You’ve probably seen the news reports of missiles missing in Libya. And you’re almost certainly familiar with the story of US Stinger shoulder fired missiles being supplied to the mujihadeen in Afghanistan during the Soviet War there. What you may not realize is just how long shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles have been around.
Less than 10 years after the Sidewinder missile entered service, someone had a bright idea. The Sidewinder was originally based on the 5” unguided rocket. What could be done with the smaller 2.75” rocket? As it turned out, quite a bit. Not that it was easy and quick, but a small rocket, a simple guidance system would eventually lead to the worlds first Man Portable Air Defense System or MANPADS, the FIM-43 Redeye.
If you compare the Redeye to larger air defense systems, it’s not that impressive. But when you consider that it was the replacement for the quad .50cal mount, it comes off a bit better. A quad .50 needed a pretty substantial truck to move around, as well as a crew of three or four. The Redeye, on the other hand, only had a two man crew (one man, in a pinch), and could easily move around the battlefield on a jeep or by hitching a ride on the vehicles of supported units. Heck, a paratrooper could jump with the thing.
It also had a better range than the quad .50 and a higher probability of kill or Pk. It lacked the quad .50s utility for engaging ground targets, but given the massive size of the Soviet Frontal Aviation units facing the Army in Western Europe, that was a decidedly secondary consideration as far as Air Defense Artillery was concerned.
The missile itself was issued as a round of ammunition, stored and fired from a sealed tube. A reusable pistol grip firing device was attached to the tube, and the weapon was ready to fire.
Since the motor exhaust of a 70mm rocket would likely fry the face of the gunner, a small “starter” motor fired very, very briefly to kick the round out of the tube, with the main sustainer motor igniting when the missile was a few meters downrange.
The missile was not without its limitations. Its infrared seeker system was a lead sulfide system similar to early Sidewinder missiles, and like early Sidewinders, could only track the target airplane’s hot exhaust. This meant that Redeye gunners could only engage planes that were moving away from the gunner, most likely after having attacked our friendly unit. Without getting into the whole science of relative motion and kinematics, it also meant the practical engagement range suffered from geometric limitations. It was also vulnerable to spoofing by high intensity flares and later “brick” infrared jammers.
Even with its limitations, it was an amazing feat to build such a missile as early as 1961, and eventually introduce it into widespread service by the late 1960s. Virtually every successful man portable system since then has closely followed the concept of the Redeye. Indeed, very soon after the introduction of the Redeye into Army service, the Soviet SA-7 GRAIL near-clone entered service. The SA-7 was soon supplied to the North Vietnamese, and was a dire threat to US helicopters in Vietnam.
The US almost immediately started development of in improved model which eventually became the Stinger missile (we’ll write about that some other time). The Soviets built upon the success of their SA-7 with a variety of different systems, up to about the SA-24 system right now. IIRC, the series includes the SA-14, SA-16, SA-18 and SA-24.
We’re all familiar with the US supplying Stingers to the Mujihadeen. But the fact of the matter is, the majority of US supplied missiles were actually Redeye missiles (though a large number of Soviet made SA-7s were also supplied by the CIA). We’ve all seen the terrific pounding our helicopters have put on Iraqi and Afghani insurgents. The Mujihadeen faced similar punishment from Soviet attack helicopters… right up until we supplied them with an air defense weapon that struck fear into the hearts of Soviet aviators.