One of the big surprises for me about the Battle of Marawi of 2017 (also known as the Marawi Crisis, Marawi Siege, Siege of Marawi, etc.) was the use and effectiveness of RPG type weapons by the terrorist Dawlah Islamiyah Ranao (DIR) group (also known as the Maute Group, Maute ISIS Group (MIG), A Bunch of Fakking Idi@%s (ABFI), etc.).
Local Islamic insurgent groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has long been known to have such weapons in their arsenal, but they used them only sparingly over the years, certainly not anywhere near the same amount of quantity they were used in Marawi.
The city of Marawi by the way, is located by the shores of the largest lake in Mindanao, Lake Lanao. It has a population of around 200,000, 90% of which are Muslim, and as a result the city has been unofficially named as the “Islamic City of Marawi”. It has a land area of 87.55 km^2, about the same size as Naga in Camarines Sur or Dasmarinas in Cavite, and its economy is based on Agriculture, Trading and Export.1
’RPGs in Marawi’
There are a number of accounts of the DIR’s use of RPGs in Marawi, but one heart-rending story that stood out involved Cpl. Angelo Estores Jr., a member of the Philippine Army’s 5th Mechanized Battalion.
His unit got trapped in the frontlines, and as he ran out of ammunition, he got to call his father on the cellphone, telling him of his situation. Among the things he mentioned was how the enemy were using RPGs against them. Cpl. Estores’ body was later found and recovered.2
In another instance, Sgt. Sandy Benitez, a 13 year war veteran of the Philippine Marines recounted how his unit was ambushed one night in Marawi. He saw one of friends get killed by one RPG while shrapnel from another hit and injured his left foot. He ended up crawling a short stretch of road for five hours just to reach safety.3
The RPGs with their relatively short effective range needed to be used up close, and that is definitely how the terrorists are using them. An unnamed soldier described how the DIR would wait for the Armed Forces of the Philippine’s (AFP) armored vehicles to come close before they started firing their RPGs.4
And they have proven to be so effective that a number of our armored vehicles were lost because of them and our troops have resorted to installing improvised “Wooden Armor” on their vehicles in an effort to provide more protection from those rounds.5
Based on available video and picture evidences, what the terrorists are using are the RPG-2 Anti-Tank Rocket Launcherwhich was designed in late World War Two (WW2) and first entered service with the armed forces of the Soviet Union in 1949. Its design was based on two successful Anti-Tank weapons of WW2, the German Panzerfaust and the American Bazooka.
The acronym “RPG” actually stands for Ruchnoy Protivotankovy Granatomyot which in English means “Hand-held, Anti-tank Grenade Launcher”. Its fully loaded weight is 4.6 kg (or 10.15 lbs) and its total length is 0.95 m (or 3 ft. and 1.4 in. long). It has an effective range of only up to 150 m and it’s PG-2 High Explosive, Anti-Tank (HEAT) round is capable of penetrating a thickness of up to 200 mm of Rolled Homogenous Armor (RHA).6
The RPG-2 has long been replaced by most of the armies that used them by the more modern and more effective RPG-7 Anti-Tank Rocket Launcher, though it is still in production in a handful of countries including Belarus.7
It is possible that the terrorists are using surplus RPG-2 units that were smuggled into the country from somewhere, but the relatively crude appearance of the launchers and rounds seem to point to the fact that these are likely to be “homemade” units.
Somehow, somewhere, sometime, those RPGs and/or the knowledge of how to make them could have been shared either willingly or unwillingly to the DIR. Making their own RPGs actually simplifies the logistics for these terrorists groups as they can make as many of the launchers and its rockets as they need as long as they have funds and materials to do so.
One report suggests that the MILF started getting sophisticated weapons like the RPG-2 around the late 1990s so by the time their main stronghold Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao was overrun by the military in 2000, Lathe Machines and other equipment that allowed them to fabricate these RPGs were found there.10
As to how they gained the knowledge and capability to build them, nobody knows for sure and they certainly aren’t talking. One possibility is that they got some sort of foreign training, either instructors came into the country, and/or that people were sent abroad.
Books and/or manuals could have been used as supplement for those trainings, and one such book that is openly available out there right now on sites like Amazon11 is entitled, “Poor Man’s RPG” authored supposedly by some guy named George Dmitrieff.
It was first published over two decades ago in 1996, so plenty of time for a lot of other people to discover it first. It is around 150 pages long with illustrations and diagrams, and has a disclaimer at the start that says the information inside the book is, “… not intended for the manufacture and use of the said Anti-Tank weapon …”
But it then goes on and does exactly just that, going into minute details on how to produce launchers and ammunition of such weapons. For example, it describes the materials needed to produce the rocket propellants, their correct proportions and how to process them.
There are also drawings of the launcher mechanism, among others, and suggestions on what improvised materials to use. The rocket ammunition, for example, was suggested to be made using Plastic Tubing for the body and Tin Can for the shell.
There are a number of ammunition types that are being used for these RPG-2s, but the most common ones seems to be the PG-2 copy as shown on the picture at the top of this page. These ones are used mainly for anti-armor operations because of their penetration capability.
The second one are 60 mm mortar rounds converted to fire thru the RPGs and are mainly used for anti-personnel and against bunkers. The strange thing about these rounds though is that they look more like the M302 White Phosphorous (WP) rather than the M720 High Explosive (HE) mortar rounds.
But if the terrorists were really using WP rounds, it would have made quite a stir since these cause serious burns, but none has been reported so far. It is possible that they are using the M302 form mainly because at 340 g it carries 150 g more explosive filler than the 190 g on the M720.12
’Local Weapons Industry Project?’
Those RPG-2s does make me wonder, if local groups are able to make such weapons that perform satisfactorily in battle using only their backyard technology, then shouldn’t our legitimate, local Small Arms industry be able to produce them also on their own, and maybe even improve on them?
After all, they have more sophisticated tools available to them, like Computer Design Software which makes it easier to generate exact technical drawings that can be used to produce the parts. And they also have Computer Aided Forming machines that enable them to construct parts more accurately and with much tighter tolerances than any machinery in a backyard factory.
As for patent issues, they may need to look at that more closely, but it’s possible that since the design is already 68 years old as of this year, whatever patents that may have been in place back then had already long expired and thus the design could now be safely reverse engineered and produced without legal issues.
Of course it all depends on the AFP if they think that there is a need for them to have such weapons, and if they decide to try to get it from our local industry. Our armed forces are already using similar high explosive weapons, those that use the 40 x 46 mm caliber Grenade like the M203 and M320 Grenade Launchers.
These 40 x 46 mm caliber weapons have a similar effective range of 150 m like the RPG-2. However, the RPG-2 warheads typically contain a lot more explosives, between 340-900 g depending on the type of warhead which is 10 to 30 times larger than the only 32 g of explosives found on the warheads of the 40 x 46 mm caliber grenades,13 resulting a much more destructive capability per round.
One can even say that our troops may be “outgunned” by the terrorists’ use of these RPGs, so it might be time to level back the playing field. Note though that the larger and heavier RPG-2 rounds means much less can be carried by our troops compared to the much smaller and lighter 40 x 46 mm rounds.
The DIR used RPGs in Marawi in much greater quantities than before, and many accounts have shown their devastating effectiveness despite the fact that they are an older design and likely just homemade.
Foreign training and references could have enabled the Islamic militant groups in Mindanao to gain the knowledge on how to make these weapons, which were then willingly or unwillingly transferred over to the terrorist groups.
With the effectiveness of such weapons now evident, our own legitimate local industry could have the capability to produce and improve such weapons also, which would be beneficial to our armed forces with our soldiers being seemingly outgunned by the enemy’s use of these more powerful weapons.
The RPG-2s of Marawi and our other experiences in that place will likely have a significant impact on the AFP’s strategies and tactics from hereon, like how they train and how they equip themselves in the near future. And rightfully so since we need to learn and make adjustments after every battle we fight, especially the major ones like Marawi.
Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, Philippines,
Soldier called his father, “pa, Pray for me” before he was hit,
Horror Philippine war tales in Heroes’ Ward,
In battle for Marawi, troops pinned down by sniper fire, Molotov cocktails,
Wood-reinforced vehicles foil Maute antitank weapons,
RPG-2 Anti-tank rocket launcher,
40 mm RPG-2 Grenade Launcher,
New War and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front by Matthew Espina,
The Liberation Movements in Mindanao: Islam as a Thrusting Force – Marjanie Salic Macasalong,
Primed and Purposeful: Armed Groups and Human Security Efforts in the Philippines,
The Poor Man’s RPG,
Army Ammunition Data Sheets (FSC 1310, 1315, 1320, 1390),
40mm Low-Velocity Grenades,