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Light weapons defined.

There is no precise formal definition of light weapons. In general, they can be categorized as any conventional weapons that can be carried by an individual combatant or by a light vehicle operating on back-country roads. They range from pistols, revolvers, rifles, and carbines to hand grenades, machine guns, light antitank weapons, bazookas, rocket-propelled grenades, light mortars, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, and antipersonnel land mines. Anything heavier is excluded: tanks, heavy artillery, planes, ships, large missiles, and so on, along with weapons of mass destruction.

The distinction between light and heavy weapons can also be made in operational terms. Heavy weapons usually require elaborate logistical and maintenance capabilities that can be provided only by professional military organizations with considerable technical expertise - that is, by the armed forces of established states. Light weapons, on the other hand, can be employed by militias and insurgent groups that lack the skills and resources of a regular army; for this very reason, they are the preferred munitions of guerrillas and other irregular forces.

Although light weapons are not generally known for their high-tech sophistication, there has been a steady increase in the lethality and destructiveness of such systems. Modern assault guns, for instance, can fire a burst of 30 to 35 bullets with one pull of the trigger, enabling people armed with such weapons to shoot into a crowd and kill many people at once - as occurred during the February 1994 Hebron shooting, committed with a 35-round Galil assault gun. In Somalia, light antiaircraft guns such as the Soviet ZSU-23 have been mounted on modified jeeps and trucks (called "technicals") and used with devastating effect against vehicles, low-flying helicopters, and urban strongholds. antipersonnel land mines have been made smaller and harder to detect or packaged in plastic so as to prevent discovery by metal detectors.

Other light weapons - handguns, shotguns, machine guns, and grenades - have been "improved" in other ways, further enhancing their destructive potential.

Light weapons of the sort that are currently being sought by both military and paramilitary forces can be divided into several major categories:

Assault rifles - individual firearms that automatically fire a burst of bullets when the trigger is pulled. Popular models include the Soviet AK-47 and its successors; the U.S. M-16; the German G3; the Belgian FAL; and two copies of the AK-47, the Chinese Type 56 and the Israeli Galil.

Machine guns - crew-served weapons that spew out a steady stream of bullets. Popular models include the U.S. M-2 and M-60, the German MG3, the Soviet SGM and RPK, the Chinese Type 67, and the Belgian MAG.

Light antitank weapons - various light infantry weapons used against tanks and fortified positions, including grenade launchers, recoilless rifles, rockets, and antitank missiles. Popular models include the Soviet RPG-2 and RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades (and their Chinese variants, Types 56 and 69), the U.S. M-20 and M-72 rocket launchers, the U.S. Dragon and TOW antitank missiles, and the Franco-German MILAN antitank missile.

Shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles - self-guided missiles that maneuver in flight to strike low-flying aircraft and helicopters. Popular models include the U.S. Stinger, the British Blowpipe, the Soviet SAM-7, and the Swedish RBS-70.

Antipersonnel landmines - small explosive devices placed in the ground that are triggered when people step on them. Popular models include the U.S. M-18A1 "Claymore," the Chinese Type 72A, and the Belgian PRB 409.

Light mortars - light artillery pieces used to loft a shell in a high trajectory at opposing forces. Mortars are produced in a variety of calibers, including 60 mm, 81 mm, 107 mm, and 120 mm. (Larger versions are considered heavy artillery and are normally operated by artillery specialists.)
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Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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