"The weapon of choice for the Iraqi resistance is the rocket propelled grenade (RPG)-7."
George J. Mordica II
USA Center for Army Lessons Learned
If you've been reading my columns for a while, you probably noticed I don't talk military hardware as much as most war buffs. There are a lot of people who'll talk all day about whether the Russian T-90 or the US Abrams is the best MBT. I don't do that much, for the simple reason that wars these days don't come down to one model of tank vs. another. It's pretty rare to find a war where both sides even use tanks. Most of the time it's guerrilla vs. guerrilla, or conventional army vs. guerrilla. The odds of an all-out hi-tech war between two conventional armies like the US and Russia are about...oh, zero-point-zero. So it just doesn't matter that much whether their tanks could beat ours in some make-believe replay of the Kursk Salient. If you want to play that kind of war, buy a computer game. God knows there's enough of them. If you want to know how people make war now, in the real world, you need to study people, not hardware.
Sad but true, boys: war these days is more like Social Studies than Metal Shop. It's about tribal vendettas, military intelligence, propaganda, money -- just about everything except pure hardware.
Don't get me wrong, I love the hardware as much as anybody. I used to spend every free hour, back before there was an internet, going over those big heavy reference books in the library: Jane's Tanks, Jane's Missile Systems, Jane's Combat Vehicles. I had those things memorized. Seriously, you could open any of Jane's handbooks at random, read me the name of a weapons system, and I'd recite its stats from memory -- Norwegian anti-ship missiles, South African APCs, you name it.
But eventually I had to face the facts: most of those weapons are never going to get used. If you look at all the real wars going on right now, you come across the same two weapons, over and over: the AK-47 and the RPG-7 -- both Russian designs, and both older than your Dad.
They're the weapons that matter, because they're already out there, millions of units, enough to equip every guerrilla army in the world, simple enough that you can teach a peasant kid with hookworm and a room-temperature IQ to fire them, and cheap enough to buy in bulk.
And the RPG is the best of all, even better than the Kalashnikov. This simple little beauty just keeps getting more and more effective. This cheap little dealie, nothing but a launcher tube and a few rockets shaped like two ice-cream cones glued together, has kicked our ass (and Russia's too) all over the world since back when the Beatles were still together. In fact, more and more guerrilla armies are making the RPG their basic infantry weapon, with the AK used to protect the RPG gunners, who provide the offensive punch. The Chechens fighting the Russian Army are so high on it that they've switched their three-man combat teams from two riflemen and an RPG gunner to two RPG gunners with a rifleman to protect them.
There's another stat that's even more important right now: the RPG has inflicted more than half -- half! -- of US casualties in Iraq. This is the weapon that's hurting us. And it's been doing that for one hell of a long time.
The Soviets created the RPG for use by Soviet infantry squads against US tanks, APCs and personnel in that big NATO/Warsaw Pact war everybody was dreaming of back in the sixties. The design was an example of beautiful simplicity. It was a classic of Warsaw-Pact reverse-engineering. Warsaw Pact weapons designers had this attitude that it was a waste of time to design from scratch when you could count on your spies (and the Russians had the best spies in the world back then) to get you the specs on the weapons other countries had spent billions designing. So they just put together a cross between the two best shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons around, the Wehrmacht Panzerfaust and the US Army bazooka. And that was the birth of the most important weapon in contemporary warfare.