Stinger missiles are Cold War relics, and like many such relics, have seen action to lethal effect in Ukraine’s war against the Russian invasion. Nations like the United States and other NATO allies have given Ukraine their Stingers, putting the venerable human-portable surface-to-air missile to use against Soviet-designed aircraft, as it was originally designed to do. But the Stinger missile design is so old, and the stockpiles of the missiles being expended so quickly, that Stinger-maker Raytheon is asking for its retired missile makers to teach current workers how to restart production, Defense One reported in late June.
The US Army announced it was looking for a new Stinger missile replacement in March 2022, just a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The announcement came after the Biden administration had already announced the planned transfer of hundreds of Stinger missiles to the country. The Department of Defense’s June 27 factsheet on security assistance to Ukraine records over 1,700 Stinger anti-aircraft systems sent to the country. The missiles, which can be shoulder-fired or mounted on vehicles like Humvees, are being put to use, depleting what was already a finite supply of the weapons.
“Stinger’s been out of production for 20 years, and all of a sudden in the first 48 hours [of the war], it’s the star of the show and everybody wants more,” said Wes Kremer, the president of Raytheon parent company RTX, reports Defense One. Kremer’s remarks came at the Paris Air Show in June, an annual gathering and exhibition of aircraft and aircraft-related technologies. Kremer continued: “We were bringing back retired employees that are in their 70s … to teach our new employees how to actually build a Stinger. We’re pulling test equipment out of warehouses and blowing the spider webs off of them.”
The relevance of the Stinger to modern combat, combined with the manufacturing know-how being bound up in the minds of retirees, frames the machine as something of a useful relic. To understand the drive to restart Stinger production now, it is helpful to understand the circumstances under which the missile was first made.
Take the Redeye
The Army’s search for an anti-air missile can be traced back to 1951, after years of experimenting with anti-air guns found the weapons had insufficient range and accuracy to stop newer and faster planes. The HAWK missile, which has also seen action in Ukraine, is one of the early anti-air developments, but it is big, and needs vehicles to transport and launch it. Putting a missile in the hands of soldiers and marines on foot allows infantry to shoot down low-flying aircraft, including attack planes and increasingly helicopters.
The first shoulder-fireable missile developed by the United States for this purpose was the Redeye, which used an infrared seeker to chase after the hottest object in the sky. It was first deployed for combat in 1967. The Soviet Union, working on a similar problem, developed the Strela shoulder-fired anti-air missile, which has seen use by both Ukraine and Russia.
The Redeye’s seeker meant it was easy to throw off targets with flares or even just the sun on a bright day, limiting the weapon’s usefulness, and it could not distinguish between friendly and enemy aircraft, meaning anyone firing a Redeye risked the missile turning and hitting a nearby friendly plane. The original Redeye was also slow, making it a weapon that could hit a low-flying plane after an attack run, but not stop it before an initial pass.
The Stinger’s evolution
What became the Stinger started its development as the Redeye II. The program was renamed in 1972 and the missile became operational in 1981. The Stinger included a system that let the missile attempt to distinguish between friendly and hostile aircraft, by matching a coded friendly radio signal from the allied planes. The guidance system of the Stinger is still infrared, but once it gets close to a target the missile can navigate to hit other parts of the aircraft.
The Stinger received significant upgrades over the course of its production, ensuring the weapons would remain useful for the duration of their service life, but the weapon is fundamentally based on technology and components from decades ago. While all military production is to some extent bespoke products, they exist in an ecosystem of parts that match commercial capabilities available at the time.
Raytheon bringing back retirees to teach the basics of Stinger production will likely help with a lost transfer of knowledge, until the Army’s desired Stinger replacement is designed, tested, and improved. In the meantime, another option for the Army would be to reach out to allies like Japan and the United Kingdom, and see if their respective Stinger updates (Japan’s Type 91) or replacements (the UK’s Starstreak) are available for production.