Capt. Jose R. Atencia, 77th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit, handles abandoned Iraqi RPG-7 High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rockets in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

Tactics: How Are RPGs Used?

The basic principle behind the effective use of rocket-propelled grenades is to get as close as possible to the target and to ensure the shot is accurate. The tell-tale trail of smoke emanating from the RPG means that the RPG operator and his assistant can quickly become visible.

Buildings, vehicles with little or no armor and, of course, human beings are all vulnerable to RPG fire. In particular, the fragments from exploding grenades can cause considerable damage to troops, and this principle was used effectively against Mujahideen firing positions dug into mountain slopes. A rocket-propelled grenade would be fired above and behind the firing position, raining down shrapnel and rock onto the hidden troops.

Of course, rocket-propelled grenades are most efficient when deployed in small groups. Two or three shots at a vehicle from close range increases the chances of destroying the vehicle, and can even be effective in destroying an armored tank. A first shot takes out the driver's viewing prism, and further shots work their way through the armor, concentrating on one particular spot.

Helicopters, too, are easily ambushed when landing or hovering; rocket-propelled grenades downed both US Black hawk helicopters lost in Mogadishu and Somalia.

Staff Sgt. James Bradsher demonstrates the use of a Soviet-made RPG-7 portable rocket launcher during exercise Volant Scorpion.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense Defense Visual Information Center

Given the effectiveness of well-used RPGs, what strategies are there for defense? When it comes to avoiding vehicle losses from rocket-propelled grenades, a tactic adopted by less well-equipped armies is to send in infantry screens. Armies with more resources may use bombs or napalm to sweep areas in which RPGs may be located.

Another obvious tactic adopted by the Russians when fighting against the Mujahideen between 1979 and 1989 was to remain at least 1,000 feet (300 meters) away from the enemy, out of RPG-7 and AK-47 Kalashinikov assault rifle range.