News from the Front!

Phase Four Operations in Iraq and the RPG-7

by George J. Mordica II, Senior Analyst, CALL
Center for Army Lessons Learned
Nov-Dec 03

Troops beginning Phase Four operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) are involved in a different type of combat that focuses on ending attacks against the coalition forces. Initial indications suggest these attacks are not being directed by a central command, but are being executed by small bands of resistance displeased with the changing political situation in Iraq. The weapon of choice used by the resistance is the rocket propelled grenade (RPG)-7.

A recent review of data compiled by the Operation Iraqi Freedom Study Group (OIF SG) indicates that fifty percent of U.S. soldiers killed in action in post-war operations were the result of the RPG-7. In production since 1961, this antitank grenade has proved to be a cheap, reliable, easy-to-use weapon that is readily available all over the world. Iraq was one of the countries authorized and licensed to produce their own RPG by the old Soviet Regime. The RPG-7 was a mainstay of the Iraqi Army and was issued three to a platoon in the infantry TOE.1/ Center for Army Lessons Learned operations officers reported that this weapon system with ammunition is readily available in Iraq, thrown to the ground in piles and in warehouses and on the streets.

This article is based on A Weapon For All Seasons: The Old But Effective RPG-7 written by Les Grau of the Foreign Military Studies Office and available on the CALL MOUT website at Written in 1997, Grau's article about the use of the RPG-7 against helicopters in Afghanistan is still relevant today. To analyze the problems caused by the RPG-7 in Iraq, one must understand the weapon and the tactics used to employ it, and analyze how these two factors relate to close combat and the physical environment in Iraq.

The RPG-7 is a shoulder-fired, muzzle-loaded, antitank and antipersonnel grenade launcher that launches fin-stabilized, oversized grenades from a 40mm tube. The launcher with optical sights weighs 6.9 kilograms (15.9 pounds) and has a maximum, effective range of 300 meters against moving point targets and 500 meters against stationary point targets. The maximum range for antitank grenades against area targets is 920 meters. The round self-destructs after a 4.5 second flight. The antipersonnel grenades reach over 1100 meters. Among the production grenades are the PG-7, PG-7M, PG-7N, and PG-7VL antitank grenades with armor penetrability of up to 600 mm of rolled homogeneous steel. The PG-7VR is a tandem warhead designed to penetrate explosive reactive armor and the armor underneath. The OG-7 and OG-7M are high-explosive antipersonnel grenades.2/

Generally, recent reports suggest that survivability doctrine developed in Vietnam is being relearned in Iraq. Standoff is considered to be the best doctrine for survivability against this weapon. Standoff doctrine concerns the actual range of the weapon (500 meters stationary and 300 meters moving target) which is, in essence, a factor for defense. Standoff is also a consideration when using a barrier or obstruction between the flight of the grenade and the actual surface of the target and can be a major consideration in force protection in the urban conflict environment seen thus far in Iraq.

The RPG-7 is an excellent weapon for close combat operations. Long used by the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, it is ideal for fighting in mountainous terrain. It is equally adaptable to the urban canyon fight of Iraqi cities and the back streets of villages. This weapon is easy to use against vehicles and dismounted personnel. As in Chechnya, the RPG is very effective when used in urban combat, and survivability is greatly increased when they are fired in volleys.

The use of the RPG-7, no matter how well camouflaged, leaves a tell-tale blue-gray smoke and flash launching signature that can help identify the firer. The user must relocate immediately to avoid identification and retribution. In Iraq, however, the collateral damage and potential civilian casualties created by the response become problematic. The RPG-7 used as a point or area weapon creates problems in determining a response.

The RPG-7 is an effective tool against convoys, isolated checkpoints, and observation posts. The weapon was engineered to use at close range and becomes increasingly dangerous when fired in coordination with two or three others. The bursting radius of the antitank round is about 4 meters or 13 feet. Although it has a specifically shaped charge warhead, the concussion, blast effect, and shrapnel are very effective against infantry. There are three main advantages to using the RPG-7 in close combat:

Coalition forces have limited response to an RPG-7 attack because of the desire to reduce the collateral damage caused by air and indirect fires.

Close combat by its very nature makes detection of the firing positions more difficult. Confusion, the presence of non-combatants, compressed terrain, and limited visibility further complicate the problem.

The RPG-7 is perfect for close in fighting. It has a minimum arming distance, cheap but effective sights, and requires limited training to attain proficiency.

The most effective use of the RPG-7 against helicopters has been to use the self-destructing round to bring down a platform with shrapnel. Engaging from 800 meters away will allow for the 920 meters self-destruct to activate and kill the aircraft. Obviously this technique takes a lot of practice to be effective, but the results of RPG-7 attacks against Soviet helicopters in the mountains of Afghanistan prove that it can be effectively trained.

Because the effectiveness of the RPG-7 against a moving vehicle is only as good as the trained gunner, the best way to engage a vehicle is to stop its movement. This can be done with obstacles, roadblocks, crowds, vehicle accidents, or demonstrations. In a tactical scenario, having a vehicle stop to provide a base of fire is not always a good idea, especially when infantry is not available to provide security.

U.S. forces learned a lot about the effectiveness of the RPG-7 in Vietnam. The weapon proved very deadly in the hands of the North Vietnamese Army. At the time, broadcast news would show photos of jeeps, trucks, and M113s laden with sandbags and encircled with chicken wire. Because the RPG-7 is a shape charge munition, the first encounter it has before meeting the hard skin of the vehicle will set it off. If the initial fuse strikes an object such as a railing or wire and the round goes off, it spares the vehicle's surface from penetration. With the invention of the tandem warhead for the RPG-7, this technique was thought to be obsolete. However that specific warhead, developed as an answer to reactive armor, has not been identified in Iraq. Initial reports from Iraq indicate that the add- on rails used to store TA-50, the TA 50 itself, storage boxes, chicken wire, and sandbags have all been effective in setting off the grenade before it comes in contact with the vehicle's skin.

Third Infantry Division reported in their after action review that "most 3ID units fabricated open racks on the sides of the BFVs and on some M113s. They used them to carry all the duffle bags, rucksacks, and assorted items of equipment and supplies that usually fill up the inside of the vehicle. Although the exterior racks were intended primarily to free up space, not to provide protective stand-off against RPGs, the effect was the same. RPGs that struck the rack or its contents detonated some distance from the actual side of the vehicle."

A serious problem with the RPG-7 round is its point initiating base detonating fuse. The impact of the round sends an electrical charge through the round that sets it off. As a result, in Vietnam fabricated chain link, chicken wire, or concertina draped over a vehicle and pushed out from the vehicle many times caused the warhead not to explode and tended to short out the fuse. In many cases this left the grenade intertwined in the wire array. The Soviets attempts to reduce the susceptibility of the grenade to this countermeasure met with limited success. In Chechnya, the Russians used wire mesh cages fitted 20-30 centimeters from the hull of their troop carriers to protect their vehicles from their own invention. When and if the grenade did make it through the wire, it also had a tendency to explode early reducing the impact of the warhead exploding against the vehicle itself.

The following are proven tactics, techniques, and procedures to protect against an RPG-7 attack:

  • Avoid using the same route at the same time daily, weekly, or monthly.
  • Plan for and conduct aerial top cover for ground routes to detect ambush set up, focusing on the roofs of buildings and elevated firing platforms.
  • Helicopters should avoid take-off and landing on the same helipads, allow 500-meter dispersion to allow wingmen the full use of his ordnance against suspected targets.3/
  • Ensure M1A1 Abrams and M2 BFV are responsive to possible RPG-7 ambushes and are aware that they must push through ambush positions (to stop and provide a base of fire only sets up a target).
  • Dismounts must work with armored vehicles to provide local security and support to prevent multiple RPG attacks.
  • Pre-planned indirect fire on suspected ambush sites is a very effective method in dealing with a possible ambush and a logical solution to disrupt or destroy an RPG team.
  • Use smoke grenades and obscurants to interfere with RPG targeting.

The RPG-7 is a test case for a review of weapon evolution. This grenade launcher is in fact a hybrid of the World War II German Panzerfaust. As a weapon system it gives infantry or guerrillas a capability to attack and destroy vehicles of all types given the right conditions. The real advantage of this weapon system is the cost, ease of use, and lethality. The disadvantage of conducting a close combat attack is the danger of immediate retribution from a superior force. In Iraq that disadvantage is diminished because the attacker is often willing to give up his life in an effort to create casualties and political unrest. Superior planning and execution against this system is the key to success. This is not a first use throw-away weapon system. Training and expertise have to be developed with the RPG-7, and once attackers are killed, new soldiers must be found, motivated, trained, and rearmed to make the system effective.


  1. Captain Scott C. Jansen. "The Story of the Rocket Propelled Grenade." RED THRUST STAR. April 1997.
  2. Jane's Infantry Weapons. Terry J. Gander and Ian V. Hogg, editors. Surrey: Jane's Information Group, 1995, p. 303-305.
  3. Les Grau. "The RPG-7 on the Battlefield of Today and Tomorrow." Infantry Magazine, May-August 1998.

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Return to DNI Home