Michael's Dispatches

Helicopter versus RPG



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.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Andrew · 7 years ago

    In the movie, "Act of Valor," A seal gets hit with an RPG but its a dud and he gets knocked down, but not out. Is this actually possible?
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Benjamin Welsheimer · 7 years ago
      [quote name="Andrew"]Michael,

      In the movie, "Act of Valor," A seal gets hit with an RPG but its a dud and he gets knocked down, but not out. Is this actually possible?[/quote]
      Yes is it. I have seen it in Iraq. They had removed the fuse and it did not go off. It still can and does cause a lot of damage depending on the angle of the hit, but depending on where you get hit you can get right back up.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    C Good · 7 years ago
    Fascinating article. Thank you for posting. It was very interesting to read.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    robin yates · 7 years ago
    it amazes me how little brown skinned men using old weapons sustain firefights with the ultra well equipped USA forces and appear to be still effective after 10 years. Ah, I understand, they are fighting for their country!
    • This commment is unpublished.
      ironargonaut · 7 years ago
      [quote name="robin yates"]it amazes me how little brown skinned men using old weapons sustain firefights with the ultra well equipped USA forces and appear to be still effective after 10 years. Ah, I understand, they are fighting for their country![/quote]
      Define "effective". If you were to measure effective by casualities inflicted, ISAF vs. Taliban. Not very effective. If you define it as ability to take and hold ground. NO. If you define it as causing enough mayhem to sap ISAF resolve, because we don't have enough troops to stop the annoying mayhem. Then yes it could be called effective. If you want to see a repeat of history, find the interview with a North Vietnamese officer who said they new they could not win militarily, but they knew if they held out long enough. The defeatist and antiwar crowd in the USA would win it for them.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Spook · 7 years ago
      It is not so much the weapons as it is the tactics. It is difficult to ID the enemy when they look just like the civilians. You have to wait for them to attack. Once they do they hide their weapon. In Vietnam it was common for the RPG gunner to have no other weapon and just drop the tube at his firing postion and run like hell.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jonny · 7 years ago
    Isnt it pretty difficult to hit a heli with a rpg? They arent guided, so I would think unless youre right next to it, youre going to miss.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dustoff848 · 7 years ago
    It's all about statistics. They've got a zillion of those things and if you shoot at enough helo's...sooner or later you are gonna get lucky. 'Even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut'.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Heywood Jablomi · 7 years ago
    You just have to lead correctly and have a little bit of luck to nail a low-flying helicopter with an RPG. I would not want to do it if the helicopter had door gunners, particularly if the gunners had gatling guns. But this is what the MEDEVAC controversy is all about: helicopters with the means to defend themselves, regardless of circumstances. I know that if I were in a MEDEVAC bird, that I would want gunners and machine guns.

    I would love to read an interview with some Kiowa Warrior pilots, especially if they were women.

    I love it when our infidel women warriors kill hadji bad guys, whether they are piloting fast movers, Spectre gunships, or Apaches.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    karen · 7 years ago
    GOD bLeSS U+ 8)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pete Sheppard · 7 years ago
    They wait until the helo is either flaring to land or just lifting off when the helo is slow and can't maneuver. Then they will try to launch volleys of rockets.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pete Sheppard · 7 years ago
    I hope this is OK, but this video from Mythbusters via Youtube shows the RPG at normal speed, with slo-mo at the end of the segment.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      C Tyler · 7 years ago
      I liked this. 2:45 has a good angle showing how short the time is between rocket fire and explosion. The 2nd angle high-speed video that is linked in this video shows the warhead explosion shooting out the other side of the trailer so fast it looks instantaneous to even the high speed camera!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kurt Olney · 7 years ago
    Enemy with RPG. Are the predators not picking these guys up? In order to get a shot at the helicopter, they have to hear it coming? In Vietnam, the uber quiet Army-Lockheed YO-3A worked with Cobras with Infant capability as a hunter killer team. The helicopter would be standoff from the YO-3A as it located its target. Do not understand where DOD is on this. The YO-3A is in audible at 1500 feet and visually virtually undetectable. www.yo-3a.com
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Drew · 7 years ago
    "blast your face off"

    Mike, I know how serious war is, but that gave me a chuckle.

    Keep it up and your powder (er ...camera) dry. (10th SFG)

    Pencil Neck
  • This commment is unpublished.
    nellie · 7 years ago
    Obviously if you can get an AH overhead whilst lighter armed helos do their stuff you won't get many locals standing around in the open firing RPGs - but supply & demand usually means this is not feasible. In the meantime arm everyone, including Dustoffs......
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Holy Ted · 1 years ago
    How to prevent backfire of RPG when you want to take down a helicopter while you are at a small room.

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