rate of Fire: Single use
            • Capacity: Single use
            Structures on Kamisar Ridge, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. 

            M141 SMAW-D

            While AT4s maybe the most common shoulder fired weapons found throughout the Army, the SMAW-D seemed to be in higher use among infantry units in Afghanistan. This is most likely due to its more compact carrying size over the AT4, as well as it's enhanced bunker/cover penetrating abilities. We had more of these on hand at Firebase Vegas then any of the other ANti-tank/Assault shoulder fired weapon systems.

            The M141 Bunker Defeat Munition (BDM), or SMAW-D ("Disposable"), is a single-shot, shoulder-launched weapon designed to defeat hardened structures. The weapon was designed as a modification of the United States Marine Corps Shoulder-launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon (SMAW) to fill the void in the United States Army inventory of a "bunker buster" weapon.

            The SMAW-D operates on the principle of a recoilless rifle, in that the recoil created by launching the projectile is counteracted by a "backblast" of gases fired from the rear of the weapon. This makes the SMAW-D inherently dangerous, especially in confined, urban areas, as is with all weapons of this design.

            The M141 has two configurations: A carry mode in which the launcher is 32 in long, and a ready to fire mode in which the launcher is extended to its full length of 55 in.

            The warhead is the same High Explosive, Dual Purpose (HEDP) as the USMC SMAW. It is effective against masonry and concrete bunkers as well as lightly armored vehicles. The projectile is capable of penetrating up to 8" of concrete, 12" of brick, or 6.9' of sandbags. The warhead is activated by a crush switch in its nose that is able to distinguish between hard and soft targets. On soft targets, such as sandbags, the detonation is delayed until the projectile is buried in the target, producing a devastating effect. The warhead detonates immediately on contact with hard targets.
            • Cartridge: 83.5 mm (fires 83 mm rockets)
            • Effective Range: 15 – 1000+ meters
            • Weight: 15.7 lbs / 7.1 kg 
            • Rate of Fire: Single use
            • Capacity: Single use
            View from SE Guard tower at Firebase Vegas, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan.

            M202 FLASH

            When I arrived at Firebase Vegas I was surprised to see some of these sitting in our ammo storage bunker. It's not often that you see these these days, but they work well on enemies seeking refuge in cave systems, Qanats (Karizes), bunkers, and trench/tunnel systems.

            The M202 FLASH (FLame Assault SHoulder Weapon) is an American rocket launcher, designed to replace the World War II–vintage flamethrowers that remained the military's standard incendiary devices well into the 1960s. The M202 is based on the prototype XM191 napalm rocket launcher that saw extensive testing in the Vietnam War.

            The M202A1 features four tubes that can load 66 mm incendiary rockets. The M74 rockets are equipped with M235 warheads, containing approximately 1.34 pounds (0.61 kg) of an incendiary agent. The substance, often mistaken for napalm, is in fact TPA (thickened pyrophoric agent).

            TPA is triethylaluminum (TEA) thickened with polyisobutylene. TEA, an organometallic compound, is pyrophoric and burns spontaneously at temperatures of 1200 °C (2192 °F) when exposed to air. It burns "white hot" because of the aluminum, much hotter than gasoline or napalm. The light and heat emission is very intense and can produce skin burns from some (close) distance without direct contact with the flame, by thermal radiation alone.

            The weapon is meant to be fired from the right shoulder, and can be fired from either a standing, crouching, or prone position. It has a trigger mode to facilitate firing all four rockets at once, not just one at a time. After firing, it can be reloaded with a clip housing four rockets.
            • Cartridge: 66mm M74 TPA rocket
            • Effective Range: Point target 200 m, Area target 750 m
            • Weight: 11.5 lb / 5.22 kg empty, 26.6 lb / 12.07 kg loaded
            • Rate of Fire: 4 rockets; 1 rocket per second
            • Capacity: 4 rocket clip
            Firebase Vegas morning time at the beginning of winter in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan.

            FGM-148 Javelin

            The Javelin is a commonly found missile system on US Firebases in Afghanistan. While not deploying the full system, the CLU is often used to scan the areas surrounding bases at night for security, due to it's great ability to pickup heat signatures, and good night vision capabilities. When deploying the full system the Javelin is very accurate and devastating once locked on to target and fired. 

            The Javelin is a fire-and-forget missile with lock-on before launch and automatic self-guidance. The system takes a top-attack flight profile against armored vehicles (attacking the top armor, which is generally thinner), but can also take a direct-attack mode for use against buildings. This missile also has the ability to engage helicopters in the direct attack mode. It can reach a peak altitude of 150 m (500 ft) in top-attack mode and 60 m in direct-fire mode. It is equipped with an imaging infrared seeker. The tandem warhead is fitted with two shaped charges: a precursor warhead to detonate any explosive reactive armor and a primary warhead to penetrate base armor.

            The missile is ejected from the launcher so that it reaches a safe distance from the operator before the main rocket motors ignite; a "soft launch arrangement". This makes it harder to identify the launcher; however, back-blast from the launch tube still poses a hazard to nearby personnel. Thanks to this "fire and forget" system, the firing team may change their position as soon as the missile has been launched, or prepare to fire on their next target while the first missile is still in the air.

            The missile system is most often carried by a two-man team consisting of a gunner and an ammo bearer, although it can be fired with just one person if necessary. While the gunner aims and fires the missile, the ammo bearer scans for prospective targets, watches for threats, such as enemy vehicles and troops, and ensures that personnel and obstacles are clear of the missile's back blast.
            • Cartridge: 127mm Tandem shaped charge HEAT missile
            • Effective Range: 75 to 2,500 m, Maximum firing range 4,750 m (tested)
            • Weight: 49.2 lbs / 22.3 kg  (carry weight), Detachable CLU: 14.1 lbs / 6.4 kg 
            • Rate of Fire: Single use
            • Capacity: Single use
            Setting in for an ambush on a trail largely used by AAF/ACF fighters. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. 

            I have carried the M203 many times, it is a great weapon for flushing out enemies in dead space, not in an area able to be engaged by direct line of sight weapons, and also for suppressing enemies firing from the windows of structures.

            The M203 is a single-shot 40 mm under-barrel grenade launcher designed to attach to a rifle. It uses the same rounds as the older stand-alone M79 break-action grenade launcher, which utilizes the High-Low Propulsion System to keep recoil forces low. Though versatile, and compatible with many rifle models, the M203 was originally designed for the U.S. M16 and its variant, the M4 Carbine. The device attaches under the barrel, the launcher trigger being in the rear of the launcher, just forward of the rifle magazine. The rifle magazine functions as a hand grip when firing the M203. A separate sighting system is added to rifles fitted with the M203, as the rifle's standard sights are not matched to the launcher. 
            • Cartridge: 40×46mm SR
            • Effective Range: Point target 150 m, Area target 350 m, Maxiumum range ~400 m
            • Weight: 3 lbs / 1.36 kg unloaded
            • Rate of Fire: 5 to 7 rounds per minute
            • Capacity: Single shot
            Home sweet home. May not have had running water, showers, or any of the other normal creature comforts for a full year, but during my time in the Korengal this was home, and for some reason I grew to love it. 1st Squad B-Hut, Firebase Vegas, Korengal valley, Afghanistan.

            M320 Grenade Launcher Module (GLM) is the U.S. military's designation for a new single-shot 40 mm grenade launcher system to replace the M203 for the U.S. Army, while other services will keep using the older M203. The M320 uses the same High-Low Propulsion System as the M203.

            In 2004, the Army announced a requirement for a commercial off-the-shelf 40 mm grenade launcher. It had to be more reliable, ergonomic, accurate, and safer than the M203. It had to be able to fire all 40 mm low-velocity grenades, but be loaded from the breech to accept future longer projectiles. Heckler & Koch's submission was selected in May 2005.
            • Cartridge: 40×46mm SR
            • Effective Range: Point target 150 m, Area target 350 m, Maxiumum range ~400 m
            • Weight: 3.3 lbs / 1.5 kg unloaded
            • Rate of Fire: 5 to 7 rounds per minute
            • Capacity: Single shot
            View of the TOC at Firebase Vegas. The TOC was located inside an abandoned Afghan house that the small firebase was built around. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. 

            Shawn G at OP Little Rock, Firebase Vegas,
            Korengal Valley, Afghanistan.

            For more info on these and other weapons
            Technical specs compiled from:

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            Shawn in the Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

            For more info on these and other weapons
            Technical specs compiled from:

            "The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement."


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