Published: Thursday, 10 May 2012 12:20
The enemy weapons causing the most deaths in Afghanistan are simple. There are the machine guns, and the AK-47s, and many thousands of improvised bombs planted in the earth, and suicide bombs, and the RPG: Rocket Propelled Grenade.
There are a few other kinds of weapons, but in a nutshell, that is about it. Meanwhile, it is probably not risking much overstatement to say that ISAF employs a thousand sort of weapons.
In the image above, the shooter has already pulled the trigger. There was a very quick delay, with a quiet pop. Some smoke puffed out from the front and from the rear of the RPG launcher.
I made the images in this dispatch in Urozgan Province. A few American civilians along with a bunch of Afghans were out working. On the way back, they stopped to fire their AKs and the RPG for fun.
We stood far back due to the back blast, which can be lethal. The back blast is the hot air that is expelled from the rear of the tube when launching a grenade. The gunner seemed to aim at the top of the hill.
The RPG is so simple that a kid—or an illiterate tribesman—can learn how to use it in just a few minutes. The Mujahidin shot down Soviet helicopters with these things, and of course the same has happened to us in Afghanistan, Somalia, Vietnam, and elsewhere.
If the shooter fires straight up at a helicopter, the back blast can kill the shooter. Afghans made special tubes that allow them to shoot straight up, but he is not using that tube in these photographs.
In combat, I stay away from the RPG gunners. They get excited and it is easy for them to turn quickly and blast your face off. At night it can be worse when you cannot see where they are, and Afghans have a way of not looking back and checking their back blast area. They often just shoot the rocket. They do the same with cars. They will shift into reverse and hit the gas without checking the mirror. (I got hit like this in Afghanistan.)
A US Soldier told me that he got knocked down by an RPG back blast last year.
Tourists in Cambodia can fire an RPG at a commercial shooting range, and for a price, the proprietors will let you shoot a water buffalo. No thanks.
This phase of the launch will be visible for miles at nighttime if you are wearing night vision gear.
Movie scenes featuring RPGs often make them appear to fly slowly with a plume of trailing flame and smoke. The reality is faster: squeeze trigger and BOOM! The grenade goes fast, and it is very loud. There is no Whoooshh…just BOOM! And usually it is BOOM and BOOM as it hits the target, but I have seen rounds that just bounced off: BOOM! Klank!
There are different sorts of ammunition. All are subsonic with the fastest at about 900 feet per second. If the shooter is close, there is not going to be time for a Rambo jump. If the shooter is on target, the victim on the receiving end will not have time to move.
If the area has moon dust (not much in this area), the shooter will be enveloped in a giant cloud, which can go poorly for him.
The maximum range of the RPG is about a thousand yards, but it is not very accurate beyond 300 yards. In Afghanistan, the enemy often lobs them onto bases blindly hoping to get lucky.
The Taliban often shoot at low-flying helicopters. A Vietnam-era pilot wrote a story about getting hit in the windshield. The RPG did not explode, so it was stuck right there as they flew in that vibrating helicopter back to base. Sometimes troops get hit and they end up with an unexploded rocket embedded in their body. This makes it tricky for MEDEVAC and for the doctors, and for EOD who might have to remove it.
On 12 January this year, Marine Corporal Winder Perez got hit with an RPG rocket that failed to explode. A medical team from the New Mexico National Guard landed to pick him up. RPG rounds, after being fired, can be touchy. Corporal Perez was alive with a live rocket in his left thigh and abdomen. But that did not stop the New Mexico National Guard crew. They took Corporal Perez and flew him back to base, landing gently. They warned everyone to stay away from the aircraft. An Army explosives expert, Staff Sergeant Ben Summerfield, along with a Navy surgeon, Lt. Cmdr. James Gennari, made an outdoor operating area and wearing body armor, they removed the rocket. Corporal Perez survived. There are many such RPG stories.
There are two charges on this round; the first charge gets it out of the tube. The second charge is behind the rocket. In this image, the rocket is just kicking in.
The rocket is ignited. Though it appears smoky, the warhead does not leave any noticeable smoke trail. (Maybe in Rambo movies.) If you see a smoke trail, that is more likely to be a surface-to-air missile.
Some rounds fly for 4-5 seconds, and then a self-destruct mechanism causes them to explode. Others you find lying around. Do not touch.
Often our helicopter crews will not see the firing point. But if they see the RPG self-destruct in the air, they see a donut shape with a smoke stick going through the donut. The donut-shaped smoke is caused by the self-destruct, and the “stick” is caused by the rocket motor flying through the smoke and dragging smoke with it. The stick points back to the approximate firing location, and if the gunner fired on a Kiowa Warrior team, it is about to get interesting for him.
The Kiowa Warriors can be aggressive. Taliban hate them but our infantry have huge respect for the KW teams. Some of the pilots are women. After they get shot at, KWs almost certainly are going to attack (attack seems to be an automatic reflex with them), but it has to be remembered that there might be other RPGs or machine guns down there. When you see KWs get into a gunfight, you will not forget it. The KWs often close in tight within easy rifle and RPG range. Often the co-pilot is hanging out the door with a little M-4 rifle shooting tracers. They get hit all the time.
The tube is now hot and can be seen with thermals. It will remain hot to the touch for about a minute, and during this shot it kept smoking for about 30 seconds.
Waiting for impact.
Waiting…it should have exploded by now.
Where did it go?
We saw no sign of impact.
Flame still coming out of the tube.
Still some flame. At night, this would be easily visible with night vision gear, and of course thermals would see the man with the hot RPG tube.
The rocket appears to have sailed over the hill. I hope that there was not a shepherd over there.
Still smoking. No explosion.
We just added one more piece of RPG UXO (unexploded ordinance) to the Afghanistan mess. Just stepping off of these roads can get you launched into the sky by landmines.
Last year, an RPG killed 38 people in a single shoot-down. 22 Navy SEALs were lost in that helicopter crash.
There is talk about how it is better to have an Apache attack helicopter orbiting overhead than to have guns on Dustoff MEDEVAC birds. But look at those clouds. This is normal in Afghanistan. Often, the only cover that will work is you covering yourself. When it comes to RPG versus low-flying helicopter, it is a fair match.