There once was a time when the shaped charge warhead was triumphant. The bane of armor engineers. Tanks1 were designed with speed in mind, since it was thought infeasible to protect them against the shaped charge weapon. And there were plenty of formidable anititank weapons to go around, both light and otherwise.
Here, I’m defining “light” as “designed to be operated by one man”. This will become important in a bit.
Of course, in the 1970s, we saw the development of composite armor arrays and explosive reactive armor, both of which made life much harder for the antitank weapons designer. Especially the light antitank weapon designer. The weapons got heavier. The rockets got bigger. Armor got thicker.
Now here we are. Anno Domini 2016. Among the latest and most formidable “light” antitank weapons, we have the RPG-29 and the Panzerfaust 3. We’ve talked about these before. They have tandem warheads. They weigh 40-odd pounds ready to fire. They cannot be relied upon to penetrate the frontal armor of modern tanks. The latest models of Abrams, Leopard 2, and Challenger 2 can all take these rockets and keep coming. I do not yet have good unclassified armor estimates for T-14, but I presume it can do likewise.
From the side aspect, the problem was simpler. Well, sort of. You still have to hit something important. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, American tankers noted that while an RPG-29 could penetrate the side armor of an M1A2, this was not likely to stop the tank. You see, the Abrams is particularly large, and this large armored volume makes it hard to wound enough crewmen or damage enough systems to get the tank to go away when you attack from the side.
To make matters worse for the infantry, armor designers haven’t rested. The frontal armor is thicker (as you’d expect). New side armor kits are available that will defeat the RPG-29.2 Interestingly, this can be done not only with explosive reactive armor arrays, but also with composite armor arrays. And this without making the tank stupidly wide or massively overweight.
So if you’re designing a light antitank weapon, you’re facing a bit of a conundrum. You need a bigger warhead to punch through better armor. You’re already hitting the weight limit for a weapon that can feasibly be carried by one man. Something has to give.
Well, if that something is “cost”, a solution could be found with GUIDANCE! This is the same idea as Eryx, but way better executed. Call Saab Bofors, and ask for the MBT LAW.
The MBT LAW weighs 12.5 kg, and is a single-shot disposable weapon. So it’s heavy, but competitive with RPG-29 and Panzerfaust 3 as far as weight goes. And, unlike those two rockets, it can actually do what it says on the tin, namely kill tanks. It does this by utilizing a fire-and-forget, overflight-top-attack guidance system and a pair of explosively formed penetrators. These fire sequentially, just in case the roof is loaded with ERA.
Additionally, the MBT LAW is designed to be used in confined spaces without ill effects. It’s just like what’s used on another excellent Saab Bofors product, the AT4-CS. The idea is that there’s a salt-water based countermass in the back of the tube to absorb the backblast, so you can shoot it in a confined space without turning into some cheap barbecue.
Again, the obvious downside is cost, and that’s painful. It’s on the order of 25,000 €, which hurts. That’s about twenty times the cost of an AT4. So where the RPG-29 and PzF 3 strongly encourage a high/low mix, the MBT LAW makes it mandatory. On the other hand, it will actually do what you ask of it and provide a short-range, effective antitank option.
Range on the MBT LAW is 25-600 m. On the one hand, this compares favorably to weapons like the Panzerfaust 3 or RPG-29, which are theoretically useable out to 600 m, but are very difficult to score hits with at that distance if the target decides to move. On the other hand, the cost and weight of the MBT LAW might also cause you to compare it to weapons like the FGM-148 Javelin or Spike-MR ATGMs. Both are fire and forget, and while they have longer minimum ranges, they also have much longer maximum ranges. They’re also more expensive, and are operated by a couple of men.
So now we start thinking about force disposition, system costs, and how our forces move. For mechanized units, I really, really like the American practice of tossing a Javelin in the back of the IFV. And if you’re gonna do that (presumably with some lighter antitank weapons like AT4s to handle the demoliton uses), there’s not much point to also tossing in an MBT LAW. I could see an argument here for using the MBT LAW instead for the dismounts, but the vehicle will handle the weight, and I’m a big fan of ATGMs on IFVs, so we can get some supply commonality that way.
For lighter infantry units, the modest weight savings might make the MBT LAW a really good buy, especially if you’re willing to accept the range. That’s a question for your expected theaters of operations.
1.) E.g. the AMX-30 and, to a lesser extent, the Leopard 1
2.) I know of such kits for the Challenger 2, Abrams (the TUSK kits), and the Leopard 2.