A rocket launcher is basically an explosive charge propelled at the enemy by explosive gases. The explosive gases give the round velocity and help accelerate after it leaves the barrel or launcher. A bullet uses explosive gases to push the projectile out in a single explosion. A rocket burns fuel in flight to give the charge additional range. A missile is a type of rocket with some kind of guidance system and the ability to change direction in flight.
Once a rocket is launched it is gone; it cannot change course in flight. While missiles are superior to rockets, they are much more expensive. Rockets are simple and can carry more explosives than a missile of comparative size.
Rocket launchers come in all shapes and sizes, from man portable launchers to vehicle mounted or towed batteries. Rockets can be fired directly at their target or in an arc that can reach an unseen enemy kilometers distant (depending on the rocket).
The biggest factor when dealing with rockets is the warhead. Some warheads are designed to penetrate armor, some are designed to penetrate and destroy bunkers. Others are designed to explode on impact. Most infantry portable rocket launchers are designed to kill armored vehicles or destroy bunkers.
Most infantry launchers are categorized as disposable and reusable. Disposable rocket launchers (like the LAW, AT4, and RPG-18) are one shot weapons. They are usually simple weapons designed to be carried and operated by a single man. The SMAW, Recoilless Rifle, RPG-7 and others are reusable launchers. The advantage of a reusable launcher is the ability to mount special sights such as night vision scopes. Reusable rocket launchers are frequently a team weapon. One man to aim and fire the weapon, another to carry extra ammo and reload the weapon. In most cases one man can operate the launcher, but two or more increases the lethality.
Infantry rockets come in all styles and sizes. The RPG (rocket propelled grenade) is one type of infantry rocket. The LAW is another. Both have shaped charges for punching through armor but they can both be used against other targets (and frequently are!). It should be noted that some people think a LAW is a great way to blow a hole in the side of a building for entry but this is not always the case. The shaped charge is designed to punch a hole to kill the enemy inside and the hole that it makes in a wall is usually not big enough to climb through although sometimes the shooter gets lucky.
Back in World War Two, Rocket Launchers were originally devised to kill tanks, trucks and half-tracks. The Panzerfaust was one of the first rocket launchers. The Bazooka is another. Today rocket launchers are still designed to kill tanks with a few exceptions.
The type of round often determines what the rocket is for. The SMAW (72mm Shoulder-launched Multi-purpose Assault Weapon) was originally designed to destroy enemy bunkers and fortifications. It was designed to penetrate up to eighteen feet of sandbags. Against a tank it wasn’t so good. A new type of round for the SMAW was introduced in Desert Storm/Desert Shield that was designed to kill tanks instead of bunkers.
Regardless of what type of rocket is used attacking the front of a tank is usually a very bad idea. The front of a tank is where the armor is thickest and all the enemy weapons are pointed at you, from cannon to machine guns. The best place to attack any armored vehicle is from the sides, rear or top. In these places the armor is lighter than the front. The top armor is usually the most vulnerable.
Armor Kill Teams: These are usually composed of infantrymen and these teams tend to make tankers nervous. An ideal AK team consists of at least two elements, the assault and support element. The assault element is the one with the rockets (or missiles) and the support element is usually armed with machine guns and/or sniper rifles.
Since tank crews prefer to be able to see their surroundings they frequently travel about with the hatches open so they can stick at least their head out. Some tanks do not have air conditioning so opening the hatches in hot weather makes a lot of sense. The support element opens fire with rifles and machineguns that forces the tankers to duck down inside their vehicles and close their hatches. While the tankers are doing this, the rockets (or missiles) are fired.
Whenever a rocket fires there is a backblast that is very obvious. Rockets to not travel nearly as fast as bullets and the tankers may be able to dodge or (or employ countermeasures against missiles). Tankers will also know where to attack and tanks are very dangerous when they attack (that IS what they were built for!). By attacking with small arms first the tankers may not have time to see and counterattack the launcher.
Armor Kill teams best operate in groups that concentrate on one tank. A rocket is not guaranteed to kill a tank, several rockets fired at a tank have a much better chance of killing one than just one rocket.
For the survival of an Armor Kill team it is important they have cover, concealment, and an avenue of retreat. Armor Kill teams should have positions where they can attack the flanks and rear of their targets. Rough terrain is not a tanker’s friend, neither are cities and villages. In the desert or plains tanks reign supreme but almost anywhere else infantry with anti-tank rockets do.
Bunker Busting: Rocket launchers are excellent at attacking hard points in addition to armored vehicles. Because rockets are usually designed to penetrate the thickest armor, sandbags and concrete targets are easier to attack. Bunkers do not move and this makes it so much easier to attack them.
A bunker busting team usually trails the assault group and deploys when a hard target is located. Because the number of available rockets are more limited than other forms of ammunition they should be used with care. The target should be suppressed (if possible) for the launcher so he can take more care with aiming.
It should be noted that Rocket Launchers DO have a backblast and that backblast can be fatal to someone behind the launcher and the gunner himself if he is not careful. I recall one movie starring Rambo where he was rescuing US POW’s from Vietnam. At one point he fires a rocket launcher (a LAW) from the cockpit of a helicopter, through the windshield at a target in front of him. Sitting in the cargo area behind him were numerous rescued POW’s.
In real life Rambo would have had a POW barbecue if he landed (instead of crashed). Those POW’s that were lucky enough not to be roasted would have been blown out the sides. Rambo would probably have suffered burns and lacerations (if it didn’t kill him) and the helicopter would probably have been destroyed as well.
A rocket should have enough room behind it so the backblast is not contained because then it will come back at the shooter. Rockets can be fired from inside buildings but it is important not to fire them from inside small, enclosed rooms. Some rockets should not be fired from inside buildings at all because of their greater backblast.
One danger of firing from an enclosed area is sound. Rockets are very noisy and can deafen the shooter.
The movie Red Dawn was superb in portraying reality. A Soviet KGB officer ran up behind two freedom fighters and was preparing to shoot them when they fired their RPG’s. The KGB officer was fried and the two freedom fighters didn’t even know he was there.
Larger rocket launchers are usually deployed in an indirect fire role, like artillery. Because of the rocket assist they can carry heavier payload and in some cases shoot further.
Vehicles and aircraft for various reasons employ some rockets.