Towed / Tracked Air Defense Missile System
The Rapier missile system was brought online in the early part of the 1970s and continues in service with a few select operators worldwide - including the British Army.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
With the proliferation of Soviet-originated high-performance, low-altitude operating combat aircraft threatening the West of Europe during the Cold War period (1947-1991), war planners began to turn their attention to missile-minded solutions. One such development to come out of the period became the "Rapier" short-ranged, low-altitude missile system developed by British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) during the 1950s and 1960s. The weapon was adopted to succeed an aging line of autocannons that once fulfilled the role of airspace denial and air defense for the various British armed services.
The missile's development was initially a private venture on the part of BAC and known under the name of "Sightline" during this time (early 1960s). However, its development was buoyed by the involvement of the British Army who had just seen their hopes in the American-made MIM-46 "Mauler" self-propelled (tracked) anti-aircraft missile system (detailed elsewhere on this site) dashed as the Mauler ran into issues all its own. This led the Army to begin funding the Sightline initiative as insurance should the Mauler program fail - which it did with a formal cancellation coming in November of 1965. From this point forward, the Sightline became the Rapier as Army attention shifted to the now-promising homegrown solution.
Tests were conducted into the latter half of the 1960s resulting in limited, then quantitative, production occurring. The British Army then took the weapon system into service in 1971 and the Royal Air Force followed in 1974. British Aircraft Corporation produced the weapon until 1977 and then it was branded under the BAe Dynamics label until 1999. Today it is marketed by MBDA.
Initial Rapier missile forms were transported atop a towed wheeled trailer which added some complexity to the initial setup process. Four missiles were positioned on launches set alongside a central cylinder containing the applicable radar unit. This gave formidable killing power against one or more targets and the Rapier system proved its worth as an accurate and easy-to-operate airspace denial weapon for its time. Engagement ranges were out to 6,800 meters and as short as 400 meters. The 45 kilogram, 2.29 meter long missile operate at speeds reaching Mach 2.5 giving the target little time to react.
The one major limitation of its original design was its inability to operate in all-weather situations which severely restricted its tactical value. The new Marconi DN181 "Blindfire" radar unit was the result of additional work by BAC engineers to rectify this limitation and these systems were added to the British Rapier inventory in 1979 (these upgraded units had already been sold to the Iranians, a one-time British ally, as early as 1973).
Back in 1974, the "Tracked Rapier" was finally developed as a means to improve upon the mobility of the relatively stationary towed Rapier systems. This involved modifications to the M548 tracked carrier (based in the American M113 APC) and the units incorporated both the missiles and launch component into a much more mobile carrier to better served mechanized forces. The Blindifre radar portion was carried on an accompanying carrier or utilized in its original towed form. The vehicle now allowed for better tactical flexibility as well as rapid response times when dealing with emerging, inbound aerial threats. The Tracked Rapier emerged in 1974 and was brought online with the British Army in 1982. In time, the towed Rapier forms were given up in favor of the "Starstreak" missile-equipped Alvis "Stormer" tracked combat vehicle (detailed elsewhere on this site).
Over the course of its decades-long service life, the Rapier components were upgraded for the better, providing improved capabilities to a changing battlefield that now involved cruise missiles and, ultimately, drones. Additionally, an anti-vehicle capability was built into the missile and the variant family line now included the Mk.1 (anti-aircraft), the Mk. 2A (improved anti-aircraft), and the Mk.2B (anti-vehicle).
First combat actions involving British forces and the Rapier air defense system occurred during the 1982 Falklands War with Argentina. British elements were responding to an Argentine invasion of the neighboring island chain and Argentine air power was of critical concern to both land- and sea-based British forces. The Rapier proved itself to the British Army and RAF - claiming over a dozen kills (though the total has been argued as being much lower).
Since then, the Rapier has been in service with the aforementioned Iranians (Army and Air Force) as well as Kenya (Air Force), Libya, Indonesia (Army), Singapore (Air Force), Turkey (Air Force), Switzerland (Air Force), and the United Arab Emirates (Army). It remains in British Army service as part of its Royal Artillery. Over 25,000 missiles have entered circulation along with 600 launcher units and 350 radar systems.