In an era when most anti-tank weapons either kill from unseen distances, like anti-tank guided missiles, or require the death of the user, like car bombs, the Russians have an old AT weapon that requires neither distance nor suicide. Well, it’s not supposed to require suicide, anyway. Since it’s Russian it requires only fanatical determination and a willingness to suffer, both of which are plentiful in Russia.
This article was originally published 9-14-2016.
One mythical Russian hero of World War II reportedly ran toward a German tank with two Molotov cocktails. Gunfire hit one, which exploded and engulfed the soldier in flames. The soldier ignored his agony, kept running and smashed the second Molotov onto the tank’s engine compartment, disabling it. Since that’s what Russia expects of its troops, it’s only natural they’d invent an anti-tank grenade that requires a grunt to practically beat an enemy tank to death with it.
That very Russian grenade is known as the RKG-3. After decades of relative obscurity, it surfaced in Iraq (fortunately after I left) in the hands of anti-coalition fighters, and was used to devastating effect against Humvees. First produced in 1950, some variants of the RKG-3 can penetrate up to 220mm of armor with their shaped charges.
The RKG is basically shaped like a big potato masher grenade, roughly the size of a wine bottle. When the pin is pulled on the handle and the grenade is thrown, a small chute deploys to the rear to keep the grenade oriented toward the target. Even though it’s not a frag grenade I imagine there’s a fair amount of spall blown back toward the user, which means you need gonads to attack something with an RKG. While fans of Saving Private Ryan might shrug off any concerns – after all, paratroopers in that movie took out German armored vehicles with Molotovs, and one paratrooper with a sticky bomb even managed to make contact with a German tank (before accidentally blowing himself up), it’s historically pretty difficult to get close enough to a tank to burn it or attach a bomb.
These guys have…
Not that it never happens. It just isn’t that easy unless, oh, the target is an unlucky armored crewman assigned to “peacekeeping duties” in a country full of people who hate him. More on that later.
RKG-3s were used in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but don’t seem to have been used in Vietnam. The first report of an RKG-3 attack against Americans I could find occurred in June, 2006 in Iraq. RKGs accounted for a number of American KIAs, and in 2007 CBS news published and broadcast a report on the growing danger posed by insurgents armed with the Russian grenades.
The RKG-3 has made a few movie appearances, most notably in the hands of a little Iraqi boy (and then his mother) in the movie American Sniper.
The grenades also made an appearance in a Russian movie about the 1945 war between the Soviet Union and Japan, which makes no sense because that war was fought five years before the RKG-3’s creation. And it was shown in what looks like a really bad movie titled Red Scorpion that I’m sure I’ll never watch.
As an intel guy, I never heard of an RKG-3 attack in Afghanistan, though. For some reason, the RKG’s heyday seems to have been the mid- to late-2000s, and only in Iraq. Why is that?
Probably for several reasons, but chief among them may be that the RKG is better suited to anti-occupation guerilla attacks than open warfare between professional armies. Videos of RKG attacks in Iraq show the attackers within about ten meters; how often does conventional warfare allow attackers to get that close? It’s definitely not impossible, especially in urban and jungle warfare, but it’s not to be expected. In an occupation, however, we have to accept that we’ll be in close proximity to the occupied nation’s population, we can’t always be aggressive with them (if we want them to cooperate), and we can’t shoot if we see an otherwise-unarmed civilian innocently holding what looks like a big bottle. That gives civilian insurgents opportunity to get close and hit troops whose policy of nonaggression puts them at an automatic disadvantage.
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And of course, if we see the insurgent holding an RKG-3 and shoot his ass before he throws it, someone will grab it from his hands and run. And presto, cameras will be all over the poor, unarmed, innocent civilian shot for no reason by brutal American war criminals. And that’s just how we’d be described by Slate and the Huffington Post. Media in the occupied country would be far worse.
If my dream came true and I was in my tank fighting ISIS on the open plain? I wouldn’t be too worried about an RKG attack, bro. But if someone stuck me back in a Humvee and forced me to take another convoy through downtown Najaf? I’d be pretty dang worried about seeing a big-ass grenade flying through the air toward me, with an insurgent flipping me off behind it.
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