Written by Jehron Baggaley
It’s not often that a single weapon has the potential to change the way entire wars are fought, but a case can be made that the FIM-92 Stinger has done just that. Since they were developed by the United States in the 1980s, these surface-to-air missiles have been used in combat on almost every continent, and often with a commanding, game changing presence on the battlefield. Today we’re going to dig into the history and development of this intricate beast, how exactly it works, and the impact the Stinger has had on armed conflicts around the globe for over 40 years, from fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan all the way to the present-day invasion of Ukraine.
Fighting the Skies
The need for an effective anti-air weapon isn’t a recent problem – in fact, militaries have been developing weapons specifically for this purpose ever since flying vehicles became a threat. During World War 1 and even in the years leading up to it, multiple armies had developed specific machine guns for firing at airplanes, balloons, or airships. Similarly, during World War 2, most anti-air weapons were either mounted machine guns or a flak cannon that fired a projectile which was set to detonate when it reached a certain altitude.
But as airplanes started using jet engines and getting much faster, hitting them with heavy machine gun rounds became decidedly more difficult, and relying on an operator to hit the supersonic jets of the 1950s with bullets resulted in dramatically lower success rates. Not to mention, one huge downside of using a machine gun is that the muzzle flash from firing can give away your position to the enemy aircraft. By the time the Korean War broke out, the United States was already investing huge sums of money into developing new methods of countering aerial threats, and eventually came up with MANPADS. MANPADS stands for Man Portable Air Defense Systems, and the first of its kind in the US was the FIM-43 Redeye.
The Redeye was pretty revolutionary for its time. It was a relatively light infrared homing missile with a pretty good kill rate against helicopters and low-flying aircraft. Redeye was used quite a bit in Vietnam, as well as shipped overseas to allies, and throughout its service years more than 85,000 units were built. It was so good that when the Soviets created their own similar system, the SA-7, the CIA accused them of copying the Redeye, despite an export ban in place to prevent this exact scenario from happening. A few variants of the Redeye were made, some with improved optics or experimental missiles, and although it was widely praised for its effectiveness, the US was already looking to improve it. One of the big drawbacks of the Redeye was that it was only able to consistently lock onto the intense heat of an airplane’s engine, and could only detect this from certain angles, meaning it was very difficult to fire the missile at an aircraft that was approaching the operator. This is why MANPADS at the time were called “tail-chase weapons”. With this in mind, the Redeye project was given clearance to begin developing a newer, better model.
And this is where the star of the show comes in: In 1971, General Dynamics began development on Redeye II, and, just a year later, it was given the name which it holds to this day: the FIM-92 Stinger. Throughout the 70s the Stinger was designed, tested, and redesigned several times. It’s first shoulder-fired test took place in 1975, and Raytheon started official production three years later.
Now that we’ve covered the brief history of the Stinger’s development, let’s get into how this complex aircraft killer actually works.
A Helicopter’s Nightmare
For starters, there are several variants of the Stinger missile that are designed to be fired from different platforms. These include ground vehicles, such as the Bradley Fighting Vehicle or the Dutch Army Fennek, and there’s also a version made specifically for helicopters, called the Air-to-Air Stinger, but today we’re going to be focusing on the man-portable version that has been most commonly manufactured and spread around the world.
So let’s talk about the missile itself. The FIM-92 Stinger is 1.5 meters long, that’s about 5 feet, and it’s broken up into four sections: The tip of the missile houses the seeker, which detects the target and makes interception calculations during flight. Right behind the seeker is the warhead, which is a 1 kilogram mixture of the high-explosive compound HTA-3, which detonates on impact. Then we have the propellant, a two-stage, solid-fuel booster that accelerates the missile to its ridiculous max speed of Mach 2.54. To put that in perspective, Mach 2.54 is over 870 meters per second, or just over 2800 feet per second. But, before the solid-fuel ignites, the missile needs to get a safe distance from the operator, so the first step in the firing process is actually a small ejection motor, which throws the missile a fair bit out of the launcher before the main fuel is engaged. This is why in a video of it firing you’ll see it sort of pop out and hang in the air for a fraction of a second before it zooms off. The missile can hit targets flying as high as 3500 meters and has a range of about 8 kilometers. For anyone wondering, that’s 11,400 feet and about 5 miles.
Now onto the launcher. The complete stinger package includes the missile, the launch tube, a sight, a grip stock, the IFF antenna, and a battery coolant unit. The IFF antenna is an incredible device that allows the missile to detect whether or not an incoming aircraft is an ally or an enemy. IFF stands for Identification of Friend or Foe and measures radio wave frequencies to prevent friendly fire incidents. First, the IFF box sends out an ‘interrogation’ radio signal, and, if the aircraft is friendly, it will have a corresponding IFF transponder that responds with the appropriate signal. If no such response is detected from the interrogation, the missile allows itself to be fired. This takes a lot of the potential human error out of using the weapon, as normally an anti-air crew needs to train to discern between different aircraft in the sky to avoid friendly fire. Additionally, it means that if the Stinger falls into enemy hands, it can’t be used on its former owners.
The battery coolant unit, or BCU, is a fundamental part of the kit, but it’s also one of its biggest drawbacks. Once the BCU is entered into the launcher near the grip stock, it injects cooled argon gas into the seeker, which brings it down to operating temperature, and also contains a thermal battery to power said seeker. But, once the BCU has been placed in the launcher and activated, it only has enough juice to run for about 45 seconds, after which it needs to replaced if the missile hasn’t been fired. BCUs need to be handled carefully because they can reportedly be damaged rather easily, and leaky argon means that they have a fairly short shelf life after production, usually only lasting up to 10 years.
With every component together, including the antenna, BCU, and the missile itself, the total package weighs about 15 kilograms, or 34 pounds. This relatively light weight is one of the stinger’s biggest advantages – if needed, a single soldier can carry the stinger, set it up, and fire it. And firing it doesn’t take a specialized, dedicated team of experts, just a soldier who has been trained to use it properly, though usually a basic unit of two men operate the weapon. When aiming the Stinger at the sky, a special speaker emits a tone that changes pitch when the missile has acquired a target, and, in case the battlefield is too loud to hear these tones, a bone conduction transducer resting on the operator’s cheek can transmit the tones through vibrations. And the best part? The Stinger is what’s known as a fire-and-forget missile, meaning that once you’ve acquired the lock-on and sent the warhead on its merry way, the operator can run back to cover without having to do anything else. This is a huge advantage when compared with other, older MANPADS that require constant user input for the missile to reach its target.
So, let’s say you’re out on a crisp Saturday morning flying your new helicopter around and your pesky drunk neighbor suddenly locks on and fires a Stinger at you. What are your chances of survival and how can you defend yourself? Well, there are a few things that pilots can do to give themselves a chance of escape from the speeding missile. First of all, you better hope that your vehicle has a warning system to identify the incoming threat for you, otherwise you only have a few seconds to respond after seeing the trail of smoke screaming towards you. Once the threat has been identified, the most common way an aircraft can defend itself is by deploying flares. When these super-hot flares spread out behind a helicopter or jet, their immense heat can grab the attention of the infrared seeker in the stinger, which can pull its attention away from the actual aircraft. Of course, the missiles continually receive software upgrades to better identify their actual target, and likewise flares improve year by year to better match their vehicle’s heat signature. Additionally, the stinger can also track aircraft based on their UV signature compared to the rest of the sky, so there’s the possibility it just goes right through your flares without an issue.
A more sophisticated defense system is the DICRM, or Directed Infrared Counter Measure. These are devices placed on the outside of an aircraft that can send a directed infrared pulse at the seeker of an incoming missile, screwing up its IR tracking. These are a bit more expensive, and so they aren’t generally seen on every vehicle that the stinger goes up against, but you will see them on planes such as the US president’s Air Force One.
Now, if none of your fancy technology manages to shake the missile off your tail, your only remaining option is to evade it manually. You have two options here – Firstly, you can break the line of sight by swerving behind a hill or a building. If the missile can’t see the heat from your engine, it can’t track you, and will lose your trail. If you don’t have time to do that, you can attempt a last second swerve to dodge the missile just as its getting close to your aircraft, but, realistically, this is a last ditch effort and only a serious option for faster jets, not helicopters. Outmaneuvering the missile used to be a viable option against the old Redeye because Redeye missiles couldn’t turn at a force greater than 6g, which gave pilots a window of opportunity to evade it if they detected it soon enough, but the stinger not only has a higher maximum speed, it also has a much faster rate of acceleration and can turn more sharply.
Essentially, you’re going to need all the help you can get to not end up another statistic on the Stinger’s lengthy résumé.
The Game Changer
The Stinger made its combat debut in the Falkland Islands War, when an SAS soldier successfully shot down an Argentinian Pucará ground attack aircraft. And, a few days later, they also shot down a Puma transport helicopter, despite having little to no official training with the weapon, since the soldier who was supposed to train everyone had died in a helicopter crash. The Stinger wasn’t the main anti-air weapon in use by the British in the Falkland Islands, as they’d mostly brought their own systems to the fight, but it had nonetheless proved that it was combat worthy.
Just a few years later though, the Sting would be felt by the Soviets on the other side of the globe. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, their superior army quickly occupied the major cities and established control over them, but they struggled to have the same success in the rocky, mountainous terrain for which Afghanistan is famous. It was here in these mountains and valleys that the Mujahadeen, a coalition of rebel forces, was fighting against the Soviet occupation. Guerilla warfare and convoy ambushes became a serious problem for the USSR, especially because the rebels were being supported and supplied by China, the UK, and the United States. Eager to stop the spread of communism, the CIA was purchasing weapons overseas and shipping them to the Mujahadeen through Pakistan, but, also careful to not get too directly involved, they were only sending weapons that weren’t made in the US, such as Kalashnikov style rifles that they bought from China and Egypt.
For the first few years, this was enough to make the Mujahadeen a thick thorn in the Soviet Union’s backside, but once the Soviets started taking advantage of their immense air superiority, the rebels started losing their fighting chances. Soviet attack helicopters had devastating potential in the mountains, and attack jets struck fear in the rebels’ hearts. Under a lot of pressure to ramp up the support for the rebels, the CIA eventually relented and in 1986 started shipping Stingers to the Mujahadeen.
The project almost stopped right as it started though, when they realized they didn’t have a clear way to train the rebels on how to actually use the missiles. But, eventually, the CIA settled on having a model airplane move between two buildings on a rope, sort of like a zipline. The model plane had a bright flashlight on it, and the rebels could practice locking on to it with the IR sensors.
In total, as many as 2000 stingers, along with a few hundred launchers, made their way to Afghanistan, though sources of course vary on the exact number. This was when they earned the title of game changer. The first kill with a Stinger in the Soviet-Afghan War was reported when a Mujahadeen engineer named Ghaffar took down an Mi-24 Hind, a large Soviet attack helicopter, near the city Jalalabad. Throughout the entire war, the US reported that the Mujahadeen scored 269 kills in 340 engagements, giving the stinger a 79% kill rate, and accounting for more than half of the Soviet aircraft losses. And keep in mind, though each missile did cost tens of thousands of dollars, one successful shot could take out a multi-million dollar Soviet aircraft. It’s quite the return on investment.
Some historians call the introduction of Stingers a turning point in the war. They were called a ‘force multiplier’ and a ‘morale booster’, and forced the Soviet pilots to drop ordnance from higher altitudes to get out of the missile’s range, making their bombing runs far less accurate. It also made the helicopters hug the terrain as they flew, which kept them safe from stingers but opened them up to anti-air machine guns. This is called ‘The Stinger Effect’, and many claim it to be a key reason that the Soviet Union eventually withdrew from the conflict.
However, others contest this version of the story. Most Russian generals say that the west greatly exaggerated the effectiveness of the stinger, and Gorbachev himself said in an interview in 2010 that the Stinger hadn’t affected his decision to withdraw from the conflict. But, let’s be honest, Russian generals aren’t exactly the most trustworthy people out there.
Whatever you choose to believe, there’s one part of the story that isn’t disputed – the fact that after the Soviets left, there were a ton of Stingers left in rebel hands in Afghanistan. The CIA was desperate to buy them back, but, I mean, let’s be honest, who was going to give up such a powerful weapon? Definitely not the Mujahadeen, who, by the way, had among their ranks a famous young chap named Osama Bin Laden.
Some of these Stingers were bought back or otherwise recovered, but many more ended up getting smuggled into other countries. A few of the lost Stingers made surprise appearances in Croatia, Iran, and even far away in Sri Lanka. US Representative Charlie Wilson, who supported and oversaw much of the Stinger transports, later said that he lived in fear that a civilian airliner would be shot down by one of these long-lost missiles, but that he didn’t regret sending them to Afghanistan in the first place.
Stingers saw more use in the Angolan Civil War, the Libyan invasion of Chad, and even the Second Chechen War, where one shot down a Russian Su-24. Again, supplied stingers often went missing after these wars, and although the batteries have a short shelf life like we mentioned earlier, people were resourceful enough to convert old car batteries to do the job after the original battery kicked the can.
Here to Stay?
Throughout the various middle eastern conflicts in the 2000s, the United States didn’t really use the stinger all that much because the enemies they were facing didn’t have any air power that could compete with the US Air Force, so there were almost no threats from the skies. This is one of the main reasons that the US military had gotten pretty complacent about their stockpile of the missiles, after all, the last time the US lost a soldier to an air strike was in the Korean War. And these days, it just didn’t seem like anyone was going to face serious air power anytime soon.
Of course, that all changed in February, 2022, when Russia announced its ‘special military operation’, aka, invasion. Ukraine was quickly added to the list of over 2 dozen countries that operate the Stinger when it received thousands of units from the US, UK, Netherlands, Italy, Latvia, and Lithuania. Denmark even chimed in to promise spare parts for them. However, with modern countermeasures and different military doctrine, its highly unlikely that the Stingers are going to have the same impact in Ukraine as they did in Afghanistan.
Regardless, the mass shipment of the missiles to Ukraine has caused a bit of a scramble to replenish old stockpiles, but that’s much easier said than done. Raytheon, who manufactures the stinger in the United States, received an order from the US for nearly 1500 Stingers, but had to release a statement saying,
““Some of the components are no longer commercially available, and so we’re going to have to go out and redesign some of the electronics in the missile of the seeker head. That’s going to take us a little bit of time.”
At the end of the day, the Stinger is still a missile that was invented in the 1970s, and although it has received numerous upgrades over the years, its still expected that that the most recent version, which has reprogrammable microprocessors, will be obsolete by 2030. This is why the US is already looking for the next step forward. In 2020, the US Army issued a request for new and improved MANPADS, and the companies interested are working on newer designs as we speak.
So we’ll see what the future holds for the ol’ Stinger, but with the thousands of units currently in stockpiles around the world, and with quite a proven track record, they’re likely here to stay for many years to come.