US Marines to look for a successor to their Vietnam-era M72 rocket launcher

During the Vietnam war, starting in 1963, the shoulder-fired M72 LAW rocket launcher equipped the US armed forces in very large numbers. The US Marine Corps is now surveying how to replace it with a weapon associating the advantages of a shoulder-fired rocket and a recoilless rifle to destroy a wide variety of targets. The weapon must be usable safely from inside buildings.

US Marines to look for a successor to their Vietnam era M72 LAW rocket launcher
How long will the US Marine Corps keep using their Vietnam-era M72 LAW rocket launchers? (Picture source: Youtube)

As reported by Defense News and very interestingly commented on War Zone, this March 2018, U.S. marines from 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment got a chance to test out the new versions of the M72 LAW (Light Anti-armor Weapon) at the Urban Advanced Naval Technology Exercises 2018, or ANTX18, at Camp Pendleton in California earlier in March 2018.

The M72 is 3 lbs lighter than the somewhat equivalent Swedish-made M3E1 Carl Gustav recoilless rifle. Beyond its light weight and simplicity, an advantage resides in the number of different rockets available, which makes the M72 a much more polyvalent weapon than only the antitank initially intended. Let’s recall that the Panzerfaust – the first weapon of that kind and size – widely distributed to the German forces from 1944 and, from 1945, even to the civilian Volksturm, was already used against many more targets than only armored vehicles.

With the evolution of tanks, it appeared that the small 66mm rocket had limited effectiveness against them, though it could blast through lighter armored vehicles. In Vietnam, few combats opposed U.S. forces to North Vietnamese armored vehicles. But soldiers and marines used the weapons to blow apart bunkers and otherwise provide additional fire support.

In the late 1980s, the U.S. armed forces began replacing the bulk of their M72s with a new, Swedish-designed 84mm disposable recoilless rifle: the AT-4, or M136. But the latter still doesn’t totally replace the good old M72, mostly among special forces.

The Norwegian aerospace and defense firm Nammo now produces more than a half-dozen different rocket variants for the M136, adapted to a wide range of targets. There is namely a version with a penetrating warhead that can break through brick walls and reinforced doors before exploding within. Another variant has similar abilities to bust through barriers, but combines it with a large fragmentation warhead that creates a cloud of shrapnel, something particularly deadly in a confined space. Nammo is now offering programmable rounds where the operator can select certain options before firing. One of these newer dual-fuze options gives the shooter the ability to have the rocket explode when it hits a target or delay its detonation to try and bust through a barrier.

A major improvement, the Norwegian manufacturer has designed a system that, better than the Carl Gustav M136A1, eliminates the backblast of firing the rocket, which makes it safer to use near other friendly forces and from within a building. The system has the added benefit of reducing the weapon’s acoustic signature, reportedly similar to a pistol shot, which could help conceal the firer and just protect their hearing.

Both the Marine Corps and the Army are looking at fielding the reloadable Carl Gustav recoilless rifle. Though heavier and bulkier, that system gives troops the ability to fire multiple rounds from the same weapon and load up only the one they need for a particular target, instead of having to find the appropriate M72 in a pile of outwardly identical looking launchers.

In the meantime, it appears possible that the USMC could keep using some versions of their old M72, if even in a limited capacity, for the foreseeable future.


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