Over the last few years there has been a quiet revolution in ground launched long range rockets that has the potential to challenge existing thinking on Close Air Support, Attack Helicopters, Carrier Strike and Naval Gunfire Support/Land Attack.
To be clear, long range precision rockets are not a replacement for any of these but they do reduce the need.
We should not be thinking about firing GMLRS illumination rounds and a precision rocket cannot provide combat ISTAR like a fast jet but they can provide effective support for ground forces in contact with the enemy and long range interdiction at a greatly reduced cost and in response to enemy countermeasures like air defence systems.
They are rather unglamorous and lacking in expensive contracts though, which means they are not prioritised. The blinkered ‘not invented here’ theme is also strong, it is often assumed that Israeli, Brazilian, Russian and Turkish systems are unsuitable or incapable when nothing could be further from the truth.
In Service Systems
Although they have been in service for a long time the ‘Stalin’s Organ’ Katyusha and GRAD type unguided systems remain a potent weapon with the MLRS ‘Grid Square Removal Service’ achieving much notoriety in the Gulf War.
For UK and US forces the modern standard has been the M270 MLRS, introduced in 1983.
It uses a 42km range 227mm diameter rocket which is wide enough to carry a useful cluster bomblet payload. The rockets are contained in a 6 round pod with the tracked armoured launcher vehicle capable of carrying two such pods. Reloading is carried out with an integral crane assembly.
Later developments included the longer range 610mm diameter ATACMS rocket and the HIMARS truck mounted system that carries a single pod of 6 rockets.
ATACMS is more of a short range semi ballistic missile and used for interdiction type missions, it was extensively used by US forces in Iraq in 2003 for destruction of Iraqi air defences in the initial stages of the operation. With a range of over 160km (M57 variant) it can carry either a 230kg (5oo lbs) unitary warhead or 274 M74 sub-munitions. The latest Block IVa version increases the range to in excess of 300km. A few days ago the US Army issued a $78 million contract to Lockheed Martin for the upgrade of the older Block 1 systems (shorter range and armed with sub-munitions) to the most up to date variant.
HIMARS is simply a higher mobility truck mounted version of the MLRS, transportable by C130, that carries a single 6 rocket pod.
An ATACMS rocket was sled tested in 2005 with the BROACH warhead, the same as fitted to Storm Shadow.
Although the UK had an aspiration for ATACMS (Large Long Range Rocket) and a programme for a HIMARS equivalent called LIMAWS(R), neither came to fruition. The rocket version of LIMAWS was designed to equip the medium weight brigades and was very similar in concept to the US HIMARS, with a single launcher on a very lightweight Supacat HMT chassis that kept the whole system below 9 tonnes in order to allow sling loading by a Chinook.
After the cluster munition ban rendered the sub munition loaded M26 rocket unusable the next major development was the 70km plus range M31 Guided Multiple Rocket launch System (GMLRS).
A number of changes included replacing the payload with a single 90kg blast fragmentation warhead, a dual mode fuze (point and proximity), longer range and a GPS/INS guidance system. In Iraq and Afghanistan it has proven its value thousands of times, earning the nickname the ’70km sniper’.
It is so accurate it was even used against a well, a well that was concealing the entrance to a weapons cache.
Future developments are likely to include an insensitive and selectable warhead, semi active laser (SAL) guidance and extended range
The latest version called GMLRS+, fitted with a new Aerojet motor, has demonstrated ranges in excess of 120km with the same high degree of accuracy.
In 2012 Lockheed Martin were awarded a $79m contract to develop the Alternative Warhead.
The Alternative Warhead is designed to engage the same target set and achieve the same area-effects as the former GMLRS submunition warhead, but without the lingering danger of unexploded ordnance. The Alternative Warhead is being developed by ATK under subcontract to Lockheed Martin.
The project has advanced steadily and last year a series of test firing were successfully completed.
There has also been some discussion on developing GMLRS as a carrier for the Small Diameter Bomb and SPEAR Capability 3 weapon. By using these weapons that are equipped with wing kit’s, the intention is to extend the range of the already long range GMLRS and provide additional guidance and warhead options. What makes this possible at a reasonable cost is the much reduced G forces experienced by rocket warheads compared to artillery. Engineering a precision guidance kit for a tube launched artillery shell is a considerable challenge.
If successful, the M30A1 (Increment 3) Alternative Warhead will restore the area attack capability lost with the Ottawa Treaty.
GMLRS rockets cost approximately $110,000 and over 3,000 have been fired by the UK and USA in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The future is bright for in service rockets; extended range with minimum impact on logistics and support systems, insensitive and selectable yield warheads and a return to area effects.
These can be implemented with minimal additional costs over and above the unit cost of the rockets themselves.
M/GMLRS is a proven system with broad utility, continued investment in these incremental improvements should be prioritised.
Although GMLRS is an accurate system, the 90kg (200 lbs) warhead is too large for some targets and does not deliver an efficient fragmentation effect for area targets. A smaller rocket/warhead would produce much greater fragmentation coverage for a given cost. They are also space inefficient for the carriage of 155mm cargo sub munitions such as the SmArt system.
For these reasons there might be a requirement for a smaller calibre rocket in both guided and unguided forms, or maybe larger ones and it is here that we have to cast the shopping net wider than the USA.
Roketsan of Turkey make 107mm, 122mm and 3oomm unguided rockets.
TR-122 rockets have been widely exported and have a range of between 21 and 40km with a choice of blast or blast fragmentation warheads with proximity fuzes. Roketsan has partnered with Burkan in the UAE for the joint production of 122mm and 107mm rockets. Turkey partnered with China to produce the TR-300 rocket and associated launch systems. This larger rocket has a maximum range of 100km with a single blast fragmentation warhead containing 26,000 steel balls weighing in at 150kg. Roketsan and the UAE are also developing a guided version and a new composite rocket container has also be developed.
Avibras in Brazil make the ASTROS system that has also achieved some measure of export success. Rockets are available in three calibres; 127mm, 180m and 300mm. with ranges of 30, 35 and 60km’s respectively. An extended range 300mm variant is also available with a range of 90km, as is a precision guided version of the 300mm rocket called the AV-TM300
It is probably not a surprise that Israel produces a range of guided and unguided rockets, the Israeli army has recently replaced a number of 155mm gun systems with guided rockets, reflecting its need for greater precision in urban areas.
The LAR-160 Light Artillery Rocket System from IMI is a 160mm rocket with a range of 45km, each pod containing 13 rockets. A GPS guided version called ACCULAR is available and all types can be mounted on armoured vehicles, trucks or trailers. The 306mm EXTRA has a maximum range of 150km with GPS/INS guidance and a 120kg payload that can be used unitary warheads or sub-munitions. An EXTRA pod contains 4 rockets in the same space as the 13 rocket LAR-160 pod.
IMI are also developing an air launched version of EXTRA with a smaller warhead which might make for an interesting comparison with Storm Shadow!
IAI (not IMI) make an ATACMS equivalent called LORA with a range of between 30km and 300km and a choice of warheads. It is also suitable for shipboard use and as can be seen from the images below, relatively compact and available in a demountable rack launcher.
IMI also produce a missile system called Delilah and what makes it really interesting is its flexibility;
- Maximum range, 250km
- FLIR/CCD seeker
- Loitering capability
- Control hand off between aircraft and ground control stations
- Man in the loop final guidance
- Launch platform diversity; fast jets, ships, helicopters or vehicles
It is special.
Strictly speaking, Delilah is not a rocket in the strictest sense but I have included it here because when discussing future options later in the post its fits into the conversation.
Taiwan has for many years manufactured a similar range of rocket systems, again using a range of calibres; 117mm, 180mm and 227mm with a 15km, 30km and 40km range respectively. The 227mm rocket is the same as G/MLRS
One of the means by which rocket manufacturers have sought to exploit the flexibility of their different calibre systems is to use multi calibre launch systems. Combining different types of rocket pods on a single launcher, using hermetically sealed pods, trainable maritime launchers and launch vehicles that range from armoured vehicles to trucks and trailers. There are a couple of different approaches to reloading, unlike MLRS with its integral loading mechanism, most of the other systems make use of dedicated loading vehicles equipped with the appropriate handling equipment for either individual rockets or rocket pods.
Two notable launch systems are from IMI and Jobaria Defense Systems.
The IMI Lynx is a modular launch system that can accept all the IMI rockets mentioned above but also MLRS and GRAD rockets that might still be in the inventories of ex Soviet Bloc countries. Taking the concept a step further IMI have developed the TRIGON system which is a naval variant of the 306mm 150km GPS/INS guided EXTRA rocket.
With a very small potential military population the United Arab Emirates has combined a whole rocket battery into a single vehicle, the Jobaria Multi Cradle System.
Jobaria are a subsidiary of Tawazun Holdings and the rocket systems are those from Roketsan described above. An Oshkosh Heavy Equipment Tractor (HET) prime mover is used to tow a wide trailer containing 4 trainable launchers that each contain 3 pods of twenty RT-122 122mm rockets for a total of 240 rockets per vehicle, every one of which can be launched in under 2 minutes.
They are also planning to fit the 300mm Rokestan TR-300.
It is not as bonkers as it looks when you think about it, there is not much terrain for a small vehicle to exploit,the UAE has a small military where the output of every person must be maximised (the Jobaria has a crew of only 3), there is plenty of space for such a large vehicle to maneuver in, they don’t have to contend with EU road haulage regulations and potential enemies are unlikely to have sophisticated counter battery capabilities.
A Few Thoughts
Keeping faith with the 227mm G/MLRS system, particularly the M30 series rocket, seems like a no brainer to me.
It has demonstrated its considerable qualities over a number of conflicts, has a funded (by the USA) development path to treaty compliant area effects and increased range that would be exploitable with zero development costs and only modest implementation and through life cost uplift.
The vehicles and support systems are bought and paid for and in the grand scheme of things don’t cost a great deal but this would not be a Think Defence post without thinking about extending capabilities and driving down support costs through increasing commonality.
We can assume that the latest generation of GMLRS rockets will be able to reach 120km and the Guided EXTRA from IMI has a range of 150km.
The simple maps below show the GMLRS+ range advantage if we were able to go back in time to Iraq 2003 and Afghanistan 2013.
Tucked out of counter battery range, 30km inside the Kuwaiti border, a single GMLRS+ with meter class accuracy would have been able to hold the Al Faw peninsula, Basrah and all surrounding areas at threat.
Afghanistan, a single vehicle sitting inside Camp Bastion
Go back even further to Kosovo, Sierra Leone or the Falkland Islands and again, the utility of a 120km range precision weapon becomes obvious.
ATACMS can range out to 300km, the rockets cost less about a million dollars and can drop right into a GMLRS system with only minor modification. It is not as accurate as GMLRS or GMLRS+ but for the likely target set, probably not a critical factor. The same would apply for the IAI LORA and although not a simple GMLRS drop in like ATACMS it does offer a very simple launcher and ability to launch from ships.
Now try the same location in Kuwait, 30km inside the border, the red circle shows 300km.
Park one on the runway at Akrotiri and even the Syrian coastline hoves into range!
No doubt a 300km deep strike precision weapon would be a fantastic capability to possess at less than the cost of an F35 or FRES study, but in seeking to reach beyond traditional artillery range the Army would have to contend with a most implacable adversary, the light and dark blue, upon whose toes it would be treading. I know I keep saying this but I will say it again, a deep strike precision rocket would not completely replace an F35 or Typhoon armed with Brimstone, Storm Shadow or Paveway IV for many reasons, but it would displace those very expensive systems in many cases.
An ATACMS rocket cannot be posted through a window with a delayed fuze like a Paveway IV, attack a moving target with man in the loop control like a Brimstone or reach far inland like a submarine launched Tomahawk so it would be far from a replacement but think about the likely target sets, the pinprick effects of Paveway IV and Brimstone, how many can be carried and the cost of getting them to their launch points.
We might also reflect on the number of fast jets likely to be in service in the next decade or so and tot up the number of targets that can be destroyed in the most likely scenarios in any given time period, given the lack of cluster munitions and ability to deliver more than pin prick attacks using our new generation air delivered weapons.
Of course, 300km is much less than the combat radius of the F35B at 800 or so kilometres or the thousand kilometre plus range of a Tomahawk and obviously, the launcher needs to be in theatre to work, but think about some of the recent scenarios where ATACMS has been used and see it is a cheap (but shorter range) complement.
Chose another option, the IMI Delilah, and you get a slightly reduced maximum range of 250km with a smaller warhead but in return, man in the loop guidance, much better accuracy and my favourite of all, launch platform diversity. (this, by the way, is what you get when you don’t have competing services)
Instead of striving for more range it is equally important to look at the means of reducing cost. Combining the 227mm GMLRS rocket with something like a 122mm rocket from Roketsan or the LAR 160mm from IMI will provide commanders with a smaller yield and cheaper option. The ACCULAR from IMI adds GPS/INS guidance to the 45km LAR-160 at a lower cost and with a smaller warhead than GMLRS.
It would be interesting to see a cost comparison between the 160mm ACCULAR and the 155mm Excalibur precision guided artillery shell from Raytheon which has been reported to cost $100,000 each and then evaluate differences in accuracy, support costs, equipment adaption costs and target effectiveness.
The problem with adopting LAR-160 or ACCULAR is that a new launcher would also be needed, which brings me on to the next section.
One of the advantages of the IMI Lynx, the Roketsan, RT-2000 or Jobaria system is they can accept different rocket pods which gives the battery commander selectable effects and ranges rather than one size fits all.
It is a very flexible arrangement.
The MLRS/GMLRS launch system does allow the ATACMS rocket to be launched but nothing smaller than the 227mm GMLRS/MLRS rocket, for the simple reason there are no smaller rockets in the portfolio to launch.
The M993 Self propelled Launcher Loader vehicle is a longer wheelbase derivative of the Bradley armoured vehicle and as such, unique in British Army service. Although a handful have been converted into repair and recovery vehicles they are an anomaly and vehicle anomalies create support cost bulges.
A truck option is therefore attractive.
With longer rocket ranges and the much improved protection options available with modern logistics vehicles like the MAN SV the cost advantages of wheeled v tracks should give us a reason to look again at transporting our GMLRS capability.
As the Taiwanese RT-2000 Thunderbolt shows, truck mounting twin 227mm pod rocket pods is perfectly feasible.
This might also be an opportunity to look at how smaller rockets could be accommodated and look at the trade offs between self loading and using loading vehicles. I like the flexibility offered by the self loading system but it does add complexity to every launch vehicle.
All at Sea
A post Libya Janes Defence Weekly reported a Royal Navy lessons learned document in which the two major shortcomings were said to be a lack of precision land attack capability and organic unmanned ISR.
Janes quoted Colonel Pierson RM, the Deputy Director of NATO Operations in Libya;
It was evident that the Libya campaign showed the need for precision fires, [perhaps the Lockheed Martin] Guided Multiple Rocket Launch System (GMLRS), from the sea base, deep into enemy littoral territory.
The organic unmanned ISR seems to be being addressed with Scan Eagle and a number of development programmes for the longer term, so what about ‘precision fires from the sea base’?
As the kids say, it’s complicated!
The recent Type 26 news has not been wholly positive but a number of press reports have reported the selection of the BAE Mk 45 Mod 4 5″ gun to meet the Maritime Indirect Fire System (MIFS) requirement and Mk41 Vertical Launch System.
The 62 calibre 36km range Mk45 Mod 4 was introduced by the US Navy 15 years ago but it is a very reliable and capable system that will be a significant improvement over the existing Mk8 Mod 1 4.5″ gun. If the Mk 45 is selected it will allow the Royal Navy to tap into a well funded system with wide range of ammunition natures including illumination, various high explosive and fragmentation and even the so called ‘shotgun round’ developed after the USS Cole incident. The feed drum can contain 20 conventional rounds, 10 extended length projectiles with 10 propellant charges or a mixture of the two. The drum can be emptied in under a minute and refilled whilst rounds are still being fired, but rate of fire would then depend on the configuration of the below deck machinery and the types of ammunition being used.
In the precision fires department, the story is not as good.
Despite an uplift over the 4.5″ system by some margin a force ashore will not have the same level of precision fire support from the sea as from a land base.
The Royal Navy cannot provide an equivalent to GMLRS and it is as simple as that.
Over a decade since Al Faw and nearly 5 years after Libya the Royal Navy has nothing in the pipeline to rectify this gap. Type 26 might offer precision fire capability from the 5″ gun but that is dependent on a lot of ifs, buts and maybes.
After spending $600m the US cancelled the Extended Range Guided Munition (Mk 171 EGRM)in 2008 but as Raytheon have matured the 155mm Excalibur they have decided to have another tentative look at the subject. BAE has demonstrated the multi-service standard guided projectile or MS-SGP which they claim this will provide high levels of accuracy out to 95km, comparable with the Oto Melara Vulcano system. The difference between the two is that the MS-SGP is rocket assisted whilst the Vulcano is a sub calibre and sabot design.
Both systems are likely to be very expensive and there are some interesting trade offs between the two designs but at least there will be a choice available to the Royal Navy if both offerings mature.
The next piece of the Type 26 jigsaw is a missile filled Mk 41 VLS.
It is here that I think the prospects for precision land attack are even weaker.
I have asked a number of times what the point of the Mk41 VLS was on a future Royal Navy frigate; Sea Ceptor will be in it’s own silo’s so what else? The general opinion is that it provides an option for Tomahawk and also whatever comes after Harpoon so it makes perfect sense to build in some flexibility. Hard to disagree in general terms with future proofing but this assumes a number of things.
First, that the UK will purchase the silo launched Tomahawk or a Mk41 integrated SCALP Naval.
Neither is certain.
It makes the national headlines when we buy a half dozen of the things and it is hard to see what a T26 launched Tomahawk would add on top of carrier strike and Storm Shadow on Typhoon. Are we likely to buy SCALP Naval and then go to the trouble of integrating it with Mk 41? There has been some vague talk of using the air launched Joint Strike Missile in the VLS role and the in development Lockheed Martin Long Range Anti Ship Missile (LRASM) has been fired from a mk41. Whether this will eventually be able to attack land targets is not certain, currently, it is focussed on the long range anti shipping role.
A Type 26 Frigate could potentially be armed with a high volume short range land attack capability (5″) with potential for longer ranged precision, very long range land attack (Tomahawk) and long range anti shipping missiles, quite handy I think we can all agree.
But is this the right blend of range, accuracy, effect and cost?
I am left wondering if there is an alternative, perhaps more akin to Col Pierson’s idea for support to embarked forces ashore rather than the deep strike that seems more the mix being aimed for with the Type 26.
Lets just imagine the Type 26 has a large ‘missile deck’ like the Danish Absalon or Iver Huitfeldt but sized to accept 3 multi-function launch systems on either side with each able to take a full width G/MLRS fit (i.e. two pods)
Right at the minute it could be used for Harpoon (if that does not go out of service before Type 26 enters) and not much else, hence, a stupid idea.
But, think about future potential with the systems described above and one or two others.
Am going to step into fantasy fleet mode now
Integrate GMLRS+ (or some equivalent like TRIGION/EXTRA that we know are naval vessel compatible)
This provides 72 rockets with a very high degree of accuracy and a range in excess of 120km.
Buy into ATACMS or LORA and get the additional range, out to 300km.
This could provide 12 ATACMS or 24 LORA
If you want a shorter range and smaller warhead, the LAR 160 ACCULAR provides such a capability and it is here that the number of available precision rounds really starts to rise. With the ability to double stack the 13 rocket pod, a 6 position deck could accommodate 312 rounds, every single one of them capable of travelling 45km and hitting a target with metre class accuracy.
Buy into the delights of Delilah with her man in the loop data link, 250km range, flexible guidance system, loitering capability, high levels of accuracy and launch platform diversity. Packing density isn’t that high but with double stacking a total of 48 missiles could be carried.
We might even resurrect the MBDA Fireshadow Loitering Munition which would deliver 150km range with high levels of endurance and excellent packing density, 144 missiles if all positions were used.
Not forgetting the anti ship requirement, the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile could make use of the same launch positions and mechanisms, it is only steel after all. NSM is focussed on the anti ship role and available right now but hang on a few more years and the Joint Strike Missile provides anti shipping AND data link enabled man in the loop land attack out to about 300km whilst maintaining the anti ship capabilities of the NSM. Should the UK ever equip its F35’s or future Maritime Patrol Aircraft (or MMA) with an anti ship missile it would make obvious sense to use the JSM and let the development costs be carried by others.
At 4 missiles per position in double stacked arrangement, a total of 24 could be carried
Finally, if we absolutely had to have the ability to fire Tomahawk cruise missile then the same capsules as used in the Mk41 variant could be used in a box launcher, like the older Armoured Box Launcher.
Tomahawk is a long weapon and would need approximately 30 feet of space so depending upon design constraints each Tomahawk launch box might take 2 positions on the imaginary deck. With double stacking, that would still provide each Type 26 with the ability to fire 12, more than we fired during Operation Ellamy. I don’t for one second ignore the fact that the UK would be the only nation to use the box launch method and so present this as a tentative option but it has been done, the design exists.
Mix and match
Many have suggested that GMLRS and ATACMS might not be suitable for shipboard use because of corrosive exhaust, relative ship motion and EM assurance. All good points, we would not want the ships radar causing one to launch after all but assuming these are not insurmountable problems the commonality, cost and capability benefits would be significant.
In short, all the capability boxes are ticked with potential for multi service commonality and a broader spectrum of capability.
The Obligatory Container Option!
Of course, there has to be a container option!
Every single one of the systems shown above could be mounted inside a 20 ft intermodal container (with the exception of Tomahawk, that might need a 30ft) but why bother.
- Easier to protect the contents from the weather
- Easy to handle
- Can be moved by most trucks and cranes
- Can be fired from any ship or truck or even convenient patch of ground
- The contents can be concealed from prying eyes
- Systems can be shared between land and sea launch platforms
You might think I am going on about containers again but there are several advantages for very little disadvantage.
They don’t have to be fired from frigates either.
Any ship with a bit of flat deck can become a launch platform, imagine that.
Using a container and flat deck arrangement also offers potential for replenishment at sea, a heave compensated crane and moderate sea state is all that is needed.
Pulling it all Together
The guided rocket is here to stay, it is simply too effective to get rid of.
With some investment the UK could quite easily buy into the Alternative Warhead to return the wide area effect and with the GMLRS+, extend ranges to 120km.
In order to save money within the overall capability a move to a truck based launcher is starting to look increasingly attractive.
This would deliver significant capability improvements for not a great deal of money in the wider context of the UK’s defence budget.
At the same time and as part of the design and implementation of a truck mounted launch mechanism it might be a good point to investigate smaller and cheaper rockets like the IMI ACCULAR to improve flexibility and reduce cost.
Accounting for the benefits of reduced Close Air Support costs would be more difficult to quantify but the savings are definitely there.
So good, so easy.
If the Army wants to go large and look at implementing ATACMS or equivalent then a more intractable inter-service political problem arises.
A 300km ATACMS/LORA or 250Km Deliliah starts impinging on the Carrier Strike, Deep Strike and Interdiction roles currently delivered by the RAF and RN.
And yet there are compelling reasons for a longer range precision rocket.
These reasons become even more compelling if launching from the sea is included in the mix and if a common system like Delilah or JSM could be implemented across all three services it gets into the realm of ‘why are we not doing this’
Make the launch mechanism containerised and configured so that it can be used from any truck or ship and the expensive rounds can be transferred and shared between the services from a common pool that delivers reduced stockpiles and easier life-cycle management.
Major system commonality across all three services, ease of transport with a containerised system, reduction in stocks born of the ability to share across services and a raft of capability improvements across the board and in all spectrum’s of conflict.
It would need pragmatism and true jointery from all three services with cooperation from the MoD and industry.
Chances of success…
The square root of zero.
Anyway, a nice video to finish with