Since the first M142 HIMARS system arrived in Ukraine on June, rivers of ink have been written about its role in the war. There is no doubt that thanks to its mobility, versatility, precision and range, it has allowed Ukraine to inflict real damage on Russian logistics. Hence, limiting its ability to coordinate large-scale operations and thus limiting its progress. In this sense, the HIMARS and its brothers, the M270 and the MARS II, have changed the sign of the conflict. However, it has not been their only notch, as they have previously played an important role in other conflicts, including Afghanistan and the fight against Daesh. What is more important, everything seems to indicate that we are only at the beginning of its operational life, since improvements and new ammunition are constantly being developed that promise an intense future.
The M142 HIMARS, thanks to its prominent role in the war in Ukraine, where Kiev’s troops have significantly reduced Russian warfare capabilities with just a handful of launchers, has gained unprecedented notoriety. The truth is that before, for example in Afghanistan, it had offered an excellent performance. In addition, to a certain extent it is an old acquaintance, since it is still an adaptation of the M270 in service for decades. Be that as it may, in recent months rivers of ink have been written regarding its benefits, the range and precision of its guided munitions, the effects on the battlefield and a thousand and one other topics, generally with very little substance. That is why we have decided to write an in-depth article, but something different. In the following lines, we try to place the development of the M142 HIMARS within its historical context, explain its raison d’être, and the factors that contributed to promoting the project or its future.
On June 24, just hours after the arrival of the first HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) multiple rocket launchers in Ukraine was confirmed, troops in Kiev fired their first barrage of rockets at Russian forces. Since then, there have been dozens of attacks that have claimed as many targets. Among these, it is worth noting the large number of weapons and ammunition depots destroyed, as well as concentrations of vehicles and critical infrastructure, highlighting the Antonovsky bridge in Kherson and the bridge over the Nova Kakhovka dam in the town of the same name. In addition to these attacks, most of which are perfectly documented, there is a handful that remains in doubt, such as the one that destroyed several aircraft and at least two powder magazines at the Saki air base near Feodorivka on the Crimean peninsula.
What all these attacks have in common is that they have all enabled Ukraine to do two things:
- Erosion of Russian logistics, preventing ammunition and other supplies from reaching the front line. This in turn has limited the combat capability of its troops, helping, along with the preceding attrition, to turn a war of movement, -as it was in the early stages-, into a war of attrition in which stalemate predominates.
- Impose new dilemmas on Russia, as every time it assembles the means and men for a new offensive, they run the risk of being attacked by HIMARS-guided munitions. Thus, preventing an effective concentration of forces and at the same time limiting the possibilities for their employment. The latter is important because it directly affects the strategic freedom of the Russian General Staff, forcing them to abandon many of their plans.
All this is possible because the M142 HIMARS successfully combines the three fundamental characteristics that make a fearsome weapon system: mobility, protection and firepower. If these three concepts are generally associated with battle tanks and armoured vehicles the truth is that they can be perfectly applied to the case of these MLRS:
- Mobility: It is undoubtedly one of the cardinal ideas that motivated the design of the M142 HIMARS, since it was about having a vehicle that was as light as possible -at least in comparison with the means of chains-, which would provide it with great strategic mobility. It is true that tactical mobility suffers from the M270 -as well as load capacity- as it is more dependent on roads, but its lightness allows it to be deployed by air anywhere in the world -provided that the necessary means are available, obviously-.
- Protection: Beyond its armored cabin -it was not for nothing that it originally used an Oshkosh Corporation chassis-, its survivability on the battlefield is conferred by its range and precision. In the first case, the possibility of hitting targets at more than 75 kilometres with GMLRS ammunition allows HIMARS to be used from areas relatively far from the front line, which means that only enemy aircraft constitute a threat. In the second case, the massive use of guided ammunition and the possibility of launching a salvo of six with the precision of the order of metres means that the time it must remain in position to fire is minimal. Therefore making it to trace and neutralize it. In fact, in the context of the war in Ukraine, the Russian General Staff has assigned Spetsnaz troops exclusively to the destruction of the HIMARS behind Ukrainian lines, until the time of writing these lines without much success.
- Firepower: The M142 HIMARS is far from the only multiple launch rocket system in the world. However, the modularity, the variety of ammunition at its service and the versatility of these give it unique firepower. In fact, the range of ammunition continues to grow and new solutions are being worked on for the future, something that will be discussed in a specific section. The important thing, in any case, is that all of them are guided munitions with enviable precision, which at the same time represents savings since a much smaller number of these are necessary to destroy each target. In other words, the M142 HIMARS as well as the M270 have ceased to be mere weapons designed to beat zones, to be an alternative in many cases to aviation action.
In short, HIMARS have a series of characteristics that, notwithstanding that they can be used at the tactical level, make them systems designed to operate at higher levels, that is, operational and even strategic.
The importance of long-range artillery
A few weeks ago, in an article on long-range loitering munitions, we explained the importance of both the operational level of warfare and of having specific means to act at that level. In it, we discussed how these could even be used at the strategic level, although the limitations in terms of explosive load meant that they were not the most suitable means in some cases. On the other hand, the artillery does not usually suffer from this type of handicap. Unlike the small warhead that is mounted on board the loiterings, it has a wide range of specific ammunition, developed against all types of targets. It is part of a process that has been going on for decades and is still booming. Besides, thanks to it artillery will have a greater range until reaching paroxysm with developments such as the SLRC (Strategic Long Range Cannon) of the US Army, recently canceled by the US Congress.
The rationale behind this quest for range, beyond the obvious advantage it entails, has to do with the transition to a multi-domain battlefield in which the anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities of the major powers will be ever greater. Aside from technical definitions, we could generically consider anti-access and area denial zones as those in which a series of systems (anti-aircraft, anti-ship, anti-tank, electronic warfare, etc.) and associated sensors have been installed and which, due to their density and capabilities, make it possible either to prevent the entry of hostile forces into a theatre of operations or, if this has already occurred, to effectively limit their freedom of action and the arrival of reinforcements.
In the future multi-domain battlefield, area denial, increased electronic warfare capabilities, and the proliferation of long-range anti-aircraft systems create a situation where Western armies could not freely use the large air command and control or electronic warfare and reconnaissance platforms For instance, in the case of the AWACS, J-STARS, River Joint… Neither can tankers be used near the area of operations (something that made it possible to maintain a high tempo of operations in the 1991 Gulf War or the Kosovo War.). Area denial will also make it difficult for fixed-wing aircraft to provide close air support to ground forces. In this case, conventional aviation will have great difficulty operating in operational environments involving IADS (Integrated Air Defense Systems) networks with highly capable radars and interceptor missiles of various ranges. Even stealth aircraft will suffer in low-altitude flights to provide close air support in comparison to infrared and electro-optical guidance systems.
Of course, the poor performance of Russia’s anti-aircraft systems in the Ukrainian conflict, where it has been unable to neutralise Ukrainian guided rocket and ballistic missile attacks or even prevent its aircraft from continuing to operate more than six months into the conflict, might suggest otherwise. Some capabilities may have been exaggerated in the preceding years, and this is a matter of controversy among experts. Nevertheless, it does not invalidate the theoretical framework. Besides, it cannot be taken for granted that what has been seen in a single war, however representative it may be, extends to scenarios such as the Indo-Pacific. Consequently, US ground forces and their Western allies must prepare for an operational environment in which they will not enjoy air superiority. Something that has not been the case since World War II.
Another characteristic of such a battlefield will be the proliferation of long-range weapons, whether land-, sea- or air-launched, and the predominant role of artillery, which on paper places the Western powers in a weak position vis-à-vis Russia or China. In the case of Russia, it has already been seen that the lack of precision of its long-range guided weapons and its artillery reduce the threat posed by both by several degrees. But even so, it remains a formidable foe that when capable of concentrating hundreds or thousands of rounds, -as in the cases of Popasna, Severodonetsk or Lysychansk during the war in Ukraine-, can shred literally anything within range, at the cost of intensive ammunition use. In the case of the People’s Republic of China, the main threat is its missile force which includes not only supersonic weapons but also drones, whose combined total number is in the thousands.
In this context, there is a need for alternatives capable of striking at distances of tens or even hundreds of kilometres, with the precision of aviation missiles and with the forcefulness in some cases of bombs weighing hundreds of pounds. Systems that are easy to transport, that can operate in small numbers and with low logistical requirements, but causing great damage. Resilient systems prepared for a salvo war context in which there will undoubtedly be losses, but in which, as far as possible, these should never be catastrophic. Hence, the need to avoid concentrations of platforms, as they are too juicy targets for the opponent in a salvo war context. Systems that can be mounted on a medium-sized transport aircraft, with accuracy measured in metres and ranges ranging from 75 to 300 kilometres depending on the ammunition chosen. Systems that are difficult to locate and therefore to neutralise, that impose multiple dilemmas on the enemy and that can attack on or behind the front line, disrupting their logistics and making it impossible to concentrate their forces. This is how HIMARS was born…
The historical context of the birth of the M142 HIMARS
Before the appearance of the HIMARS, the US Army already had some experience in the use of multiple rocket launch systems, although not as much as one might think. In US doctrine, rocket launchers were “area fire” weapons, i.e., intended to target areas as the Soviets did with their BM-21s, amassing large numbers of launchers, which they then used on a massive, but not accurate, basis. The Americans, who generally attached less importance to artillery than the Soviets, used rocket launchers left over from World War II but only secondarily, as they prioritised the accuracy of howitzers. Indeed, something that is still true to some extent today. While the Soviets were willing to saturate an area with hundreds of rockets, thinking that some of them would hit their target, for US gunners, -educated in the idea that accuracy and economy of ammunition consumption were the right way to go-, large-scale rocket use was simply not acceptable.
Nevertheless, after the withdrawal from Vietnam, when the United States turned its sights once again to the Soviet Union and the European battlefields, they realised that victory in a hypothetical conflict required more forceful means than those used against the North Vietnamese. Moreover, the example of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, with its huge attrition rates – higher, of course, than replacement rates – forced a rethink of some of the assumptions. Thus, in the mid-1970s, specifically in 1974, a requirement was made for a new rocket launcher called the General Support Rocket System or GSRS. Its development would begin three years later in collaboration with France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. The result would be the popular M270 and later developments such as the German MARS II, designed on the Bradley chassis. The history of this system is well known and after the relevant tests, it would eventually enter service in 1982. Finally, it became operational the following year and the first battery (consisting of three sections with three launchers each) was sent to Germany in 84.
It is now time to talk about the Second Offset Strategy and the series of innovations associated with it, which resulted, among other things – of course, other factors played a role – in the collapse of a Soviet Union incapable of competing symmetrically with the United States. As we explained in the past, the last great Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that has marked the evolution of contemporary warfare is the RMA of information. Its possibilities became apparent, at least to the general public, after the US military intervention in the Gulf War (1991), although its origins go back much further. Effectively, the RMA was born out of the Second Offset Strategy and the Strategic Defence Initiative. Both projects were launched by the Reagan Administration to counter Soviet superiority in conventional means in the European theatre, as well as to shake off the trauma of Vietnam. The conflict challenged the American way to wage war based on attrition and demonstrated to the US military the need to explore new avenues if they were to succeed on the battlefield.
Thus, two crucial factors were combined: 1) the need for more powerful, long-range, hard-hitting weapons capable of beating Soviet troop concentrations, but also command posts or logistical centres with; 2) the promise of guided weaponry capable of combining the advantages of traditional MLRS with the precision of missiles in a relatively short period of time. The latter would be achieved first and foremost through modularity, by incorporating the MGM-140 ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) tactical missile – an original USAF development that was later adopted by the US Army – into the system. Hence, combining rocket launcher and surface-to-surface missile launch capability in a single platform. Indeed, the M270 had been designed in such a way that the same launcher could use different calibre munitions, both 227mm rockets of different types (12 in 2 packs of 6) and ATACMS, of which it could carry 2.
The turning point came with the lessons learned after the 1991 Gulf War. Despite the success of the M270s and the unguided – albeit quite accurate – munitions, the Pentagon realised that by equipping rockets with a guidance system, they could economise on munitions – and thus benefit from a smaller logistical train and footprint – minimise collateral damage, and beat targets at the operational and even strategic level. This is how the international programme that led to today’s GMLRS was launched, again involving the United States, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. The result was a guided missile with a longer range – unconfirmed hits have been reported at over 100 kilometres in Afghanistan and 103 kilometres in tests -. Besides, it has superlative accuracy, as evidenced by the recent hits on the Antonovsky Bridge in Ukraine. Development of the new munitions was completed in 2001, with full production beginning in 2005.
By now, we have two of the three factors that, when combined, gave rise to the development of HIMARS. Since the dates are not coincidental, this story was still missing a singular figure, reviled by some and loved by others: General Eric Shinseki, US Chief of Staff between 1999 and 2003. He was the man behind the idea of the “Stryker brigades”, a controversial idea that sought to restore the US Army to a leading role vis-à-vis the US Navy, the US Marine Corps (USMC) and the US Air Force (USAF), based on improving the projection capacity of the US Army, the US Marine Corps (USMC) and the US Air Force (USAF). That is why Shinseki’s first step was to publish the document “Army Vision: Soldiers on Point for the Nation: Persuasive in Peace, Invincible in War”, in which he pledged to dramatically increase the projection capability of the ground force to place a Brigade anywhere on the planet in 96 hours, the rest of the Division in 120 hours and an Army Corps in 30 days. Needless to say, HIMARS is closely related to General Shinseki’s aspirations. Therefore, from its conception, it was designed to fit aboard a Hercules tactical transport aircraft, rather than requiring strategic aviation (C-17 and C-5) as was the case with the M270. The impetus given to the ACTD technology demonstrator developed since 1996 by Lockheed Martin is thus better understood, as it was a project with a really low technological risk – it used the simplified M270 launch system and an Oshkhosh chassis already in service – and enormous possibilities in a world experiencing a “unipolar moment”.
In brief, the HIMARS we know is the ultimate expression of its time. It gathers strategic mobility, relative simplicity – remember that at the same time the “Revolution in Business Affairs” was also taking shape in the US, which sought among other things to reduce costs -, range and precision. Therefore, combining some of the best fruits of the Information RMA.
Characteristics of the M142 HIMARS
After all this time, the technical details of the M142 HIMARS are widely known. However, we believe it is appropriate to offer some brief explanations of the distinguishing features of this system so that the section on its role in multi-domain doctrine can be better understood.
The first, and most obvious, is light weight, which is associated with high strategic mobility. With a weight of less than 17 tonnes in combat order and a contained size thanks to its 6×6 chassis, it can be transported by the USAF’s C-130 Hercules tactical transport aircraft, without the need to hock the heavy and valuable C-17 or C-5. The clear advantage is the ability to land on shorter and even unpaved runways. Moreover, it can do so without preparation, as all that is required is to lift the HIMARS into the cargo hold via the rear ramp and attach the fasteners, without the need to dismantle components or perform any cumbersome operations. This way, an M142 can be loaded onto the aircraft, transported to its destination, and once there, fire in just 15 minutes, so that it could theoretically move to another location and repeat the operation. The problem here is that in this case, the modules with spare ammunition would have to be transported on another aircraft, although depending on the context it could be cost-effective for the US Army to operate in this way. In any case, beyond the possibility of attacking, the fact that it is transportable in Hercules means that, in the event of a breakdown or any kind of problem, it can be evacuated to the third echelon with relative ease. Once deployed, it can also be supplied, as the modules with ammunition can also be transported by Hercules to their destination.
The second distinctive feature of the M142 HIMARS is versatility. One is used to witnessing how the Russian Army, or even the Spanish Army in the days of the defunct Teruel, loaded only a few types of ammunition into the tubes of their rocket launchers, and generally unguided ammunition. Moreover, the reloading operation itself used to be flashy, depending on the expertise of the personnel to make the process of inserting the new rockets one by one into the launcher a little faster. For example, in the case of a BM-21 Grad, three operators must remove each rocket from a wooden box, carry it to the launcher and manually insert it into the tube again and again until the same process is completed for each of the 40 122mm rockets.
In addition, military cargoes in Russia are not palletised. Therefore, they have to travel in the truck box without being loaded one by one, they have to be disassembled and stacked on the ground for the truck to make a new trip to the nearest ammunition depot, and they have to be handled individually, generating a significant volume of waste in the form of packaging – although this is often used by soldiers to fuel fires, among other things.
By contrast, M142 HIMARS carry rockets in modules of six 227mm rockets, or one missile in the case of ATACMS – which will become two when they begin to receive the new Precision Strike Missile (PrSM). Each transport truck can carry up to four modules – eight if articulated – with the advantage that the reloading process consists of exchanging one module for another using the automated system incorporated in each M142, replacing them in a matter of minutes, safely and with the assistance of only two operators. On the other hand, HIMARS support a wide range of munitions. These are both guided and unguided and carry different types of charges, including cluster bombs or the latest M30A1, which dispenses with submunitions and replaces them with 180,000 small-sized tungsten balls.
Most interestingly, since the addition of GMLRS munitions – of which more than 50,000 have been produced to date – the accuracy and range of these have transformed HIMARS into surgical weapons. With a hit rate of more than 98% – some sources give Russian missiles a hit rate of less than 50% – and a range of more than 135 kilometres in ER (Extended Range) variants, the M142 and M270 have become the perfect – and in some cases cheap – complement to cruise missiles or JDAM kits. In the case of the ATACMS, the range increases to 300 kilometres, which gives a strategic component to these rocket launchers. The latter will be significantly extended with the arrival next year of the PrSM, capable of reaching 499 kilometres – which could be many more if it is delimited, as the design was made with the INF treaty in mind, which is no longer in force.
The third is accuracy. When we talk about the GMLRS ammunition, because there is no turning back in this field, we are dealing with accuracies of the order of 2-2.5 metres circle of probable error. Although the specifications required of the prime contractor (Lockheed Martin) were 15 metres. Beyond the effectiveness inherent in such precision, there are two logical consequences: reduction of collateral damage and economy of means. The former is increasingly important, for as we have seen since Desert Storm, but especially in the conflicts in the Middle East and now in Ukraine, every time one side launches an attack in which civilians are killed, the images immediately spread across social media. Consequently, they automatically become a weapon in the battle for the narrative. We have seen this recurrently during the Russian shelling of Mariupol, for example, or the Ukrainian shelling of the city of Donetsk.
To the extent that a side can avoid collateral damage, therefore, it will have an advantage – not a decisive one, but an increasingly important one. Regarding the latter, it goes without saying that a smaller logistical footprint is an advantage in itself. So, HIMARS can be deployed with relatively few means as we have seen, launch strikes that can be very important or even decisive at various levels, and leave the theatre of operations in the same way. Furthermore, if they remain in the area, they can be resupplied just as easily, knowing that instead of needing tens or hundreds of 227mm rockets per day, the modules that the resupply truck can carry are sufficient.
M142 HIMARS versus its competitors
It is of little use to list the qualities or shortcomings of a system if they are not also put in relation to other similar systems. In the case of HIMARS, these would be systems on wheels and, if possible, capable of delivering guided munitions such as the Russian Tornado-S, the Serbian LRSVM “Morava”, the Indian “Pinaka”, the Israeli LYNX or the Brazilian ASTROS II, with which we will begin.
Besides, we are at a time when this type of system is highly topical, with countries such as Poland embarking on programmes that will foreseeably culminate in the acquisition of hundreds of units and others such as Spain which, after having lost this capability -rocket artillery- are finally preparing to recover it thanks to the SILAM programme. This is why a brief review of the market -and we have left many systems behind- is necessary.
ASTROS II / ASTROS 2020
The development of field rockets in Brazil took place in the 1960s, the first model being the 108 mm FGT-108RA1, which was acquired by both the Brazilian Artillery and Marines and Iraq. It had a launcher with 16 ramps that was mounted on a light 4×4 vehicle or on a two-wheeled trailer. Later, using the same trailer, the SBAT-70 export model appeared, with a launcher for 36 70 mm air-to-surface rockets, manufactured by Avibras. It was followed by the SBAT-127, also for export and derived from the 127 mm air version, but with a 12-ram launcher that could be mounted on a light vehicle or trailer.
After the two systems described above, of which we have no evidence that they were built in series, some experimental long-range rockets were designed for testing. These served as the basis in the 1980s for the definitive development of the ASTROS II (Artillery Saturation Rocket System), built at the request of Iraq, which was at war with Iran.
The ASTROS II is undoubtedly one of the most versatile rocket systems available, as it has different calibre munitions that can be combined (each of the two launcher modules can carry different rockets), allowing close and distant targets to be fired on almost simultaneously. Moreover, a variety of warheads are offered, including even bivalent, counter-tank and counter-personnel submunitions. Each module has a capacity for the following rockets: 16 SS-30, 8 SS-40, 2 SS-60/80 and 1 SS-150 or AVMT missile. Range varies from 30 km for the SS-30 to 150 km for the SS-150, not to mention 300 km for the more recently developed AVMT missile.
While the rockets fired by the original ASTROS II system have a rather rudimentary terminal guidance system, of the inertial type with trajectory correction, whose CEP or Centre of Probable Error increases proportionally with increasing range. Yet its evolution, the ASTROS 2020, already has two special munitions (SS-AV-40 and SS-150) that integrate a much more precise GPS terminal guidance system, although it is not entirely clear that its development has been completed. In any case, the Brazilian Avibras and the Spanish consortium SMS, formed by Escribano Mechanical & Engineering, GMV and SENER Aeroespacial, signed a collaboration agreement aimed at working on joint solutions in the field of guided rockets and missiles. Hence, bringing the Brazilian product closer to our Army and eventually providing it with the necessary precision.
Otherwise, ASTROS II consists of the following vehicle types: Universal Multiple Launcher (AV-LMU); Ammunition Resupply (AV-RMD), with two full reloads and hydraulic cranes; Group Command and Control (AV-VCC); Battery Command and Control (AV-PCC); Radar for Fire Control (AV-UCF), optional; Meteorological Station (AV-MET); and several mobile workshops for electronic and mechanical maintenance (AV-OFVE). According to AVIBRAS, a typical ASTROS battery would include: one AV-VPC, six AV-LMUs, six AV-RMDs, one AV-UCF, and one AV-MET; plus, at Group level, one AV-VCC, and three AV-OFVE mobile workshops. Of course, depending on the preferences of each user, there are many other alternatives and possibilities for integrating equipment of different preferences (firing directions or battery and group command and control, radars, weather stations, inertial positioning and GPS, etc.).
LYNX / PULS
This Israeli system is undoubtedly extremely versatile, with a wide variety of rockets and even the Delilah missile, which has been used extensively against Iranian targets in Syria. Indeed, it is the evolution of the LAR-160 system designed in the 1970s by several companies led by IMI (launchers, tuning and rocket development) and IAI (missiles and guidance systems), initially on a French-built AMX-13 light tank chassis. Since production began in 1983, it has been continuously modernised, leading to the current system, and served as the basis for two mixed models, the SLM Hijo del Rayo, built at the request of Chile, and the Romanian LAROM. The former was adapted to launch Chilean 160 mm Rayo rockets, as well as the ACCULAR and EXTRA, while the LAROM can use the various 122 mm GRAD models and the LAR-160.
The current LYNX has the following rockets: 122 mm Russian GRAD and derivatives, 160 mm LAR, 120 or 160 mm ACCULAR, 306 mm EXTRA and 370 mm Predator Hawk, with effective ranges from 20 to 300 km. In addition, it can launch the 330 mm Delilah missile with an effective range of 180 km and a CEP of only one metre. In addition, a GPS terminal guidance system is offered for the ACCULAR, EXTRA and Predator Hawk rockets with a CEP of 10 metres. As far as we are aware, the Spanish Army showed its initial preference for the 122 mm ACCULAR and 306 mm EXTRA rockets, a large part of which are equipped with terminal guidance.
The platform consists of a 6×6 truck configuration, although it is possible to use different 6×6/8×8 models, both for the launchers and for the rest of the system components (ammunition, command and control, maintenance, etc.). As for the launcher, it should be noted that it has two disposable modules, both of which can be combined to use two different rockets at the same time, according to the following capacity per module: 20 GRAD, 11 ACCULAR, 13 LAR, 4 EXTRA/Predator Hawk or 1 Delilah.
The warhead weighs between 20 and 140 kg, and can be unitary with various types of fuses, have different submunitions, or even be penetrating with a delayed explosion, providing a wide range of possibilities for hitting the most disparate targets.
As a guideline, IAI considers that a Lynx Rocket Launcher Group could consist of the following elements: Fire Control Centre (Command and Control) of the Group, Meteorological Station, Advanced Fire Observation (3 teams plus another UAV), acquisition and firing Radar, three Batteries with their Mobile Command Post, 4 Launchers and the corresponding Ammunition vehicles, with the capacity to transport 4 ammunition modules of up to 2.7 tons each. In addition, the necessary maintenance equipment will have to be included.
With regard to becoming the future SILAM (High Mobility Launcher System) of the Spanish Army, the Israeli company together with the Spanish companies Expal and Escribano Mechanical & Engineering have proposed the PULS (Precise and Universal Launching System), the latest variant of the Lynx as a candidate during the Army-Companies forum held a few days ago in Toledo. In this case, the launcher would be installed on an Iveco Astra 6×6 chassis, the Talos command and control system would be integrated and the consortium assures that more than 50% of the investment would return to Spain in the form of industrial returns.
LRSVM Morava / Tamnava
Much more rudimentary than the previous models is the model developed by the Serbian Institute of Military Technology. The Morava, in service since 2015, meets many of the requirements for inclusion in this comparison, such as having a wheeled platform, in this case a 4×4 FAP 1118 chassis, being modular and being able to use ammunition not only with different warheads, but also with different calibres (107, 122 and 107mm).
The Morava uses a modified version of the 122mm Oganj launcher. It has been fitted with modular containers for 122mm and 128mm rockets. This allows it to fire the standard 122mm munitions used by the Russian BM-21 Grad, as well as the Oganj’s own 128mm rockets. The total capacity of the Morava is 32 122mm or 24 128mm rockets, with a maximum range of around 50km with the Oganj ER 128mm and Edepro G2000/52 122mm rockets.
Although lacking the refinements of other launchers, the launch vehicle is equipped with a GPS unit for automatic positioning, has a Serbian-designed – and believed to be produced – firing control and launching can be done either directly from the cockpit or remotely, without the need for operators to expose themselves. As usual, the Morava can fire either rocket by rocket or the full salvo and is capable of firing after stalling in just 45 seconds, needing 30 seconds after launch to change position.
More recently, Serbia presented the LRSVM Tamnava, a curious system capable of firing 122 and 262mm rockets at distances of up to 70km. Its main peculiarity is the inclusion of a reloading module between the launcher and the cab of the 8×8 KAMAZ 6560 truck. However, since its presentation at various trade fairs between 2018 and 2019, little is known about this model, apart from the fact that the Serbian Army plans to put it into service in the coming years and that the Cyprus National Guard has reportedly acquired a battery consisting of six launchers.
MLRS Indian Pinaka
As usual in India, the development of the Pinaka took much longer than originally planned. Although it was expected to be introduced into service in the mid-1990s to replace the BM-21 Grad, this has only been a token effort – considering the number of launchers in the Indian Army’s fleet. Thus, after starting R&D work in 1983, they did not enter service until the year 2000, and then only in dribs and drabs. In fact, it is a programme that is still officially underway, with DRDO and Indian ARDE technicians working on improvements, especially for their rockets.
In the case of the Pinaka, the platform is capable of carrying two launch modules of 12 tubes each for 214mm rockets, the standard rockets being armed with HE-FRAG warheads. Even though Indian plans included the development of several more warhead types, including cluster warheads. Eight types of warheads were to be developed, including incendiary warheads and cluster warheads with anti-tank and anti-personnel submunitions.
As far as range is concerned, with standard rockets it is 40 km, with the circle of error likely to be between 1 and 2% of the range at that distance, giving a figure of between 400 and 800 metres, so they are working on improving a figure that conflicts like Ukraine show us is no longer acceptable. They expect to complete the development of new rockets equipped with a guidance system, while continuing to test EPRS (Enhanced Pinaka Rocket System) Pinaka Mk-1 extended-range munitions. Expectations are high that by adding a ramjet to the 214mm rockets they hope to achieve ranges in the order of 200-250km.
In terms of modes of use, as seen in other systems, rockets can be launched either from the driver’s seat or remotely up to 200m away from the vehicle.
The basis of the system is a highly mobile 8×8 Tatra Kolos chassis produced under licence by the indigenous company Bharat Earth Movers Ltd (BEML). The cab is equipped with ballistic and NBCR protection, thanks to a filter and overpressure system.
Each battery consists of six launchers, six reloading vehicles and a command vehicle, equipped with a fire control system and weather radar. It is estimated that a full salvo by one battery, i.e. a total of 72 rockets, would cover the equivalent of 350,000 m2 , used as a saturation weapon. The regiments are composed of three batteries, making a total of 18 launch vehicles. India, which had originally planned to acquire 22 regiments (396 launchers), has now scaled down to 10 regiments (180 launchers).
Unfortunately for India, for the moment it is difficult to use it for precision strikes due to shortcomings in guidance and range. Where they have made progress is in modularity and ease of use, with each reloading vehicle capable of carrying four modules with six 214mm rockets each, requiring 15 minutes to complete the reloading process.
Tornado-G y Tornado-S
It may come as a surprise that neither the well-known BM-21 Uragan nor the mighty BM-300 Smerch were chosen from the Russian side. However, despite being the most common models in service, they are to some extent outdated and there is a government plan to replace them respectively with the 122mm 9A53-G Tornado and 300mm 9A53-S Tornado.
Both are wheeled vehicles, using a Ural-4320 chassis in the first case and an MZKT-79306 chassis in the second, with three and four axles respectively and capable of using GLONASS-guided rockets, each in its own calibre.
In the case of the Tornado-G, the launch module has 40 122mm tubes and has been designed to be fully automatic, which has made it possible to reduce the number of servers to 3 compared to the 6 of the BM-21s it replaces. In this case, although it is usually referred to as a single model, the fact is that more than half a dozen variants have been developed, some of which have never entered service or have done so in a testimonial manner. The range of the rockets is said to be up to 90km, but there is no certainty as to the actual accuracy. They can, indeed, use the full range of warheads designed for the BM-21, which allows for great versatility with HE, HE-FRAG, anti-tank and anti-personnel submunitions, etc. One of the few drawbacks of the system is that the cockpit is not protected, unlike most MLRS we have seen. Otherwise, it is ready to fire from the cockpit or by remote control at ranges of up to 60m.
With respect to the Tornado-S, it represents an important evolution compared to the Smerch, which was used only as an area suppression or cost enforcement weapon thanks to its enormous destructive capacity (a full salvo of 12 rockets can cover an area of up to 67,200 square metres). It should be borne in mind that, although it has great firepower, it is a system that is almost four decades old and in need of modernisation. This is why the first series-production Tornado-S entered service in 2019 at the 439th Rocket Artillery Brigade of the Southern Military District Guard, which is actually a modernised version of the Smerch based on the GLONASS satellite navigation system, which feeds the position of the part into the ASUNO automatic fire control system. In this way, its position data, plus many other data from reconnaissance vehicles and drones, are fed into the firing direction automatically, speeding up the process and providing the data for the new GLONASS-guided rocket 9M542, with a range of 120 km and a theoretical probable error circle of between 7 and 10 metres at that distance. In addition, a 200 km range version is under development, which would allow the Tornado-S to reach targets at depth, taking over some of the missions now covered by Tochka-U and even Iskander-M ballistic missiles. The Tornado-S benefits from both the new munitions and the Smerch arsenal. In the 90km range, HE-FRAG penetrator submunitions (72) dispensers against airstrips and armour, HE-FRAG submunitions (32) with proximity fuse, or with a single 243kg penetrator warhead against fortifications, roads, installations. At the 70km range, counter-personnel mine dispensers (64 POM-2), counter-tank (25 PRM-3AT), thermobaric charges, etc.
One of the most important data for the survival of these systems, especially a heavy one like the Tornado-S, is the position entry and exit time. In the first case, 3 minutes, and in the second, 2.5 minutes. The latter is the most important, as it is the time it takes to withdraw after the rockets have been discharged and, in principle, have revealed their position and become a target for enemy counter-battery fire. It also manages to reduce its rocket reload time through the use of modular containers.
As usual in China, its most powerful multiple rocket launcher has been developed from a foreign design, in this case the Russian Smerch, of which it received some units in the mid-1990s. Designed and built by the same institution in charge of the Long March space rockets and DongFeng ballistic missiles, CALT (China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology), it entered into service in the early years of the new century. Since then they have continued to develop improved variants, such as the A-200, which now includes GPS guidance (Beidu, in its case).
The A-100 has a capacity for 10 300mm tubes, which curiously would not be compatible with the rockets used by the Russian Smerch. Each of its rockets, with ranges of between 40 and 120km, carries a 235kg warhead that can carry up to 500 submunitions if it is of this type. In addition, from the AR1A version, instead of reloading the tubes one by one, two five-tube modules are replaced on an as-needed basis for the A100 and two four-tube modules for the A-200 and A-300 (export variant of the former).
Of all the variants, it is the latest, the A-300, that is of most interest to us. At least on paper, it has the longest-range rockets in the world (290km), capable of mounting warheads of up to 150kg and with a CEP of 30 to 405 metres at that distance. Given its configuration, it can launch rockets one at a time or in salvo (50 seconds for a full salvo), with each rocket firing at a specific target – although the accuracy is not perfect, according to the figures.
As for the chassis, it is based on a Taian TAS580 8X8 truck (TAS4500 for export variants) developed by Tai’an Special Vehicle Manufactory, which in turn supplies the chassis for the HQ-9 anti-aircraft systems and a number of the Chinese Missile Force’s ballistic missile launchers. It is capable of a maximum speed of 60km/h, has a range of 650km and is protected by both ballistic armour and NBCR environments. The system is operated by five servants who can fire both from inside the cockpit and remotely. Also, if required, the launchers can be operated from a mobile command post that would control a complete battery, consisting of three launch vehicles and three reloading vehicles.
Ammunition for the M142 HIMARS
Before getting into the subject, a clarification is appropriate, as there is a lot of confusion on the topic. Technically, a rocket is a self-propelled projectile that gets its thrust from the reaction of the rapid expulsion of combustion gases from a rocket engine. They generally use solid fuel and can mount warheads of any type (high explosive, breaching, thermobaric, incendiary, cluster with different submunitions or anti-tank mines, anti-bunker, etc.). Besides, they follow a ballistic trajectory. However, there are models equipped with a terminal guidance system (inertial, satellite, GPS, trajectory correction, etc.) which, by means of the corresponding fins, modify the direction in the final phase of their trajectory in order to head towards the target, which they attack with great precision.
That said, although the HIMARS, – like its big brother the M270 -, can employ unguided rockets such as the M26, most of the munitions are already GMLRS, i.e. guided, for all the reasons explained throughout the article.
M26 y M26A1/A2
The M26 family of rockets consists of unguided projectiles stabilised by aft fins designed to maintain a constant counter-clockwise rotation during flight as a result of the rails inside each canister. While inside their capsule, the four fins remain folded, locking into position and locking when they leave the launcher. The basic version is powered by a solid-fuel rocket engine that provides a range of 38 kilometres (some sources say 31.6 km). It is armed with a dual-purpose warhead (anti-personnel/anti-armour) with 156 kg of explosive and fitted with M77 submunitions with 644 projectiles capable of penetrating up to 100 mm of steel and of dispersing, when detonated in the air, over an area of 200 by 100 metres. Thus, a salvo of six rockets such as can be delivered by a HIMARS would cover an area with a radius of approximately one kilometre, covering it with a total of 3,864 submunitions.
Concerning the extended-range variants (up to 45 km) that include a longer rocket motor to increase the propulsive capacity, there are two models. The first would be the M26A2 which, except for the rocket motor, is similar in all respects to the basic M26. The second would be the M26A1 which replaces the M77 load with the M85, which has 518 submunitions instead of 644. There is also a minimal reduction in overall weight from 306kg to 296kg.
M28 y M28A1/A2
The M28 training rocket is similar to the standard M26, except that it replaces the warhead with steel ballast and smoke canisters to simulate the effect of explosions. In the case of the A1/A2 RRPR (Reduced Range Practice Rocket) variants, the difference is that they have a higher air resistance, so the range is significantly reduced to 15 km so that they can be used for troop training at smaller ranges.
M30, M31, M31A1/A2, GMLRS-AW y ER GMLRS
The real star, alongside the ATACMS among the panoply of weapons that can be used by HIMARS, is the M30 in its different variants. It is a guided rocket that has been fitted with a dual INS/GPS navigation system, which gives it a devilish accuracy, as explained in the article. Moreover, although its nominal range is about 70 kilometres, there is ample evidence that it goes beyond that.
The only difference between the M31 and the M30 is the warhead. While the M30 still uses the M85 with submunitions, the M31 uses unitary warheads with 200 pounds of HE that take advantage of improvements in accuracy (remember that it could be in the order of 2m CEP) to avoid collateral damage caused by the dispersion of submunitions. In the case of the M31A2 variant, the main change lies in the incorporation of safer – chemically stable – munitions that reduce the risk of accidents.
Compared to the GMLRS-AW guided rocket, the difference is that the warhead incorporates up to 160,000 tungsten fragments, which together give it enormous destructive power, but without the downstream danger of unexploded submunitions.
Finally, the GMLRS-ER is the extended range variant (up to 150 km). It is a true newcomer, having only achieved its Initial Operational Capability last June.
MGM-140 ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System)
The ATACMS ballistic missile. In service in different variants since the 1990s, it has progressively increased its range from 165 km of the early M39 Block 1 I versions to 300 km of more modern variants such as the M57. Fitted with dual guidance, GPS and inertial system, models in use today incorporate either a 500-pound WDU18 fragmentation warhead or a unitary warhead.
It is a missile with a diameter of 61 centimetres, a mass of almost 1,700 kg and a length of 4 metres. The stabiliser fins, which raise the diameter to 1.4 metres, remain folded while the missile is in its canister. Maximum speed is around Mach 3, while its service ceiling is approximately 48 kilometres.
Over time, the weapon load has also evolved, as has the accuracy. Thus, from the anti-personnel and anti-materiel submunitions (APAM) of the first versions, they have progressed to today’s unitary warheads. These are more suitable against command centres, hardened targets such as bunkers or critical infrastructure, against which a single very powerful impact is better than scattering hundreds of small bombs. The likely circle of error is, depending on the source and distance, between 10 and 50 metres, a figure that will continue to shrink.
One of the lesser-known characteristics of the ATACMS is that during flight, it performs random turns and manoeuvres, making it a very difficult target to intercept.
PrSM (Precision Strike Missile)
If the ATACMS is the present, the PrSM (Precision Strike Missile) is the future. With a range of up to 500 kilometres – about which there are doubts, as some cite a target range of 650 km -, precision a priori greater than that of the ATACMS and the possibility of being used as an anti-ship missile, it promises to be a revolution. Moreover, according to the programme’s spokesman, it will cost less than the ATACMS missile, so that more units can be purchased.
The idea in the case of the PrSM is not to use it as an artillery weapon intended primarily to hit static ground targets but to be a multi-domain weapon from its conception. Designed to receive targeting data from warships, fighter aircraft, drones, or forward observers and fire at either moving ships – thanks to the inclusion of a new seeker – enemy command centres, or anything else that comes its way.
The most interesting thing about PsRM is that it goes beyond HIMARS in many ways. It is possible that we will see it integrated both in ships -at least in the case of those that do not have VLS- and in much lighter vehicles, in the style of the USMC’s NMESIS (Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System). The latter also has the advantage of being an autonomous system, which is always nuanced. Moreover, in this specific case, the PrSM seems to have the advantage over the other candidate missile, the NSM, in terms of range, which it multiplies.
The concept behind the HIMARS has proven to be a great success and in contexts such as the war in Ukraine, a real game changer. Nevertheless, for the future, the family, which also includes the M270, will have to continue to grow and change in order to adapt to the particularities of salvo warfare and the need for units in the field to operate in an even more dispersed manner.
After all, if HIMARS is possible, it is because improvements in accuracy have made it possible for systems capable of carrying far fewer munitions to achieve the same or greater effects than the old MLRS with unguided rockets. It is therefore logical that the United States will continue to seek to capitalise on this trend in the future.
The PrSM missile is an important first step in this direction, as it will be able to strike targets at 500 kilometres or more and will have a much better cost/size/effectiveness ratio than the ATACMS. However, it is possible that this missile and some other munitions such as the GMLRS guided rockets will have to be adapted to even lighter chassis than the M142 HIMARS, such as the M-ATV or even the JLTV as in the case of the aforementioned NMESIS, which is also autonomous.
There is, of course, somewhere a practical limit to the ratio of vehicle size to the number of rockets or missiles to be carried. However, given that accuracy is improving all the time, as is range – at equal size and mass – and that the future lies in unitary warheads rather than in the dispersal of sub-munitions, it is possible that the path has not yet been completely exhausted.
In this vein, one must also consider that unmanned platforms make it possible to overcome some limitations by being able to use the space that would normally be occupied by the cabin for the operators to transport more cargo. This can be seen in the image of the NMESIS below, for which a MRAP JLTV is used as a base.
However, not everything is perfect, although on paper some ideas seem to fit. The refuelling process for unmanned platforms would require them to return after each salvo to a base where human operators would have to assemble a new module or modules. Moreover, any failure or problem would mean either the loss of the platform or the need to move a team to the site for repair.
In other words, a balance will have to be struck between the size of the launcher platform and its payload capacity. But also with the need to disaggregate systems across multiple platforms to maximise survivability, the degree of automation, the total cost of the whole, the communications implications and a number of other factors.
Yet the trend towards miniaturisation of munitions, disaggregation of systems into independent platforms, improvements in range and accuracy, and automation seem too powerful a force to believe that the M142 HIMARS as we know it is the latest stage in an evolutionary process that has been underway for decades.
- The International GMLRS Development Program – A GPS/INS Application to Extend the Range and Effectiveness of the Basic Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS)