Skip to content Go to main navigation Go to language selector
Saab Global
Soldier with NLAW firing within confined space

The birth of a tank killer

1 min read + Video

The NLAW anti-tank system has attracted plenty of praise recently for its ability to stop main battle tanks in their tracks. But where did it come from? And what makes the system so effective?

The history behind the NLAW

It weighs just 12.5 kilograms and measures a fraction over a metre. But Saab’s NLAW anti-tank weapon also packs a powerful punch.

With a missile capable of penetrating 500 mm armour and a range of 20 to 800 metres, the system has won plenty of admirers in recent months thanks to its ability to defeat main battle tanks. Many have been surprised just how effective NLAW is, even in the hands of soldiers with little prior training.

But there has also been a degree of confusion around the origins of the system. Is it a British weapon? Or is it a Swedish one?

As is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In fact, NLAW was designed by Saab in Sweden and is assembled in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by aeronautics company Thales, with components produced in a number of countries. The weapon came about as a result of the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) launching a program to source a Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon (NLAW) in the 1990s.

At that time, both the UK and Sweden were looking to upgrade their anti-tank capabilities to deal with increasingly powerful main battle tanks being developed by their opponents. Saab, who had considerable experience with both guided missiles and shoulder-fired ground-combat weapons, was chosen to develop the weapon, and NLAW was created with funds from the MOD, Sweden’s Department of Defence, and Saab. It was delivered to the British, Swedish and Finnish defence forces in 2009. NLAW has since been rolled out to defence forces in countries including Luxembourg and Switzerland.


NLAW in numbers

With the powerful Overfly-Top-Attack, NLAW is the MBT's worst enemy. Here are some facts about NLAW.

  • The weight of the NLAW is 12,5 kg
  • The NLAW can penetrate more than 500 mm armour
  • With NLAW a single soldier can achieve first round kills against a heavily protected modern main battle tank with only one shot at ranges from 20 to 800 metres
mm armour penetration

The thinking behind NLAW

Tanks are formidable weapons with the power to decisively turn the tide of battles, and even wars. When in the 1990s the British Ministry of Defence drew up the requirements for the weapon that would eventually become the NLAW system, its intentions were clear. The system should be able to destroy an enemy main battle tank from any aspect, helping to undermine the tactical dominance of tank battalions. Yet at the same time, it should not be so complex that only an expert gunner could operate it. The vision was for a powerful and effective weapon that could be used by anyone from a gunner right down to a cook or logistics officer.


The MOD was also clear that NLAW should be man-portable and shoulder fired. The munitions should be insensitive. And the system should be effective at short range and in built-up environments.

The unique weapon that resulted in these stringent requirements continues to be highly effective 13 years after it was first rolled out. While at the beginning it was generally distributed to infantry units, in places like Sweden, NLAW is also carried by crews in armoured infantry fighting vehicles that already have 40mm canons. They want NLAW, too, because they know how effective it is.


A major technical achievement

There are a number of guided-missile systems on the market that can destroy a Main Battle Tank. There are also several shoulder-fired battlefield weapons for use against armour and structures. But combining the two technologies to create NLAW – a shoulder-fired guided missile – required imagination and highly specialised skills.

From desert to arctic - NLAW can operate in any climate
NLAW can attack from almost any position, from up high in a building to behind a tree or in a ditch. You can fire down 45 degrees and can shoot from inside a building, from a basement or from the second floor of a building out of the range of most tanks.

In the 1990s when the UK and Sweden were looking to upgrade their ground combat anti-tank system, Saab was uniquely positioned to create a special weapon. We had developed the Carl-Gustaf and AT4 shoulder fired systems, and so had an excellent understanding of easy-to-use combat weapon systems. At the same time, we were very experienced in developing guided missile systems thanks to its work with the Bill, RBS 70 and BAMSE systems. We brought these two knowledge areas together to create NLAW.

We able to develop NLAW due to a broad range of technical competences within the company that let us understand our customers’ needs and convert them to a functioning system. To do that we needed expert knowledge in areas like system safety, warheads, proximity fuzes, propulsion, guidance systems, advanced electronics, mechanics, light-weight materials, and human-machine interfaces. We also had to be able to manage the environmental footprint to meet the legislation, and to keep the cost down.

Different components and materials for the NLAW system were designed and tested separately, with engineers then slowly scaling up to tests involving the full weapon. At the Saab Bofors Test Centre in Karlskoga, we have a range of facilities to carry out vibration and environmental tests and to carry out test firing. By the time the weapon was delivered to the customer, it was fully tested and fit for purpose.

Saab engineer with an NLAW simulator

Why NLAW is special

No other anti-tank weapon on the market today is quite like NLAW. It combines the simplicity and transportability of a man-portable shoulder-fire weapon with the effectiveness and lethality of a guided missile. Highly effective from as little as 20 metres and up to as much as 800 metres, it features both direct-attack and overfly-top-attack modes. This means it can destroy main battle tanks that are standing still, on the move, and partially concealed behind obstacles.

Unlike many guided missiles that require precise information on the range to the target in order to arm and lock on, NLAW uses a predicted line-of-sight system, with no need for range information. The user simply tracks the target for two to three seconds and pulls the trigger. The missile’s guidance system carefully tracks the gunner’s movements prior to firing and calculates a path to the predicted position of the target.

NLAW - Stop tanks dead in their tracks
Stop tanks in their tracks
NLAW - hit your target
Hit your target
NLAW - tanks has nowhere to hide
Nowhere to hide
NLAW turns the hunter into the hunted
The hunter becomes the hunted
NLAW - destroy different targets
Destroy any target

From carrying NLAW in your hand to having an effect on the target, takes less than 10 seconds. And because NLAW’s warhead is dynamically compensated, it has the greatest possible effect on the target, penetrating armour to a depth of more than 500 millimetres.

In essence, the system consists of a battery, a launcher and a missile. When NLAW is fired a start motor fires the 150-mm diameter missile from the launcher at a relatively low muzzle velocity of 40 m/s. Once the missile is eight metres out from the launcher, the flight motor activates allowing it to cover 400 metres in under two seconds. NLAW relies on dual optical and magnetic sensors to determine the optimal point of detonating the warhead.


How soldiers use NLAW

In combat situations, firing on the enemy breaks your cover and exposes you to potentially deadly counter-fire. It’s crucial then, that when you fire on a main battle tank that your first shot is not only accurate but lethal, too. NLAW gives single ground-combat troops the confidence to challenge and destroy the fiercest of tanks. David truly can defeat Goliath.

Weighing just 12.5 kilograms, the system is one-man portable. It is fully disposable, and a saltwater counter mass system allows it to be safely used in confined spaces, like rooms in urban combat zones. The weapon is extraordinarily well balanced, meaning users often assume that it weighs even than its actual low weight. It features an ordinary sight with 2.5x magnification, and a red dot back-up sight.



To choose the desired mode, gunners use a selector unit on top of the launcher. If you select overfly top attack, the missile will fly one meter above the line of sight before coming down to destroy the target. This is useful where the tank might be partially concealed. You might select direct-attack mode if you have a clear line of sight on the target. You can also choose the arming distance if, for example, you want the missile to fly blind past an already-hit target before it begins detecting targets.

In ground combat units in countries like Sweden, NLAW tends to be the most powerful weapon carried. The role of the unit is to make sure that the NLAW is able to be used effectively. They need to protect the NLAW gunner with their rifles so that he or she can take out the target.

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

Read more about NLAW


5 facts about NLAW

The global political situation is flux. After many years of stability, European nations are concerned about a threat from the east and looking to substantially increase their defences at home. 

5 facts about NLAW

What is the ultimate tank killer

With tanks playing an increasingly decisive role in complex battle environments, defending forces need an effective anti-tank weapon. Saab’s NLAW system has the portability and fire power needed to stop tanks in their tracks.

What is the ultimate tank killer