The recent announcement that the UK will acquire Carl-Gustaf M4 recoilless rifles to replace, in part, anti-structure munitions and NLAW anti-tank missiles granted to Ukraine, will see just 56 M4 rifles delivered, along with a training package and ammunition.

Revealed in March, the £4.6m package will see a return of the Carl-Gustaf to UK British Army service, which first adopted the system towards the end of the 1960s in its M2 variants as an infantry anti-tank capability.

The UK has also provided hundreds of NLAW anti-tank missile systems to Ukraine, and while a contract has been agreed with manufacture Saab to replenish stocks in December 2022, deliveries will take some time to work through the industrial pipeline. The Carl-Gustaf and NLAW replenishment deals are a notable double win for Saab, which has close ties with the UK defence sector.

In a 25 April UK parliamentary written answer, it was revealed that the Carl-Gustaf M4 systems would begin to be delivered “following the provision of Saab’s ‘train the trainer’ course in October 2023’.

According to UK Defence Equipment and Support, an arm of the UK Ministry of Defence, the Carl-Gustaf recoilless rifle is a multi-role weapon system that allows dismounted soldiers to “effectively deal” with multiple challenges and targets on the modern battlefield. It can fire a range of 84mm calibre munitions, depending on the target and battlefield requirements.

UK battlefield stocks possibly feeling the strain

The provision of anti-structure munitions, the NLAW, and other missile systems such as Starstreak, to Ukraine, have left UK stocks at a reduced level. While contracts are either agreed, or in the process of being finalized, to replenish its munition stocks, the acquisition of readily available systems such as the M4 will enable a degree of capability to be quickly returned to the UK military.

However, using the Carl-Gustaf anti-armour roles will not be as effective as is the case with more advanced alternatives such as NLAW or the Javelin, which are able to conduct top attack flight modes to target the weakest points of an enemy vehicle.

The Carl-Gustaf meanwhile is unable to perform such modes, although can leverage a range of munition types, such as the HEDP 502/502 RS, which has an effective range of 500m and stated by Saab as being able to target armoured vehicles, and enemies protected by structures and bunkers.

The NLAW, by comparison, has an effective firing range of up to 800m according to Saab and features magnetic and optical sensors to enable ‘predicted line of sight’ targeting, removing the need for a lock-on-signature and sustained tracking of a target by the operator.

However, cost is also an increasingly important factor in modern warfare. The M4 purchase, including ammunition and training, equates to around £82,000 ($102,000) per system, compared to around $33,000 for a single-shot NLAW, and approximately $200,000 for a Javelin.