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Blowpipe (missile)

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Place of origin  United Kingdom
Used by  See Operators
In service  1975 to 1985
Blowpipe (missile)
Type  Manportable surface-to-air missile
Wars  Falklands War, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Gulf War, Cenepa War
Designer  Thales Air Defence Limited

The Shorts Blowpipe is a man-portable surface-to-air missile that was in use with the British Army and Royal Marines from 1975. It was superseded by an interim design, Javelin, and later the greatly improved Starstreak.



The missile is shipped as a single round in a storage cylinder/firing tube. The aiming unit is clipped to the launch tube and fired from the operator's shoulder. To reduce the overall size of the container, the rear fins of the missile are stored in the larger diameter cylinder at the front of the tube (this also contains the Yagi antenna for transmitting guidance signals); during firing, the fins slip onto the rear of the missile as it flies through and are held there by heat-activated adhesive tapes. This gives the launch container a unique shape, seemingly oversized at the front and extremely thin at the rear. The missile is powered by a short duration solid rocket for launch, then by a sustainer motor once it is well clear of the launch tube.

The Blowpipe's guidance is initially semi-automatic with the missile gathered to the centre of the sight's crosshairs by the infrared optic atop the aiming unit. Two to three seconds after launch, missile guidance is switched to fully MCLOS mode, and the operator regains full control of the missile. The operator has to steer the missile all the way to its target manually via a small thumb joystick. The operator can opt not to use autogathering when engaging low flying targets such as helicopters, but then has to super-elevate the launcher to ensure that the missile does not hit the ground. Four flares in the tail of the missile make it visible in flight, first to the infrared optic, then to the operator. Detonation is either by proximity or contact fuse. In emergencies, the operator can end an engagement by shutting off the power to the transmitter with the system switch, after which the missile will immediately self-destruct. The aiming unit can then be removed from the empty missile container and fitted to a new round.

Blowpipe was developed as a SAM for submarines, fitted as a cluster of four missiles into a mast that could be raised from the submarine's conning tower under the name Submarine Launched Airflight Missile (SLAM) trialled on HMS Aeneas (P427) in 1972. These were for a time installed on Israeli Gal class submarines.

Combat performance

Blowpipe was used by both sides during the Falklands War in 1982. With the targets being fast flying aircraft, flying low and using the ground to hide their approach, the Blowpipe operator had about 20 seconds to spot the target, align the unit and fire. Brigadier Julian Thompson compared using the weapon to "trying to shoot pheasants with a drainpipe". The official report stated that, of the 95 missiles fired by the British, only 9 managed to destroy their targets and all of these were slow flying planes and helicopters. A later report determined that only two kills could be attributed to Blowpipe: A British Harrier GR3 (XZ972) attacked by Argentine Army special forces (Commandos Company), and an Argentine Aermacchi MB-339 (0766 (4-A-114)) during the Battle of Goose Green.

Blowpipe was found to be particularly ineffective when used to engage a crossing target or to chase a target moving rapidly away from the operator. The poor performance led to it being withdrawn from UK service. In 1986 some of the mothballed units were sent clandestinely to equip the Mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. The system again proved ineffective, and was eventually supplanted by the US Stinger missile. While Blowpipe was available on the international arms market and therefore its origins were open to speculation, the Stinger was restricted, which at the time indicated a more open acknowledgment of Western support for the Mujahideen. Blowpipe missile systems are still being found in weapon caches as recently as May 2012 in Afghanistan.

The Canadian military took Blowpipe from storage to give some protection to their naval contribution to the 1991 Gulf war, although sheer age had degraded the weapons, and nine out of 27 missiles tested misfired in some way. The Javelin GL, which was backward compatible to the Blowpipe, was then hastily purchased as a replacement.

Blowpipe saw more effective use in the Cenepa War of 1995 between Ecuador and Peru, where it was deployed mainly against Peruvian Mil Mi-17 and Mil Mi-18 helicopters.


Blowpipe was replaced by the Javelin surface-to-air missile, which was of a generally similar design but with an improved performance and a semi-automatic guidance system (SACLOS) – the operator now controls the missile by keeping the target in his sight, and the aiming unit steers the missile to remain centered in the sight. A computer in the missile launcher calculates the difference between the current aim spot and the missile's location, and sends commands to the missile via radio to bring it to an impact point.

The basic Javelin missile body was retained in the upgraded Javelin S15, which replaced the original's radio command guidance system with a semi-automatic laser system. This uses a laser in the launcher to "paint" the target, and a seeker in the missile nose cone sees the reflected signal and homes in on it. This renders it largely immune to any possible jamming. S15 was better known as Starburst, although it was known by a variety of names in service.

Starburst was used only briefly, before being replaced by Starstreak. Starstreak uses the same beam-riding concept as Starburst, but dramatically improves the missile and warhead. In Starstreak, the missile quickly accelerates to Mach 3.5, then separates to release three dart-like interceptors. Each dart is independently guided by riding the laser beam, thus improving the chances of a hit. The darts are also effective against armour.

Current operators

  • Argentine Army
  •  Chile
  • Chilean Navy
  • Chilean Air Force
  •  Ecuador
  • Ecuadorian Army – (220 launchers)
  • Guatemala – (82 launchers)
  • Israeli Navy – (3 systems installed on Gal class submarines)
  •  Malawi
  • Military of Malawi – (12 launchers)
  • Malaysia
  • Nigerian Army – (48 launchers)
  •  Oman
  • Royal Army of Oman
  •  Portugal
  • Portuguese Army – (57 launchers – replaced by FIM-92 Stinger)
  •  Qatar
  • Military of Qatar
  •  Thailand
  • Royal Thai Air Force
  • Royal Thai Army
  •  United Arab Emirates – (about 20 launchers)
     United Kingdom – (285 launchers in storage not in use replaced by Starstreak MANPADS)
  • British Army
  • Royal Marines
  • References

    Blowpipe (missile) Wikipedia

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