Rapier (missile)

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Swiss rapier missile.jpg
A Swiss Air Force Rapier SAM installation with the attached generator placed in the background (with fuel provided from three jerrycans beside it)
Type Surface-to-air missile
Place of origin United Kingdom
Service history
In service 1971–present
Used by See operators
Wars Falklands War
Iran–Iraq War
Gulf War
Production history
Designer British Aircraft Corporation
Designed 1963
Manufacturer British Aircraft Corporation (1963–1977)
BAe Dynamics (1977–1999)
MBDA (UK) Ltd (since 1999)
Produced 1969–1990s
Number built ≈25,000 missiles, 600 launchers and 350 radars
Variants Mk1 ("Hittile"), Mk2B (Missile)
Weight 45 kg
Length 2.235 m
Diameter 0.133 m
Warhead Blast fragmentation explosive close proximity warhead
Proximity triggered chemical fuse

Engine solid-fuel rocket
Wingspan 0.138 m
400 – 8,200 m[1]
Flight ceiling 3,000 m (Mk1 missile),[2] 5,000m (Mk2)[3]
Speed Mach 2.5 (3,062.6 km/h; 1,903.0 mph; 0.85073 km/s)
Automatic command to line of sight[2]
flight control surface
vehicle or trailer

Rapier is a British surface-to-air missile developed for the RAF Regiment and the British Army. Entering service in 1972, it eventually replaced all other anti-aircraft weapons in Army service; guns for low-altitude targets, and the Thunderbird (missile),[4] used against longer-range and higher-altitude targets. It replaced Bofors guns and Tigercat missiles in RAF service. As the expected air threat moved from medium-altitude strategic missions to low-altitude strikes, the fast reaction time and high manoeuvrability of the Rapier made it more formidable than either of these weapons, replacing most of them by 1977. It remains the UK's primary air-defence weapon after almost 35 years of service, and its deployment is expected to continue until 2020.[citation needed]


Rapier began development in 1961 as a private venture at British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) known as "Sightline".[5] The project was to combat supersonic, low level, high manoeuvrability craft, eschewing any attempt at sensor guidance in favour of a purely optical system. The operator would keep the telescopic gunsight centred on the target, and the automated systems would guide the missile to that point. The optical system ensured high accuracy, so it was developed with the intent of directly hitting its target, reducing the size of the warhead required to guarantee a kill, and eliminating the need for a proximity fuse. BAC joked that the system was a "hit-ile", as opposed to a "miss-ile". The weapons system had entirely originated from research carried out by Bradford's Colin Baron and John Twinn at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in the 1960s.

At the time the British Army was planning on purchasing the advanced American MIM-46 Mauler system for its air-defence needs. When Mauler ran into problems in 1963, the Ministry of Defence issued requirement ET.316 and started funding Sightline as a backup in case Mauler did not deliver. That eventuality came to pass, and ET.316 was completely developed as "Rapier", with the first test firings of the missile taking place in 1966.[5] Complete systems were tested in 1968, which led to a production contract issued in 1969. On a parallel track, the RAF Regiment had Tigercat developed for it in 1967 from the Seacat naval surface-to-air missile system. That system was introduced into service with No 48 Squadron RAF Regiment in 1968, giving the RAF Regiment the UK's first effective fully air portable low-level SAM system and valuable experience in operating systems of this type. In 1972 a trials unit known as the Rapier Pilot Battery was formed jointly by No 63 Squadron RAF Regiment and 9 (Plassey) Light Air Defence Battery Royal Artillery. Comprehensive trials ended in 1973 and the first Rapier unit in British service - No 63 Squadron - deployed to its operational station in Germany in mid-1974.


The original Rapier took the form of a wheeled launcher with four missiles, an optical tracker unit, a generator and trailer of stores. The launcher consists of a large cylindrical unit carrying two missiles on each side, the surveillance radar dish and "Identification Friend or Foe" (IFF) system under a radome on top, the guidance computer and radar electronics at the bottom, and a prominent parabolic antenna for sending guidance commands to the missiles on the front.

The search radar was of the pulsed Doppler type with a range of about 15 km. The aerial, located at the top of the launcher, rotated about once a second, looking for moving targets that are "visible" due to their doppler shift. When one was located, a lamp would light up on the Selector Engagement Zone (SEZ), a box containing 32 orange lamps arranged in a circle about the size of an automobile steering wheel. The radar operator could also blank out returns from other directions, providing jamming resistance.

The optical tracker unit was made up of a stationary lower section and a rotating upper section. The lower section housed the operator controls, while the upper section housed the tracking optics. The operator's optical system was a modified telescope containing a Dove prism to prevent the image 'toppling' as the optics rotate in azimuth. This system meant that, unlike a periscope, the operator did not have to move in order to track the target. The upper section also contained a separate missile tracking system that was slaved to the operator's optics, based on a television camera optimized for the IR band.

Upon detection, the optical tracking system would then be slewed to target azimuth and the operator would then search for the target in elevation. The operator's field of view would depend on the target range: "wide" at about 20 degrees or "track" at about 4.8 degrees. When the target was found the operator switches to "track" and uses a joystick to keep the target centred in the telescope. Once a steady track was established the missile was fired. The TV camera on the tracker was tuned to track the four flares on the missile's tail. Like the operator's telescope, the TV system had two views, one about 11 degrees wide for the initial "capture", and another at 0.55 degrees for midcourse tracking.

The difference between the line-of-sight of the operator's telescope and the missile's flare was calculated by the computer in the base of the launcher. Guidance updates were sent to the missile through the transmitter on the launcher platform, and received on small antennas on the rear of the mid-body fins. The operator simply kept the telescope's crosshairs on the target using the joystick, and the missile would automatically fly into the line-of-sight, a system of operation known as SACLOS. The basic concept is very similar to the one used by most anti-tank missiles, with the exception that those systems normally use small wires to send guidance information to the missile, rather than a radio link.

The missile contained a small 1.4 kg warhead with a contact fuse and a single-stage solid-rocket motor that accelerated the missile to about 650 m/s. Engagement time to the maximum effective range was about 13 seconds. Response time from the start of the target detection to missile launch is about 6 seconds, which has been repeatedly confirmed in live firing.

The whole system, along with its crew, was delivered by two Land Rovers designated as the Fire Unit Truck (FUT) and the Detachment Support Vehicle (DSV). Royal Artillery batteries comprised three troops each of four fire units while RAF Regiment squadrons had eight fire units. By 1980 each Royal Artillery fire unit consisted of a (24 volt) 101 FC 1 tonne Land Rover towing the Rapier Launcher and carrying 4 missiles on board, a 109-inch 3/4 ton 24v FFR (Fitted For Radio) Land Rover towing a 1-ton Missile Supply Trailer (MST), containing up to a further 10 missiles. Blindfire radar (see below) was only provided for 13 of fire units in British Army service, and for all fire units in the RAF Regiment.

Blindfire radar[edit]

Blindfire radar unit

Although accurate and simple to use, the original Rapier system clearly suffered from a lack of all-weather capability. To address this need, BAC started work on a separate radar guidance unit, primarily to improve foreign sales. This led to the introduction of the Marconi DN 181 "Blindfire" radar in 1970,[6] the first examples being sold to the Iranian Army in 1973. The British Army did not purchase the Blindfire system until 1979, entering service with Rapier "Field Standard A" (FSA). By 1997 more than 350 Blindfire radars had been produced.

Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force Regiment already had 27 Squadron operational with Blindfire at RAF Leuchars by 1979, and were in the process of bringing all the RAF Regiment GBAD (Ground Based Air Defence) Squadrons into line.

To ensure accuracy, Blindfire used a very narrow "pencil" beam and tracks both the target and missile. To allow the operator to monitor the Blindfire system when it was tracking the target, the existing optical tracker was slaved to the Blindfire radar, although it was possible for the optical tracker to be manually "laid on" a second target whilst the Blindfire engages the first target. The Blindfire trailer carries its own generator unit, and a third Land Rover (a 12v winch equipped 101 FC) – the Tracking Radar Tractor (TRT) – to tow it.

Tracked Rapier[edit]

Tracked Rapier at RAF Museum Cosford.
Tracked Rapier (rear view)

With sales to Iran came the additional requirement for a mobile version of Rapier. BAC responded by adapting the Rapier system to fit on the M548, a cargo-carrier version of the ubiquitous M113 armoured personnel carrier. Development started in 1974 as "Tracked Rapier", but had not yet been delivered when the Shah fell from power in 1978. The vehicles were later purchased by the British Army. The first public showing of Tracked Rapier was at the 1977 Paris Air Show, as a static display unit. The first Tracked Rapiers entered service with 11 (Sphinx) Air Defence Battery, of 22 Air Defence Regiment, Royal Artillery in 1983 in Napier Barracks near Dortmund.

The conversion was relatively simple; the launch unit was placed on the extreme rear of the cargo platform at the rear of the M548 carrier, and the tracking system placed inside the cabin at the front of the vehicle, projecting through the roof of one of the turret bustles. The optical tracker was operated from the left side of the crew cabin, while on the right were the driver and tactical controller. The crew cabin was quite cramped as a result, with the three crewmembers and all of the equipment stuffed into an area originally intended for two men. From moving to firing took only 30 seconds, a tremendous improvement over Towed Rapier, which required at least a quarter an hour to unlimber. The biggest difference between towed and tracked Rapier was that the tracked Rapier launcher had eight missile rails compared with the four of the towed system. Unfortunately the equipment also greatly slowed the vehicle, with cross-country performance reduced to about 15 km/h.

There was no room for Blindfire on a single M548, so this was instead towed or carried on a separate M548. Feeding data to the control system in the firing unit thus required more setup time to connect the two vehicles. With less internal hardware, the support vehicle was also tasked with carrying field kits, rations and water.

After initially entering service, the Tracked Rapiers were upgraded several times to follow the upgrades being introduced to all Rapier systems. The latest version included a new helmet-mounted sight that allowed the tactical controller to quickly slew the tracker onto the target while standing out of the other roof-mounted turret bustle.

During Gulf War One, 12 and 16 Regiment Royal Artillery tracked batteries, combined to provide Tracked Rapier support to deployed armoured regiments. Tracked Rapier was retired in the early 1990s. It has since been replaced by Starstreak missile launchers mounted on the Alvis Stormer.


Shortly after introducing FSA, "Field Standard B" (FSB) added a number of basic upgrades. Additionally, the search radar was upgraded to be easily shut down in case of an anti-radiation missile attack. FSB included lessons from the Falklands campaign, notable the 'pointing stick' that enabled the detachment commander of a fire unit to point the aiming unit at a target.


With the range of upgrades and new components, the original low-cost Rapier system was gone. In order to address international market requirements for a lower-cost system, BAC started development of the "Rapier Laserfire" in 1982. Laserfire replaced the original optical tracker unit with a new lidar (laser radar) illuminating system that is considerably smaller, allowing the entire system to be mounted on a single pallet that could itself be mounted on a truck or other flatbed vehicle.

Laserfire used a millimetric Doppler radar. Due to its very high frequency of operation and ability to transform its beamshape from narrow azimuth and high elevation to wide azimuth and narrow elevation, Laserfire was able to detect helicopters hovering or travelling at low altitude and in areas of high clutter by detecting the movement of the helicopter's rotor blades.

Initial engagement is similar to the original Rapier, but the target was illuminated and automatically tracked by a high power YAG:Nd laser. After the missile was launched the laser alternately illuminated the target and missile to determine their locations, and guidance was sent to the missile as normal (see laser guidance). Laserfire thus represented a fairly major upgrade to the original optical system, allowing semi-automatic engagements, and greatly reducing operator skill and training requirements.

On the downside, Laserfire no longer has the optical system of the original, which served an important second duty by allowing the aircraft to be visually identified at long range. Additionally, while the Laserfire tracking system was capable of being operated at night, target acquisition was optical, like the original Rapier.


In 1985 development started on a new tracker that replaced the original optical system with a new IR thermal imager system to improve its abilities, especially at night. This version was known as "Rapier Darkfire" for this reason. Trials of the new system started in 1987, and were deployed operationally in 1990 as "Field Standard B2" (FSB2), the earlier upgrades retroactively becoming FSB1. This system was also known as "Rapier 90". Cooling for the imager was provided by bottles of compressed gas.

FSB2 also introduced a number of improvements that greatly improved Rapier capabilities. First and foremost was the Tactical Control Console that allowed four Rapier launchers to be controlled from a central location. The launchers themselves were upgraded to carry six missiles instead of four, improving battery capacity. Finally, the search radar was updated to use a new planar array radar, although its capabilities remained generally the same as the earlier model.

Missile upgrades[edit]

In 1988 tests started on an improved warhead using a proximity fuse, in order to give Rapier capability against smaller targets that would be difficult to hit directly, notably high-speed remotely piloted vehicles. Serial production of Mk. 1E began in 1989.

In 1992 the Army signed a contract to upgrade all Rapier systems to an enhanced version. A Mark 2 missile variant commenced development in 1986 culminating in a complete re-design which entered service in the mid-1990s. Along with a further upgrade of the proximity fuse, the new missile incorporated (then) state-of-art technologies including:

Von Karman supersonic aerodynamic profile; composite propellant, with a two-stage shaped burn and laminated body solid rocket motor; ceramic substrate surface mount PCBs; completely new electronic systems and software; both analogue and digital proprietary ASICs; highly ECM resistant front end and command link with redundant encoding; fully Digital Autopilot incorporating Kalman state filtering; inertial navigation comprising ring-laser roll and rate gyroscope; Kapton ribbon cabling.

The missile warhead is available in two versions, the Mk. 2A for the normal anti-aircraft role, and the Mk. 2B, which includes a shaped charge warhead and dual fuses, and which is useful against light armour as well.

Rapier 2000[edit]

Jernas launcher unit. The optical tracker is on top, there is an integrated generator, and the overall height is greatly reduced.

In 1992, shortly after the introduction of Rapier 90, another major upgrade series started at MBDA (previously Matra BAe Dynamics). Emerging as "Rapier 2000", or "Field Standard C" (FSC) in British service, the system reached its ultimate form. Development of the FSC system began at the end of the 1980s and the systems first entered service in 1996. By this time the Cold War was over and British air defence capabilities significantly reduced, fewer and smaller batteries albeit every fire unit with Blindfire. There is also an export version of this version, known as Jernas. Malaysia is the first export customer for Jernas.

FSC was effectively a new system, although Blindfire was little changed and it could fire both Mk 1 and Mk 2 missiles. The Surveillance radar was removed from the launcher and became a separate element and each launcher now carried eight missiles.

With the missiles increasingly relying on radar guidance since the introduction of Blindfire, it made sense to upgrade the original search radar to something much more modern. This was supplied by the Alenia Marconi "Dagger",[7] a 3D pulse doppler radar with an integrated Cossor Mark 10 IFF system. Dagger is mounted on its own trailer, so the radome on top of the launcher unit was no longer needed. In its place, a much more modern optical tracking system was added. The new tracker used a Stirling-cycle cooler instead of compressed gas bottles. The use of much smaller electronics greatly reduced stack height of the whole launcher, allowing an additional two missiles to be added, for a total of eight.

In operation, the Rapier 2000 is similar to earlier Blindfire-equipped systems. Targets are acquired visually or through the Dagger radar, and then the Blindfire and optical tracker are slewed onto the target. The optical system can be used solely to track the missile, or it can be used for all guidance, like the original Rapier. In either case the engagement is entirely automatic, with no operator guidance needed. The optical system can also be used as a search system, seeking out IR sources, allowing radar-quiet operation.

In 2006 a Ministry of Defence study in Ground Based Air Defence recommended further reductions, based on a reduced air threat and the improved air defence capabilities afforded by the Typhoon fighter. These included removing the role from the RAF Regiment as a measure to preserve Royal Artillery units in the face of significant cuts to the Army. Nevertheless, the Royal Artillery units were placed under command of the HQ 1 Group RAF (within HQ Air Command) and the Joint Ground-Based Air Defence HQ was formed.

Dagger radar[edit]

The Dagger target acquisition and surveillance radar is a multi-beam high resolution 3D radar system.[2]

Combat history[edit]

Photograph of a missile in the process of launching in the night.
A Rapier missile speeds towards its target during a live firing exercise by 20 Commando Battery Royal Artillery at Benbecula in Scotland.
Green missile launch vehicle in a field, surrounded by temporary fencing, with houses in the background
A Rapier FSC Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) system at Blackheath, London on 2 May 2012.

In April 1982, the original Rapier was deployed during the Falklands War when T Battery (Shah Sujah's Troop) of the 12th Regiment Royal Artillery from Kirton in Lindsey joined 3 Commando Brigade as part of the Falklands Task Force, landing at San Carlos on 21 May. 63 Squadron RAF Regiment from Gütersloh, Germany were attached to 5 Brigade and deployed at San Carlos, immediately upon arrival. Their task was to provide air defence cover for a Harrier landing and re-fuelling pad built on the outskirts of Port San Carlos. Once defensive air cover was provided, it allowed Navy and RAF Harriers to land on the Island and react more quickly to repel air raid threats. T Battery's sister battery, 9 (Plassey) Battery was not deployed on the islands until after the conflict had ended.[8]

There were many siting problems which prevented Rapier from operating efficiently, which led to it not being particularly effective in terms of number of 'kills' – but its presence acted as a deterrent, especially after the deployment of Blind Fire systems around Port San Carlos.

From an engineering perspective the fragile nature of the FSA launchers was well known before the conflict, exacerbated by the sinking of the MV Atlantic Conveyor with almost all of the task force's Rapier spares on board. The intermittent unserviceability of fire unit 32 alpha at Fitzroy was one of many factors that contributed to the success of the bombing of the RFA Sir Galahad.[8]

Early post-war reports were favourable, indicating 14 kills and 6 probables.[9] Later analysis was less rosy, indicating as few as four enemy aircraft were downed.[10] Only one Argentine aircraft, a Dagger A of FAA Grupo 6, can be confirmed as a Rapier kill, when Lt Bernhardt's aircraft was destroyed on 29 May 1982. The pilot was killed. The other three, a A-4B Skyhawk of FAA Grupo 5 on 23 May and two A-4C Skyhawk of FAA Grupo 4 on 24 May and 25 May 1982, were subjected to the full force of the San Carlos Air Defences, with claims going to Sea Wolf, Sea Cat, Blowpipe and small arms, as well as T Battery.

Within the total only five Argentine aircraft might have been shot down by Rapier, and, as originally noted by Ethell and Price, only one of these was certain, with two probables and two possibles. Similar discrepancies arose over other weapons systems, notably Blowpipe (one confirmed kill as against nine confirmed and two probables in the White Paper) and Sea Cat (zero to one against eight confirmed and two probables in the White Paper). [...] This confirmation that MoD had exaggerated, however unwittingly, the capabilities of Rapier was deemed to be political dynamite. It was observed that if this assessment became publicly known it 'could have a serious adverse effects on sales' prospects for Rapier, which is the staple revenue-earner for BAe's Dynamic Group.[11]

The main problems were a lack of range, and the decision to omit a proximity fuse, an attribute which required the operator to strike the target aircraft directly with the missile. Rapier also suffered from problems with the IFF system[12] and suffered interference with RN radar.

Rapiers were used during the 2012 Summer Olympics to provide air-defence security for the games. Rapier systems were placed at four sites: (Blackheath Common; William Girling Reservoir, Enfield; Oxleas Meadow, Shooter's Hill; and Barn Hill, Epping Forest), with Starstreak missiles at two other sites.[13]

Future replacement[edit]

At the DSEI conference in September 2007 it was announced the UK MoD was funding a study by MBDA to investigate a replacement for Rapier which is scheduled to leave service about 2020. The Common Anti-Air Modular Missile (CAMM), would share components with the ASRAAM missile in service with the RAF.[14]


Rapier launcher in Duxford

An example is on display under cover in a hangar in IWM Duxford.


A Republic of Singapore Air Force Rapier SAM system
 United Arab Emirates
 United Kingdom

Former operators[edit]




  1. ^ Rapier – British Army Website
  2. ^ a b c d https://s.yimg.com/fz/api/res/1.2/22U82vbTA6KARt9zRChxzw--/YXBwaWQ9c3JjaGRkO2g9NjIwO3E9OTU7dz05MDA-/http:/[permanent dead link]/muckleburgh.co.uk/collection-images/rapier-mk1-missile.JPG[dead link]
  3. ^ http://www.army-technology.com/projects/jernas/[unreliable source?]
  4. ^ 36regimentra.org.uk, English Electric Thunderbird Project Details
  5. ^ a b "Rapier 2000/Jernas", Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, 15 February 2008
  6. ^ Armedforces.co.uk Blindfire Radar Introduction Details
  7. ^ "Dagger/Rapier"
  8. ^ a b Watching Men Burn: A Soldiers Story, author: Tony McNally ISBN 978-0-9552854-5-5
  9. ^ "T Headquarter Battery (Shah Shuja's Troop) Royal Artillery". Retrieved 2007-07-05. 
  10. ^ "Much hope was placed in the Rapier air defence system, but technical and logistic difficulties were to dog it throughout the campaign. The Rapier system succeeded in shooting down only four enemy aircraft.""List of Destroyed Argentine Aircraft". Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  11. ^ Freedman, Sir Lawrence, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign (Abingdon, 2005). Volume II, page 732-735
  12. ^ Navy Command HQ. "Board of Inquiry into the Loss of AAC Gazelle XX377" (PDF). Ministry of Defence. p. 4. Retrieved 2008-11-19. 
  13. ^ "London 2012: Olympic missiles sites confirmed". BBC News. 3 July 2012. Retrieved 1 July 2013. 
  14. ^ Missiles and Fire Support at DSEi 2007
  15. ^ "SIPRI arms transfer database". Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Information generated on 18 June 2011. Retrieved 18 June 2011.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  16. ^ Moorcraft, Paul L.; McLaughlin, Peter (April 2008) [1982]. The Rhodesian War: A Military History. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books. ISBN 978-1-84415-694-8. 
  17. ^ Al-Taji Army Scrapeyard- Iraq

External links[edit]