NLAW is the British Army’s name for the Saab Bofor’s developed MBT LAW, in the early 2000s the British Army was looking for a more capable replacement of its LAW80. The Saab offering, Next Generation Light Anti-tank Weapon, won the contract in 2002 beating out several competitors including the SRAW-based Kestrel from Lockheed Martin/BAe.
The UK has just announced the transfer of light anti tank weapons to Ukraine in light of the continuing tensions with Russia. As such the UK is the latest nation to announce that they will be providing weapons to Ukraine. They follow US shipments of Javelin Missiles in December 2021, year and we’ve already seen these in the hands of Ukrainian troops. Most recently it has been confirmed that Lithuania plans to supply anti-tank systems to Ukraine too. The UK’s defence minister Ben Wallace stated that: “We have taken the decision to supply Ukraine with light, anti-armour, defensive weapon system”, while this does not specifically name NLAW, this describes the role which NLAW fulfils.
So what is NLAW?
NLAW is a disposable, shoulder-fired, single shot system which weighs about 12.5kg or 27.5lbs. It uses a predicted line of sight guidance system which calculates where the target will be when the missile reaches it. Like Javelin it is capable of targeting a tank’s weakest point, its top side.
The NLAW has two firing modes: Direct Attack, with the missile flying directly to point of aim, useful for engaging static targets. While the second, Overfly Top Attack, uses the Predicted Line of Sight (PLOS) system. The guidance algorithm optimises the trajectory of the warhead on an elevated flight path over the target with the onboard proximity fuze then detonating and firing an explosively formed penetrator down onto the target.
In British service the NLAW was selected to replace the LAW-80, a 94mm unguided anti-tank rocket, British Army analysis found that in order to provide adequate close range defence against armoured vehicles “significant numbers of NLAW will be required in order to ensure there is sufficient coverage of the battlefield.” This meant the system had to be capable and affordable. Since its delivery and introduction into service in 2009, the NLAW has been the secondary anti-tank weapon of the British Army’s specialised anti-tank platoons’, with the Javelin being their primary. The NLAW is also available for issue as the primary infantry light anti-tank weapon. The British Army describes it as “non-expert, short-range, anti-tank missile that rapidly knocks out any main battle tank in just one shot by striking it from above.” While not cheap, at around £20,000 per unit, NLAW costs significantly less than the longer-ranged, more complex Javelin [estimated at around £70,000 per unit]. It is currently in service with Finland, Sweden, Luxembourg, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. It has seen action during Saudi Arabia’s interventions in Yemen.
The weapon can engage close range targets at as close as 20m and uses a soft launch system that enables it to be fired from enclosed spaces. It can take on static target at 600 to 800m and moving ones at 400m. Technically, NLAW is not an anti-tank guided missile as the missile is not guided by an onboard system once it has been fired. Instead it used a Predicted Line of Sight (PLOS) system which enables it to be used like a fire and forget ATGM.
The weapon’s operator activates the PLOS system and the user tracks the target for 3 to 6 seconds in the NLAW’s Trijicon Compact ACOG 2.5×20 sight before firing, the guidance system calculates the predicted flight path to the target to ensure a hit.
The number of NLAW being dispatched by the UK has not been confirmed although several flights of RAF C-17s were made overnight on 17th January, 2022. Footage released by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence showing the arrival of the NLAWs enables us to estimate that each flight could have carried somewhere between 180 and 216 NLAWs.
It isn’t clear just how many NLAW systems the UK has stockpiled but it is likely that as missile systems have a limited shelf-life that the older systems may have been transferred first. The terms of the agreement to transfer the NLAWs hasn’t been made public but it was confirmed small teams of British troops had accompanied the weapons to provide initial training to Ukrainian forces on how to use them. This is in line with Operation ORBITAL, the UK’s training mission to Ukraine which was established in 2015, following the illegal annexation of Crimea. Wallace was keen to stress that “this support is for short-range, and clearly defensive weapons capabilities; they are not strategic weapons and pose no threat to Russia. They are to use in self-defence and the UK personnel providing the early-stage training will return to the United Kingdom after completing it.”
As of the time of writing more than 10 flights have been observed carrying military equipment from the UK. It is estimated that some 2,000 NLAW have been transfered. This was tacitly confirmed by remarks made by Wallace to the press.
The UK has been working with Ukraine not just through Op ORBITAL but also more broadly with a number of agreements being signed in 2021 to support Ukraine’s naval capability. While the usefulness of the NLAWs are confined to close range engagements the move is clearly a symbolic signal to Russia.
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