The initial version employed an optical tracker. Later versions added a tracking radar Blindfire (DN181) and an electro-optical tracker. A cheaper export derivative with a laser tracker was known as Laserfire.
Rapier in its initial outing took the form of a wheeled launcher with four missiles, an optical tracker unit and trailer of stores — the whole kit along with crew delivered by three Land Rovers. It was typically used for airfield defence.
With the addition of the tracker radar unit enemy targets could be identified more quickly and then the operator could choose an entirely automatic launch, or manual operation.
A mobile tracked version Tracked Rapier was subsequently developed using the US M548 tracked carrier for the Shah of Iran. With the collapse of the Shah's government before delivery BAe had a system which they offered to the Royal Air Force.
The first Tracked Rapiers to enter service with the British Army were with 11 (Sphinx) Air Defence Battery, of 22 Air Defence Regiment, Royal Artillery in 1982-83 in Napier Barracks near Dortmund. They were slow: 13 mph cross country and 20-30 mph on road, and the conditions in the launcher were cramped. The driver, commander and operator lived in the cab, which was approximately 1 m × 2.5 m × 1.5 m; this space was also taken up by an optical tracking unit, personal kit and rations. Deployment time, without test and adjustments ("Ts & As"), was about 30 seconds, compared to 30 minutes for the towed system. The support vehicle carried arms, water, fuel, was crewed by a driver and crew commander, and was much faster at 30 mph cross country.
“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 to two confirmed kills 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.”
The main problems were a lack of range, and the lack of a proximity fuse, a deficiency which required the operator to strike the target aircraft directly with the missile. Rapier also suffered with problems with the Identification Friend Or Foe (IFF) system, although this did not contribute to the poor performance in the Falklands, since the batteries were allowed to fire at any targets, unless specifically instructed otherwise (e.g. by air control indicating that a friendly aircraft was coming in to land).
The current version, Rapier FSC (Field Standard C), was developed by MBDA (previously Matra BAe Dynamics) and is in service with the Royal Artillery. There is also an export version of the missile system called Jernas. Development of the FSC system began at the end of the 1980s and the systems first entered service in 1996.
It is used in a combined system with the Blindfire 2000 tracking radar and the Dagger surveillance radar. Eight missiles can be carried ready to fire, each with a high explosive warhead and missiles (designated MK2B) are now fitted with a proximity fuse. The missile's propulsion system is a two stage enhanced solid-propellant rocket motor capable of around Mach 2.5. The guidance is automatic infra-red and radar command to line of sight.