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Saab Global

Why ground combat troops need a disposable weapon

10 min read + Video

Most ground combat weapons are designed to be reused. They can be fired and then fired again. But in a wide – and growing – range of combat conditions, single-use weapons are delivering a major tactical advantage. Learn how they could give your forces the upper hand.

Try to picture a modern infantry soldier engaging the enemy in complex urban terrain. He or she is firing from behind a partially destroyed wall as the sound of gun fire and exploding projectile fills the air.

Now try to imagine the weapon the soldier is using.

There’s a good chance you have pictured a reloadable weapon – something like a carbine or a mortar or perhaps a reusable recoilless rifle system – that can be fired and then reloaded multiple times. The majority of ground combat weapons on the global market today are designed for multiple use. It makes economic and strategic sense that the rifle that a soldier carries into battle can refilled with fresh magazines and fired time and time again. Or that his or her grenade launcher can be reloaded and used repeatedly.

But it’s a mistake to assume that reloadable ground-combat weapons are the only type of armament capable of bringing value to modern troops.

Experience has shown that there are many circumstances and missions in which disposable weapons – designed to be used just once and then thrown away – can deliver a significant tactical advantage. It’s the reason that many armed forces across the planet choose to equip their infantries and special forces with a blend of reloadable weapons and carefully selected disposable weapons systems.

Soldier jumps over obstacle, while carrying the disposable AT4.

So, if disposable weapons are limited to being fired a single time, what are their advantages? How do these characteristics translate into a greater chance of success on the battlefield? And what are some examples of industry leading disposable weapons?

Benefits of disposable weapons

At Saab, we have considerable experience with disposable ground combat weapons thanks to our work producing the highly respected AT4 and NLAW single-use weapon systems, as well as the pioneering weapons that preceded them. The modern AT4 family takes in a range of single-use 84-mm recoilless weapons capable of delivering significant anti-personnel, anti-structure and anti-armour effects. Members of the AT4 family are effective between 20 and 1000 metres. The Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon (NLAW), meanwhile, is a tank killer, capable of destroying even the most advanced modern main battle tanks. It has a combat range of 20 to 800 metres.

Soldier aims with the disposable AT4 weapon.

Mats Fagerberg, head of marketing and sales at business unit Ground Combat, says a great place to start when examining the benefits of disposable weapons is weight.

Modern warfare increasingly takes place in complex terrain. Troops are operating in situations such as partially destroyed urban areas, with rubble, wires and damaged vehicles creating a range of obstacles that need to be navigated to gain a favourable position. In such circumstances, unneeded weight can hinder movement and reduce the risk of mission success.

Fagerberg says due to the fact that it will only be used once, a single-use weapon may help to reduce weight. Lighter materials are often used in construction and there are no separate rounds to carry. In the case of our AT4 system, a ready-to-use unit can weigh less than seven kilograms, meaning it can be easily carried by each and every member of a platoon.

Soldier aims with the NLAW (Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon).

Mats says Saab’s tank-killing system NLAW is another great example of weight efficiency. It delivers an Overfly Top Attack capability that can take out a battle tank at up to 800 metres, and yet it weighs just 12.5 kilograms – meaning a single operator can both carry it and fire it. “There are other [re-useable] anti-tank guided weapon systems in the same medium-range category as NLAW, but they are not one-man portable,” Fagerberg says. “They are normally carried by two or three men, assembled close to the firing position and then moved into position and deployed. That makes firing more time consuming, reducing the ability to respond to emerging threats.”

Simple to use


Ronnie Hammarström, Product Management Support at Saab, argues an equally important advantage of many disposable systems is their simplicity.

He says armed forces typically have limitations on how much time can be spent training each soldier. In periods of conflict, this time can be reduced even further. Often, disposable weapons are easier to use than re-useable systems that may have more sophisticated functions. As a result, troops may often be able to become proficient in using a disposable weapon in a day or two, meaning they become battle-ready faster.

“If you look at how the AT4 recoilless weapon is used by the Swedish armed forces, all infantry soldiers receive basic training in how to use it,” says Hammarström. “So, anyone with who has an AT4 is then able to, say, take out a hostile vehicle. With other weapon systems, you need more specialised training to have that same effect.” Simplicity also means there is less to remember in the heat of battle, and there are fewer systems to potentially suffer from weapons failure.

“So, anyone with who has an AT4 is then able to, say, take out a hostile vehicle. With other weapon systems, you need more specialised training to have that same effect.”
Ronnie Hammarström, Product Management Support

Hammarström also points to the fact a single-use weapon typically constitutes a lower cost, weight and training burden than the corresponding reloadable weapon with a single round. Because the weapon system will not be fired multiple times, lighter materials can be used while still maintaining safety and effect. In some cases, this lower price point and ease of use will allow a weapon such as a disposable recoilless rifle to be distributed to every soldier or every second soldier, greatly increasing a platoon’s ability to cause major damage to the enemy.

Stefan Slycke, Head of customer services support within Saab’s business unit Ground Combat, points out that having more weapon systems deployed among your ground forces brings a number of advantages. “Because you don’t need to be a gunner to operate a system like the AT4, everyone from a special forces soldier to a cook or logistics officer has the potential to fire on the enemy,” he says. “That’s the beauty of a non-expert weapon.”

“That’s the beauty of a non-expert weapon.”
Stefan Slycke, Head of Customer Service

Wider distribution of fire power

The wide distribution of a weapon system across a platoon also creates greater potential for troops to work together to create greater effect. For example, multiple AT4 rounds fired simultaneously can have a devastating impact. “In the Swedish armed forces, troops are taught to fire two or three AT4s at the same target at the same time to increase the effect,” says Slycke. “So, you might have a platoon spread out along a stretch of road. When a group of enemy vehicles comes along, you then have multiple AT4s firing at the same time and producing a really good effect.”

Soldiers engages target with the single shot AT4 weapon.

More weapons in the field also means troops with support weapons can be positioned in a wider range of strategic positions, increasing the chances of taking the enemy unaware.

Ronnie Hammarström also points to the tactical benefits of feeling free to discard a weapon after use, rather than taking it apart it and packing it away. “There’s a good chance you will get responsive fire from your enemy, a few seconds after you have fired a recoilless weapon,” he says. “Not having to think about anything besides keeping your head down can be a good thing in the moment.” Being able to easily shed weight as you move to a rendezvous or extraction point can also be advantageous.

No maintenance requirements

Another benefit of disposable weapons is the absence of any maintenance requirements. Even the best designed re-useable weapons require ongoing service and maintenance to ensure they are functioning correctly and fit for purpose. This takes up operational time, adds cost, and introduces the potential for a servicing error on the part of personnel. Disposable weapons don’t have this issue. Systems such as AT4 or NLAW never need servicing. Provided, they have been transported correctly, a soldier can remove either system from its packaging and feel confident of it firing correctly and achieving the desired outcome.

Combining disposable weapons with reusable weapons can dramatically expand a platoon’s overall capability. For example, a group of soldiers equipped with our reusable Carl-Gustaf system and its single-use AT4 and NLAW systems possess a formidable range of fire power. The Carl-Gustaf provides the ability for gunners to rapidly choose and fire a round appropriate to the situation, NLAW provides the ability to neutralise tanks, and the AT4 potentially puts significant fire power in every soldier’s hands.

Saab disposable weapons

Saab has long understood the value that disposable weapon systems can provide. The AT4 family and NLAW are designed to make the most of the special characteristics of such weapons.

The AT4 family of weapons, for example, delivers 84 mm rounds similar to those fired by our famous reusable recoilless rifle, the Carl-Gustaf. However, the AT4 also provides an additional advantage in the form of confined space capability. While the majority of Carl-Gustaf rounds should not be fired in a confined space due to the back blast, the use of a salt water counter-mass in the AT4 allows it to be used in closed rooms and close to walls without harm to the operator or those around him. This means a soldier can act quickly and decisively without having to worry if the surrounding environment is suitable for discharging a weapon.

NLAW, meanwhile, is an example of the formidable fire power a disposable weapon system can yield. It takes just 5-6 seconds for a single soldier to shift the weapon from hand to shoulder and to be ready to fire on the enemy.

Soldier takes down a tank with NLAW weapon.

NLAW offers a lethal combination of Overfly-Top-Attack (OTA) and Direct-Attack (DA) modes, making it suitable for taking out not only modern main battle tanks, but troop carriers and other vehicles.

"While many anti-tank missiles need to first gain altitude before launching a top attack, NLAW’s Overfly Top Attack function is effective at a range of just 20 metres making it effective at short range and even in situations where a tank in under cover,” says Slycke.

Saab's anti-tank weapon NLAW.

“The missile flies about a metre over the top of the tank and launches devastating attack on the roof. An NLAW missile can penetrate armour thicker than 500 mm.”

No lock on signature is required is required when using NLAW’s OTA mode to take out a tank. If a tank is largely hidden behind a wall or another obstacle, the gunner can aim any protruding tank structure – such as an antenna – and fire.

OTA explained

Our NLAW system is an easy system to use. Watch this video to see how it uses PLOS (predicted line of sight) and OTA (Overfly-top-attack) to enable its powerful shape charge warhead hit the tank at it´s weakest point - the turret. Maximising the potential damage to the tank.

Video - 00:18

Meanwhile, direct attack mode allows the operator to easily take out other enemy assets, such as trucks, buses and helicopters.

Mats Fagerberg sums up the benefits of disposable weapons in this way: “Disposable weapons such as the AT4 and NLAW have earned their place in the equipment lists of armed forces around the world. They greatly enhance the fire power of soldiers on the ground and can have clear advantages over reloadable weapons. They will be an asset for modern armed forces for many years to come.”