‘It warms my heart to see Russian tanks blown up – it means our NLAW was a success’

·9-min read
A Ukrainian serviceman fires an NLAW anti-tank weapon - Vadim Ghirda
A Ukrainian serviceman fires an NLAW anti-tank weapon - Vadim Ghirda

On May 21, 2002, Baron Bach, the UK’s then Minister for Defence Procurement, gave a speech in which he announced the Swedish defence company, Saab Bofors, had won the £400 million British contract for the Next Generation Light Anti Armour Weapon, or NLAW.

“NLAW is an extremely potent man-portable, short-range, fire-and-forget, anti-armour weapon,” Bach told reporters. “It can destroy the most advanced tanks now envisaged, and is highly effective against other military targets such as armoured vehicles and buildings.”

20 years on from this announcement, we now know how right Baron Bach was. Over the past two months, the NLAW has become one of the most potent symbols of the war in Ukraine. Since the conflict began, Britain has sent Ukraine more than 6,900 of the weapons, which weigh just 12.5kg, have a range between 20 to 800 metres, cost around £24,000 a pop and require just an hour of training. Simple to use but deadly to its targets, the NLAW has been so popular with Ukrainian soldiers that they are reported to shout “God Save the Queen” each time one is fired.

Together with the longer-range but much more expensive American-made Javelin anti-tank missile – and alongside drones and conventional artillery – the NLAW has helped the Ukrainian army destroy more than 650 tanks and 3,000 other armoured vehicles since the start of the invasion. Videos from the conflict have shown the turrets of Russian tanks, which the NLAW was specifically designed to target, blown clean off.

“When I see the turrets of the Russian tanks flying up in the air, I get warm in my heart.” Not a sentence that you’d perhaps expect to hear about a brutal conflict but perhaps one that is understandable coming from Christer Nygren, now 75, who oversaw the NLAW project two decades ago at Saab Bofors. “It means that we were successful. I hope that everyone who was on the team, in Sweden and the UK, has the same feeling, that what we were fighting for and working for back then has had a very good result.”

For the men and women involved in the NLAW’s production, it is a rare opportunity to see something they worked on have a decisive impact on the battlefield. Often, defence projects can take so long to come to fruition that the people involved, especially senior staff, never witness the fruits of their labour. While the NLAW entered service in 2009, it’s only now, in Ukraine, it’s been allowed to showcase its capabilities.

The NLAW was designed to be the successor to the LAW-80, which itself was a successor to the Carl-Gustaf M2 recoilless gun that had been in use since the Sixties. “The M2 was very effective, but it was very big and heavy and an absolute pain to carry,” says Andrew Galer, head of land vehicles and weapons at Janes, a defence intelligence provider, who used both of the older weapons during an earlier career in the army. The LAW could only fire straight at a target, which made it increasingly ineffective against modern armour. It also used tracer rounds – bullets created with tiny pyrotechnic charges that burn brightly once discharged – to help the operators to spot their marks. “The disadvantage of those is that as soon as you fire the tracers, you become a target,” Galer explains.

As far as he is concerned, the NLAW has proven its worth beyond all doubt. “It has done the job it was designed to do,” he says. “That’s to the credit of the designers, who had the foresight to think we would need something light enough to be carried by infantry, that is not going to give away their position, that they can fire from a concealed position and that is cost effective.”

What makes the NLAW so effective is that it uses a predicted line-of-sight system, where the user tracks a target’s movement for a few seconds as they fire. The missile then uses that movement to predict where the target will be when the warhead arrives. Furthermore, when the weapon is fired, a small motor sends the missile a few feet out of the tube before the main charge ignites. This helps to disguise the location of the person firing it and means the weapon can be fired through windows without the rocket damaging the room.

The NLAW has been crucial in slowing the Russian invasion - NATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images
The NLAW has been crucial in slowing the Russian invasion - NATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Its other main advantage is its “top attack” feature, which means it can be set to explode a metre above its target as opposed to directly on it (although the latter is an option too, for use against buildings or other kinds of targets). The weapon was conceived in the late stages of the Cold War, when tanks were becoming increasingly well armoured on the front and sides. But tanks are vulnerable from the top, especially Russian designs in which the ammunition is stored around the turret, which has led to what has been called the “popcorn” effect when the turret is blown clean off the rest of the vehicle.

“The protection on main battle tanks was increasing all the time,” says Nygren. “We saw that we needed a new type of attack. But, with the over-the-top attack, you create another technical challenge, which is how to hit vertically down through the roof of the tank when the velocity of the missile is in the forward direction. It’s a tricky thing. Before any contracts were signed we had to present a lot of technical evidence that we could really defeat a tank from the top and get the warhead [to detonate] at the right time.” Details of the NLAW’s warhead technology remain classified but it uses combined magnetic and optical sensors to ensure it detonates at the right moment.

“We were watching what the Russians were doing,” Nygren adds. “Although I’m amazed, seeing all these videos from Ukraine of turrets flying up in the air. The protection seems to be weaker than what we expected. Maybe we didn’t need to be so worried.”

Sweden had already been working on a top-attack anti-tank missile, but they were keen to enjoy the “peace dividend” and had cut their defence budget during the Nineties. When Britain expressed an interest in the system, it made the development easier, but key to any potential deal was a requirement that the final assembly of the weapons would be in the UK. Shorts Missiles in Northern Ireland, which would be bought by the French firm Thales, had a history of expertise with missiles – 500 UK jobs were created from the deal – while Saab Bofors saw off a rival American system, Lockheed Martin, to be the preferred bidder.

“Ours was a much better system,” explains Nygren. “Even after 20 years, the Americans have yet to show us a system with this capacity. Plus – and this was another very important requirement from the British side – was that it should be easy to train people on the weapon. You can see that with the Ukrainians. You give them an hour of training and they can fight the T-90 [the most advanced Russian tank] without a problem.”

In the week that Sweden and Finland announced their intention to join Nato, the NLAW, designed by Swedes and assembled in Northern Ireland by a French company – and sent to help defend Ukraine against Russian aggression – stands as an example of successful European defence collaboration. It is also proof of the value of foresight. Despite the increasing armour on tanks, the early conversations about the NLAW took place amid a collapsing Soviet Union, when tank battles in Europe seemed like a remote prospect.

Boris Johnson recently visited the factory in Northern Ireland that produces the missiles - Liam McBurney - Pool/Getty Images
Boris Johnson recently visited the factory in Northern Ireland that produces the missiles - Liam McBurney - Pool/Getty Images

“Nobody thought at the time that the great plain of Europe would be used in the way it had been before,” says Baron Bach, who served as procurement minister from 2001 to 2005. “But, from a military point of view, we needed something that would protect us from tanks, if necessary, and we were also thinking about things we might be able to export. NLAW showed how successful you could be if you were imaginative about defence, and working together with our European allies while making sure we got our fair share as a country.

“NLAW was a successful procurement. I’m chuffed to bits about that because not all defence procurements are successful.”

It’s an understatement, especially when you think of the recent difficulties around British armour, especially the beleaguered Ajax fighting vehicles. Compared to the other major projects Bach oversaw, including the development of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter and the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, the NLAW was a relatively minor project, in terms of press attention and cost, but arguably the one that has best proved itself in theatre.

Bach, a Labour peer, says his worry today is whether Britain is keeping enough of the weapons for its own needs. “We need to be sure that in our generosity – or putting it less kindly – the Government’s need to be seen to be taking the lead [in Ukraine], for domestic reasons – there are enough for us,” he says. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Western powers were cutting defence as quickly as they could and I think we’re all paying the consequences for having been a bit naive. In the early Nineties, it looked as though the West had won. That clearly was never true. History has a way of tripping you up.”

Just as the men and women involved in developing the NLAW two decades ago might not have anticipated its current deployment in Ukraine, there is no way of knowing what will be useful in 2042. The lesson of the NLAW is that it pays to plan for the worst, even as you hope for the best. And to try to involve Swedish engineers.

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