How Stinger Missiles Work

By: Marshall Brain & Patrick J. Kiger  | 

Stinger missile
Germany and the United States have sent hundreds of Stinger missiles (like this one being fired during a Marine Corp training mission) to help Ukraine fight the invasion from Russia. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chandler Harrell

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, outnumbered Ukrainian defenders on the ground were vulnerable to attack from Russian helicopters, which also had the ability to transport Russian troops rapidly around the beleaguered smaller country. That's why the U.S. and its NATO ally Germany decided to give the Ukrainians a potent weapon that might help even the odds — the Stinger antiaircraft missile [sources: Rfel.org, Gould and Altman].

As retired Army Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik told the publication Army Times, the Stinger is a weapon with the potential to be "a game changer," giving soldiers on the ground the ability to contest the airspace, and hinder the enemy's ability to conduct operations [source: Gould and Altman]. The weapon's effectiveness was demonstrated back in the mid-1980s, when Afghan resistance forces used Stinger missiles given to them by the CIA to shoot down Soviet helicopters. Some experts credit Stingers with having altered the course of that conflict, and being a significant factor in the Soviets' eventual defeat [source: Woody].

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One reason the Stinger is so effective is that it's highly portable, and can be launched by a soldier — or trained civilian — who holds it on their shoulder. Stingers also are used on the U.S. Army's AH-64 Apache combat helicopter as an air-to-air weapon [source: Raytheon Missiles & Defense]. And they can be mounted on ground vehicles as well [source: Judson].

In addition to being versatile, the Stinger missile is also highly accurate, because it uses an infrared seeker to lock on to the heat in the engine's exhaust, and will hit nearly anything flying below 11,000 feet (3,352 meters).

The Stinger was developed in the early 1970s [source: Trimble]. But it's still fearsome. Over the years, Stingers have been battle-tested in several conflicts, and today they're in the arsenals of 19 nations, and are used by four U.S. military branches [source: Raytheon Missiles & Defense].

In this article, you will have a chance to learn about the Stinger missile, and how it is utilized on the battlefield.

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The Basics of the Stinger Missile

Stinger missile
The Stinger missile is so successful because it's what's known as a man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS), which means it's easy to launch from just about anywhere. Federation of American Scientists

The Stinger missile, officially known as the FIM-92A, is designed to give ground troops a way to deal with low-flying airplanes and helicopters. From the perspective of soldiers on the ground, low-flying enemy aircraft are normally a problem because they are either bombing or strafing (attacking repeatedly with bombs or machine-gun fire), doing surveillance work, or inserting, extracting and resupplying enemy troops. Shooting down these aircraft is the easiest way to eliminate these threats.

There are several things that make the Stinger such an effective weapon for ground troops to use:

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  • It is lightweight and portable. The missile and its launcher weigh about 35 pounds (15 kilograms). The launcher is reusable. Each missile is a sealed unit that weighs only 22 pounds (10 kilograms).
  • It is a shoulder-launched weapon, and one person can launch a Stinger missile (although you normally see a two-man team operating the missile).
  • It uses a passive infrared seeker. The infrared seeker can lock on to the heat the target is producing. It is called a "passive" seeker because, unlike a radar-guided missile, it does not emit radio waves in order to "see" its target.
  • It is a "fire-and-forget" weapon, meaning it requires no input from the gunner once it's fired. This allows them to take cover, move to another position or engage a new target.

Launching the Missile

Stinger missile
To launch a Stinger missile, a soldier basically just points it at the target, and when the seeker locks on, they pull the trigger. U.S. Army

The Stinger missile includes the guidance, tail, propulsion and warhead systems. The tail has four folding fins that deliver roll and stability while the missile is in flight. The guidance section includes the seeker assembly, a guidance assembly, a control assembly, a missile battery and four wings that provide in-flight maneuverability. The warhead is equivalent to 1 pound (0.45 kilograms) of explosives encased in pyrophoric titanium. The propulsion section includes a launch motor and a dual-thrust flight motor.

To fire the weapon, the soldier aims the missile at the target. When the seeker locks on, it makes a distinctive noise. The soldier pulls the trigger, and two things happen:

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  1. A small launch rocket shoots the missile out of the launch tube and well clear of the soldier who is firing it.
  2. The launch engine falls away and the main solid rocket engine lights. This rocket propels the Stinger to approximately 1,500 miles per hour (2,400 kilometers per hour, Mach 2).

The missile then flies to the target automatically and explodes.

The Stinger missile can hit targets flying as high as 11,500 feet (3,500 meters), and has a range of about 5 miles (8 kilometers). This means that the target is an airplane less than 2 miles (3.21 kilometers) high and it is visible as a shape (rather than a dot), then most likely the Stinger missile can hit it. They are extremely accurate.

Stinger missiles use passive IR/UV sensors to track targets. The missiles look for the infrared light (heat) produced by the target airplane's engines and track the airplane by following that light. The missiles also identify the UV "shadow" of the target and use that identification to distinguish the target from other heat-producing objects.

Motion-sensing lights use passive infrared sensors. The sensors in a motion-sensing light are tuned to the temperature of a human being. When the sensors see a sudden change in the amount of infrared light, they turn on the light.

A motion-sensing light needs only one sensor. But a Stinger missile needs a whole array of them, because its job is to track the target while it is flying. The nose of a Stinger missile has, essentially, an infrared digital camera in it. This camera might have an array of anything from 2x2 (in older designs) to 128x128 (in the Sidewinder design) infrared sensors that receive an infrared image of the scene. When the soldier gets ready to launch the missile, the missile must have the target visible in roughly the center of this sensor.

While the missile is flying, the image of the airplane that it is trying to hit may become off-center on the image sensor. When it does, that tells the missile that it is off-course, and the guidance system in the missile must decide how to get back on course. This is where proportional navigation comes in.

The missile looks at the angle of off-centeredness and changes its angle of flight proportionally. In other words, it uses a multiplier. If the multiplier is 2, then if the guidance system thinks it is 10 degrees off course, it will change its flight direction by 20 degrees. Then, a tenth of a second later it will look at the angle again, and change again. By over-correcting this way, it lets the missile anticipate the path of the moving plane in the same way that you anticipate the path of a moving object.

If you are a quarterback trying to throw a ball to a receiver running across the field, you would not throw the ball toward where the receiver is — you would throw it toward where he will be when the ball arrives.

While the Stinger has proven effective over the decades, the U.S. Army already is searching for a next-generation weapon to replace it.

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Stinger FIM-92 Specs

Stinger missile
Stinger missiles have the ability to go supersonic, and have a range of fire of nearly 5 miles (8 kilometers). U.S. Army photo by Capt. Rachael Jeffcoat

Here are the stats on the Stinger missile:

  • Length: 5 feet (1.5 meters)
  • Diameter: 2.75 inches (7 centimeters)
  • Weight: 22 pounds (10 kilograms)
  • Weight with launcher: 34.5 pounds (15.2 kilograms)
  • Missile: 22 pounds (10.1 kilograms)
  • Warhead: 6.6 pounds (3 kilograms)
  • Speed: Supersonic in flight
  • Altitude Range: Approximately 11,000 feet (3 kilometers)
  • Range of fire: 2.4 to 5 miles (4 t0 8 kilometers)

For more information on Stinger missiles and related topics, check out the links below.

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Originally Published: Mar 12, 2002

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More Great Links

  • Epstein, Jake and Haltiwanger, John. "Biden is sending Stinger missiles to Ukraine for the first time, which could be used to shoot down Russian helicopters." Insider, March 1, 2022. (March 3, 2022) https://www.businessinsider.com/president-biden-send-stinger-missiles-ukraine-shoot-russian-helicopters-2022-3
  • Gould, Joe and Altman, Howard. "Amid fears of Russian air dominance, US to send anti-aircraft Stingers to Ukraine. " Army Times. Feb. 28, 2022. (March 3, 2022) https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2022/02/28/amid-fears-of-russian-air-dominance-us-to-send-anti-aircraft-stingers-to-ukraine/
  • Howard, Glen. "Stingers could be a game-changer in the battle for Ukraine." The Hill. Feb. 4, 2022. (March 3, 2022) https://thehill.com/opinion/international/592673-stingers-could-be-a-game-changer-in-the-battle-for-ukraine
  • Judson, Jen. "Raytheon demonstrates Stinger on Stryker for short-range air defense. " Defense News. Oct. 9, 2017. (March 3, 2022) https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/ausa/2017/10/09/raytheon-demonstrates-stinger-on-stryker-for-short-range-air-defense/
  • Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance. "FIM-92 Stinger. " Missiledefenseadvocacy.org. (March 3, 2022) https://missiledefenseadvocacy.org/defense-systems/fim-92-stinger/
  • Osborn, Kris. "German Stinger Anti-Aircraft Missiles Are Going to War Against Russian Helicopters. " National Interest. March 1, 2022. (March 3, 2022) https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/german-stinger-anti-aircraft-missiles-are-going-war-against-russian-helicopters-200896
  • Osborn, Kris. " The Missile That Terrorized Russia Is Getting a Super Update. " National Interest. Sept. 19, 2017. (March 3, 2022) https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-missile-terrorized-russia-getting-super-update-22384
  • Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. " In Policy Shift, Germany Now Says It Will Send Ukraine 1,500 Anti-Tank, Antiaircraft Missiles. " Rferl.org. Feb. 26, 2022. (March 3, 2022) https://www.rferl.org/a/germany-military-aid-ukraine-equipment/31725290.html
  • Phillips, Michael M. "Launching the Missile That Made History. " Wall Street Journal. Oct. 1, 2011. (March 3, 2022) https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970204138204576598851109446780
  • Raytheon Missiles & Defense. "Stinger Missile." Raytheon Missiles& Defense. (March 3, 2022) https://www.raytheonmissilesanddefense.com/.
  • Trimble, Steve. "U.S. Army Opens 5-Year Search For Stinger Missile Replacement. " Aviation Week. Nov. 11, 2020. (March 3, 2022) https://aviationweek.com/special-topics/air-dominance/us-army-opens-5-year-search-stinger-missile-replacement
  • Woody, Christopher. "'A fighting war with the main enemy': How the CIA helped land a mortal blow to the Soviets in Afghanistan 32 years ago. " Insider. Oct. 2, 2018. (March 3, 2022) https://www.businessinsider.com/32-year-anniversary-of-first-stinger-missile-use-in-afghanistan-2018-9

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