NEW – July 13, 2022
American MLRS as an idea of doctrinal superiority
What can be more important in a weapon than the iron it is made of? Idea. The concept. The doctrine under which it is created.
Even at the project stage, American multiple launch rocket systems were radically different from their Soviet counterparts. In the USSR, MLRS were considered as a means of creating a dense fire rampart. The United States conceived its brainchild as a tool capable of breaking the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact artillery with high-speed and surgically accurate strikes.
The Soviet defence industry continued to think in terms of the Second World War, while the United States, realising the conceptual impasse of the symmetrical arms race, made a bet on creating a new generation of weapons. This is how the M270 MLRS installation was created, which was later used to create HIMARS (it should be noted that this is the de facto same system, which has a difference only in the type of conveyor and the number of launchers). At the time of its first combat use in 1991, the M270 was a weapon of a slightly different order than its modern variants.
By itself, from the point of view of technology, the M270 at that time did not represent something that would be an order of magnitude superior to competitors – on the contrary, the impressive results of its combat use were dictated primarily by advanced tactics and an extremely competent concept. The installation did not have a radical superiority in range over Soviet weapons (relatively speaking, 30 km against 20 km) – its trump card was accuracy, mobility and constant work in conjunction with intelligence tools.
The main advantage of American multiple launch rocket systems over competitors from other countries was reloading packages. If the Soviet “Grad” required from 30 to 50 minutes for a full recharge (each rocket is loaded manually), then the M270 – only about five minutes; at the same time, the process itself does not physically burden the installation crew at all.
The combat path of American MLRS in Iraq and Afghanistan as a prologue to the current war
As a result of the wars with Iraq, the United States took the path of upgrading the M270 – first, a lighter version of the installation was created in the face of HIMARS, and secondly, emphasis was placed on developing the key qualities of the system – its range and accuracy.
America completely stopped the production of unguided missiles – they were replaced by heavy guided missiles M30/M31, which significantly increased the potential of the system, making it extremely accurate and long-range.
As a result of their evolution, the M270 and HIMARS have taken a niche in tactical aviation in terms of combat capabilities – to make sure of this, it is enough to track the combat path of vehicles during conflicts against the Taliban and ISIS. MLRS were actively used in conjunction with raid groups, striking both targets identified by intelligence (warehouses, barracks, communication and control points, drug laboratories), and as a tool for direct fire support of Special Operations Forces units or the Marine Corps.
During the fighting against the forces of the Islamic State, American Special Operations Forces stormed cities in Iraq, relying primarily on HIMARS. Small groups of Special Operations Forces filtered through the militant defence lines, identifying the positions of the latter, and then passed the coordinates to MLRS calculations. This tactic made it possible to deliver pinpoint strikes in an urban environment, achieving maximum effect in destroying militants, while significantly minimising civilian casualties.
Why are we even interested in the combat path of HIMARS and its progenitor in the Middle East conflicts? Because it is directly related to the use of the system by the Ukrainian army. To be more precise, we are talking about embedding this MLRS in the regular organisational structure of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
The pattern of actions is more than transparent – after careful reconnaissance, installations strike at the most vulnerable places of any army – command and supply, in the long run paralysing its actions and preventing it from conducting offensive operations.
As the Ukrainian army becomes saturated with M270 MLRS and HIMARS multiple launch rocket systems, it is expected that a significant part of the installations will be transferred to the command of the army (as a brigade-level fire weapon) and will be used as a means of counter-battery warfare in the most dangerous areas – that is, to do what they were originally created for: superior, but much less technologically advanced, Soviet-style artillery.
As a counter-battery asset, HIMARS in their current form are practically invulnerable weapons – they can quickly change positions and fire out of the reach of almost the entire Russian missile and artillery arsenal (with the exception of operational-tactical missile systems). Moreover, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are trained to implement American counter-battery tactics and have the appropriate equipment: network-centric command and control systems, mass digital radio communications, mobile radars and unmanned reconnaissance systems.
All this will have a very strong impact on the combat work of the Russian artillery – it will be forced to resort to the “hit and run” tactic, abandoning the usual tactics of massing and over-concentrating firepower in narrow areas of the front.
HIMARS – what’s next?
Separately, it is worth noting that HIMARS is an extremely unpleasant target for intelligence. Calculating the system using data from satellite images, aerial reconnaissance (and sometimes ground-based) is extremely difficult due to the visual similarity with a conventional army truck – and this is a very useful property for a system that can fire, including using MGM-146 operational-tactical missiles at a range of more than 300 km (as in the case of a military truck). and the “younger” M30/31, this rocket has GPS correction and can fly several hundred kilometres, landing, say, in a house.
Ukraine currently does not have this type of ammunition, but it is probably only a matter of time. Most likely, they will be transferred by the Americans after reaching a certain threshold for losses of Russian air defence – ballistic missiles, due to their easily calculated trajectory, are a rather vulnerable target for air defence systems, but with a general decrease in the density of Russian air defence, they can be used with a much higher probability of success.
In fact, the strikes of the Ukrainian army against the positions of the Russian air defense system were also more than predictable and understandable – and the point here is not even the high priority of the SAM system as, undoubtedly, an important goal, but the fact that HIMARS over the past few years have been considered by the Pentagon as a means of breaking through Russian restricted access zones and the subsequent implementation of an air-ground offensive: ground forces pave the way for aviation, destroying dangerous enemy assets, and aviation, in turn, does the same for ground forces.
Frankly speaking, calling HIMARS “just MLRS” is top-notch stupidity. This is by no means an ordinary weapon system, which even at the dawn of its appearance in the face of the M270 surpassed everything that the Soviet Union created (the armament of which is the arsenal of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation). It is no less erroneous to consider it a miracle weapon – no, like all weapons, HIMARS is good exactly within the framework of the doctrine and concept for which it was created.
For the Ukrainian Armed Forces, these installations are of great importance – after all, they can, in fact, successfully perform the tasks of strike aircraft, conduct direct fire support for offensives, and provide parity in the fight against the numerous Russian artillery (which is the central force of the Russian offensive).
However, I will refrain from making any predictions about the impact of HIMARS and M270 on the strategic picture of combat operations for the time being – this requires time and observation of the practice of combat use of MLRS data in the conflict.
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