The Shorts Blowpipe
is a man-portable surface-to-air missile
) which 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 It was superseded by an interim design, Javelin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 main sustainer rocket once it is well clear of the launch tube.
of the Blowpipe 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 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 the operator 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.
Blowpipe was used by both sides during the Falklands War
. With the targets being fast flying aircraft, flying low and using the ground to hide their approach the Blowpipe had about 20 seconds to spot the target, align the unit and fire. A British officer 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) and an Argentine Aermacchi MB-339A
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).
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 . With Blowpipe ineffective, a more effective system had to be found. While Blowpipe was available on the international arms market and therefore its origins were open to speculation, the provision of the US Stinger missile, which was restricted, meant that there had to be more open acknowledgment of Western support for the Mujahideen. Blowpipe missile systems are still being found in weapon caches as recently as June 2003 in Afghanistan .
The Canadian military took Blowpipe from storage to give some protection to their naval contribution to the 1991 Gulf war, however sheer age had affected the weapon and 9 out of 27 missiles tested mis-fired in some way.
Blowpipe saw more effective use in the Cenepa War of 1995 between Peru and Ecuador, being feared by Peruvian pilots.
Blowpipe was replaced by the Javelin surface-to-air missile
, which was of a generally similar design but improved in performance and with 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.
The basic Javelin missile body was retained in the Starburst surface-to-air missile, but the guidance system was further improved to a self-contained system in the missile itself. Unlike the Javelin where the guidance is calculated in the controller unit and sent to the missile via radio, in Starburst a laser in the control unit "paints" the target, and the missile passively guides itself to intercept the laser. This renders it largely immune to any possible jamming.
Starburst was used only briefly, before being replaced by the dramatically improved Starstreak. Starstreak uses the same beam-riding concept of Starburst, but dramatically improves the missile and warhead. In Starstreak the missile very quickly accelerates to Mach 3.5, then separates to release three dart-like interceptors. Each dart is independently guided by riding the laser beam, dramatically improving the chances of a hit. The darts are also excellent at penetrating armor.
Operators Afghanistan Argentina Canada
: (111 launchers) Chile Ecuador
: (220 launchers) Malawi
: (12 launchers) Malaysia Nigeria
: (48 launchers) Oman Portugal
: (57 launchers) Qatar Thailand United Arab Emirates
: (about 20 launchers) United Kingdom
: (285 launchers)
- Falklands Air War, Chris Hobson, ISBN 1-85780-126-1
- The Battle for the Falklands, Max Hastings & Simon Jenkins, ISBN 0-330-35284-9