On the 16th of November 2014 an armoured jeep of the PSNI, the paramilitary police force in the British-administrated north-east of Ireland, was parked on a street in the Ardoyne district of north Belfast when it was hit by an explosive projectile that penetrated the vehicle’s exterior “skin” before being deflected by the thicker plating underneath (we do not know if the vehicle was a Land Rover Tangi, an older jeep-style model partly designed and built by RUC/PSNI engineers throughout the 1980s and ’90s, or one of the newer Pangolin Armoured Public Order Vehicles created in conjunction with a manufacturer in Britain). Within hours the New Irish Republican Army or (N)IRA, a 2012 amalgamation of several previous insurgent groupings, issued a rather poorly-worded communique confirming responsibility for the operation. The statement to the news media was accompanied by several photographs claiming to show the device used in the attack just minutes before it was deployed. According to the (N)IRA one of their Active Service Units had used a shoulder-held improvised grenade-launcher, fired at the PSNI jeep from a distance of eighteen metres. This was stated to be one of a series of new armaments the guerilla movement were developing through their supposed Engineering Department.
Improvised weapons and explosives have of course been central to the “Irish-British arms race” since the latter half of the 19th century, beginning with the “scientific warfare” of the US-based Fenian Brotherhood and its offshoots in the 1880s. However it was undoubtedly during the “armed struggle” of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army from 1969-2005 that the development of “home-made” munitions reached its zenith on the island nation of Ireland. From mortars to culvert-mines, drogue-grenades to truck-bombs, for over twenty years dozens of engineers and technicians worked in a light industry devoted to the production of equipment for an underground army. In the case of man-portable devices, which is relevant to the news report above, the two most important weapons were those the British Forces classed as the Mark 15 grenade-launcher or Improvised Projected Grenade (IPG) which dated from the mid-1980s, and the Mark 16 launcher or Projected Recoilless Improvised Grenade (PRIG) which dated from the early 1990s. In both cases (P)IRA’s own classifications for the devices are unknown.
The Mark 15 IPG was a deceptively simple creation resembling a conventional shoulder-held grenade-launcher that fired a warhead – the “grenade” – containing 1kg or more of explosives against fixed or moving targets. However in practice the device had many short-comings including limited range and accuracy, as well as mediocre effectiveness against “hardened” targets (in the hands of a trained operator it was more useful for “lobbying” the explosive projectile over fortified walls or onto enemy foot-patrols). It was also noted for leaving tell-tale bruising on the shoulders of unwary users due to the weapon’s considerable recoil.
In the early 1990s (P)IRA supplemented the Mark 15 with a heavier addition, the innovative Mark 16 PRIG. This seems to have been based on the Armbrust shoulder-launched anti-tank grenade-launcher produced by Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm of Germany from the 1980s to mid-2000s. The Armbrust consisted of a propellant charge placed between two pistons with the projectile (“grenade”) in front of one and some five thousand shredded plastic flakes behind the other. These flakes provided counterbalance to the warhead and were ejected from the rear of the barrel at the same initial velocity as the projectile left the front, rapidly dispersing behind the firer (this and the device’s minimal flash, smoke and noise made it ideal for use in urban combat).
The (P)IRA military technicians manufactured their equivalent of the Armbrust using off-the-shelf steel pipes varying in length that could be fired from on the shoulder, with a small explosive charge wired to a circuit consisting of an arming-switch and trigger in a grip-section welded to the middle of the pipe, and a very simple iron-sight. The projectile itself was a food-can engineered to form a hollow-charge warhead that was partly filled with 600 grammes of Semtex or other explosives, four simple fins providing limited stability in flight. This technology is commonly known as HEAT or High-Explosive Anti-Tank in military circles, the explosives being fixed around a hollow cone that crumples upon impact with the target, the fuse detonating the warhead to create a high-temperature, high-velocity gas jet capable of penetrating even the thickest of metal or composite plating. The all-important counterweight in the Mark 15 was provided in the simplest manner possible: two packets of mashed digestive biscuits (“cookies”) wrapped in J-cloths situated in the rear of the launcher which were blown harmlessly out the back of the tube when the device was fired.
By the time of the second (P)IRA ceasefire in 1997 the Mark 15 PRIG had been used in numerous operations across the north-east of Ireland, the consistency and refinements in design confirming British evaluations that they were being produced in an assembly-line manner by one or more workshops.
This brings us back to the partly successful (N)IRA attack of last November and the improvised weapon allegedly used by their ASU in north Belfast. Judging by the photographic evidence it loosely resembles several designs of commercially available grenade-launchers and may well come from engineers with some knowledge of manufacturing the original Mark 15 IPG. What is interesting about the device is the presumed rear trigger-handle – shown in the photos above – which seems to be the grip from a battery-operated cordless drill (the Makita range of Impact Drivers have been put forward as one possible source since these are available from DIY shops and suppliers in Ireland and Britain). This suggests that the grip has been wired to ignite a propellant charge inside the weapon’s prominent barrel, blasting it forward against the target. (N)IRA claims that the device can be quickly assembled from its individual parts implies a modular design, easy to transport or conceal. However the hefty price for the drill handle component certainly doesn’t make it cheap and this lends itself to traceability both from the original manufacturer and supply-chain sellers. While technologically it may be clever forensically it may be less so.
As things stand the (N)IRA, like other Irish Republican insurgents, will continue to rely upon older stocks of weapons and explosives taken from (P)IRA before the “decommissioning” process of the early 2000s for the vast majority of its offensive military operations. New weapons, improvised or purchased overseas, will be the rarity not the norm for some years to come and perhaps permanently.