Light and medium recoilless weapons are used to attack enemy personnel, field fortifications, and light armored vehicles. They have limited capability against main battle tanks, especially those equipped with reactive armor (except when attacking from the top, flanks, or rear). The light category of recoilless weapons includes the AT4 M136 series; the 84-mm M3 Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle; and the shoulder-launched, multipurpose, assault weapon-disposable (SMAW-D) also known as the bunker defeat munitions (BDM). The medium recoilless weapons are the Javelin and Dragon.
The squad antiarmor specialist is capable of defeating heavy armor in any tactical environment. The squad antiarmor specialist is equipped with the Javelin AT missile system. This system provides the squad, platoon, and company with an extremely lethal, fire-and-forget, man-portable, top-attack antiarmor capability to defeat enemy main battle tanks during day, night, and adverse weather conditions at ranges up to 2,000 meters. The command launch unit (CLU) for the Javelin missile is transported in each squad ICV. If required, the squad antiarmor specialist destroys enemy armor threats that may impede the squad and platoon's progress.
Other than defeating light armored vehicles, the most common task for light recoilless weapons is to neutralize fortified firing positions. Due to the design of the warhead and the narrow blast effect, these weapons are not as effective in this role as heavier weapons such as a tank main gun round. They are lightweight, allowing soldiers to carry several AT4 rounds. Light recoilless weapons can be fired from the tops of buildings or from areas with proper ventilation.
Light and medium recoilless weapons, with the exception of the SMAW-D, employ shaped-charge warheads. As a result, the hole they punch into walls is often too small to use as a loophole. The fragmentation and spall these weapons produce are limited. Normally, shaped-charge warheads do not neutralize enemy soldiers behind walls unless they are located directly in line with the point of impact.
Against structures, shaped-charge weapons should be aimed about 6 inches below or to the side of a firing aperture, which enhances the probability of killing the enemy behind the wall. A round passing through a window wastes much of its energy on the back wall. Since these shaped-charge rounds lack the wire wrapping of the 40-mm HEDP, they burst into few fragments and are often ineffective casualty producers.
Sandbagged emplacements present a different problem. These positions may be encountered in urban areas that are adjacent to or contain natural terrain. Because sandbags absorb much of the energy from a shaped-charge, the rounds should be aimed at the center of the firing aperture. Even if the round misses the aperture, the bunker wall area near it is usually easier to penetrate.
Light and medium recoilless weapons obtain their most effective short-range antiarmor shots by firing from upper stories, or from the flanks and rear. When firing at main battle tanks, these weapons should always be employed against weaker areas in volley or paired firing. They normally require multiple hits to achieve a kill on a tank. Flanks, top, and rear shots hit the most vulnerable parts of armored vehicles. Firing from upper stories protects the shooter from tank main gun and coaxial machine gun fire since tanks cannot sharply elevate their cannons. The BMP-2 can elevate its 30-mm cannon to engage targets in upper stories. The BTR-series armored vehicles can also fire into upper stories with their heavy machine gun.
Modern threat infantry fighting vehicles, such as the BMP-2 and the BTR-80, have significantly improved frontal protection against shaped-charge weapons. Many main battle tanks have some form of reactive armor in addition to their thick armor plate. Head-on, ground-level shots against these vehicles have little probability of obtaining a kill. Even without reactive armor, modern main battle tanks are hard to destroy with a light antiarmor weapon.
The most effective method of engagement for hitting and killing an armored vehicle is to fire from an elevated position. A 45-degree downward firing angle doubles the probability of a first-round hit as compared to a ground-level shot.
Backblast effects must be considered when employing recoilless weapons. During combat in urban areas, the backblast area in the open is more hazardous due to loose rubble and the channeling effect of the narrow streets and alleys.
When firing recoilless weapons in the open, soldiers should protect themselves from blast and burn injuries caused by the backblast. All personnel should be out of the danger zone. Anyone not able to vacate the caution zone should be behind cover. Soldiers in the caution zone should wear helmets, protective vests, and eye protection. The shooter and all soldiers in the area should wear earplugs.
Since the end of World War II, the US Army has conducted extensive testing on the effects of firing recoilless weapons from within enclosures. Beginning as early as 1948, tests have been conducted on every type of recoilless weapon available. In 1975, the US Army Human Engineering Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, conducted extensive firing of the LAW, Dragon, and TOW from masonry and frame buildings, and from sandbag bunkers.
Firing these weapons from enclosures presented no serious hazards, even when the overpressure was enough to produce structural damage to the building. Little hazard exists to the gunnery or crew from any type of flying debris. Loose items were not hurled around the room. No substantial degradation occurs to the operator's tracking performance as a result of obscuration or blast overpressure.
The most serious hazard that can be expected is hearing loss. This must be evaluated against the advantage gained in combat from firing from cover. To place this hazard in perspective, a gunner wearing earplugs and firing the loudest combination (the Dragon from within a masonry building) is exposed to less noise hazard than if he fired a LAW in the open without earplugs.
The safest place for other soldiers in the room with the shooter is against the wall from which the weapon is fired. Firers should take advantage of all available sources of ventilation by opening doors and windows. Ventilation does not reduce the noise hazard, but it helps clear the room of smoke and dust, and reduces the effective duration of the overpressure.
The only difference between firing these weapons from enclosures and firing them in the open is the duration of the pressure fluctuation. Frame buildings, especially small ones, can suffer structural damage to the rear walls, windows, and doors. Large rooms suffer slight damage, if any. Recoilless weapons fired from within enclosures create some obscuration inside the room, but almost none from the gunner's position looking out. Inside the room, obscuration can be intense, but the room remains inhabitable.
The Dragon causes the most structural damage, but only in frame buildings. There does not seem to be any threat of injury to the gunner, since the damage is usually to the walls away from the gunner. The most damage and debris is from flying plaster chips and pieces of wood trim. Large chunks of plasterboard can be dislodged from ceilings. The backblast from the AT4, Dragon, or TOW rarely displaces furniture.
While the results of the tests may have shown that the threat of injury from debris is rare, commanders must ensure that proper safety precautions are followed prior to firing weapons inside a room.
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