The ranges and complexity of ground launched missiles has grown, and with no limiting treaty, looks set to go ballistic.
Tactical missiles extend the depth to which the ground force can engage and destroy targets. These missiles are vehicle mounted providing ground mobility and the ability to displace rapidly after firing. The missiles are able to reach targets beyond the ranges of tube artillery. currently about 30 kilometres for 152mm or 155mm artillery. Even extended range howitzers like the US Army ERCA being developed by BAE Systems will likely achieve a range of around 70km. Beyond this is where the ground based tactical missile comes to play.
The multiple rocket launcher widely used in World War II demonstrated the tactical effectiveness of such weapons. Although simple free-flight rockets the Russian truck mounted Katyusha and Wehrmacht towed Nebelwerfer used in mass were deadly from their positions located just behind the forward lines. The introduction of conventional, nuclear or chemical agent warhead capable tactical missiles in the 1960s and 70s, such as the Soviet Frog 7, SS21 Scarab and US Lance, filled a similar role. These missiles would target assets further to the rear such as forward air bases, staging areas, and command and control facilities. Despite these warheads, their limited range did not give them a strategic consideration. Conventional warhead versions today address the same roles but with greater precision and significantly increased ranges.
These highly mobile systems typically have multiple launch rails or pods mounted on a tactical truck platform, although the US M240 MLRS by Lockheed-Martin is a tracked chassis. Originally these employed free-flight rockets that were unguided and used the mass volley firing to blanket an area. The Russian BM-21 Grail (Hail) is a classic example. It has 40x122mm rockets with a range of 30-45 km on an Ural375 6×6 or similar truck. The system is used by over 40 armies often in locally design versions. It can fire its entire load in 20 seconds and be ready to move in two minutes. The later is critical since the signature of a MRL firing is pronounced and can be expected to quickly receive counter-battery fires so displacing is essential. In fact, countering artillery and command/control sites are roles for which MRLs are ideally suited, since as a BM-21 battery will cover a large impact area an exact location of the enemy targeted is not essential.
The Russian forces have been replacing the BM-21 with larger rockets. These include the 220mm BM-27 Uragan ‘Hurricane’, the BM-30 Smerch with 12x300mm rockets, and a more recent six tube 9A52-A Tornado all on 8×8 truck chassis. The Tornado is, according to literature, “a universal multiple launch rocket system offering faster reloading, simpler logistics and the ability to fire existing types of rockets without special preparation or changes”. It can fire all current 122mm and Smerch rockets, including HE-FRAG, incendiary, thermobaric, anti-personnel or anti-tank mine cluster rounds. It also can reportedly launch the 9M534 rocket-deployed unmanned aerial reconnaissance drone. The system has a 120km range with automated laying and fire controls using autonomous satellite navigation and positioning to provide a one minute set up, firing, and move ability. The first Tornado-S systems have been supplied to the Southern Military District.
Several counties have developed mobile rocket systems either drawing on the Russian models or using the 122mm rocket. The Slovak RM-70 uses the Tatra 8×8 truck chassis and includes a 40 round on board reload. It has also been offered with 227mm HIMARS rocket pod as a lower priced alternative. Israel’s LAR-160 rocket launcher is mounted on a simple truck chassis. Its 160mm rockets have cluster warheads and are mounted on pods for fast reloading. A Romanian version called LAROM also uses the 160mm rocket providing a lighter Grad like rocket system. India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRADO) developed its own multiple rocket launchers the Pinaka. Mounted on the Tatra truck it has 12 rockets with a maximum range by the Mark1 of 40km. A 70km guided version was demonstrated in 2019. It was successfully used during the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan. Pinaka uses SAFRAN’s Sigma 30 inertial navigation allowing shoot-and-scoot tactical employment. Teaming batteries with weapons locating radars and unmanned aerial vehicles offer a responsive counter-battery capability.
The Turkish firm Roketsan manufactures a number of multiple rocket systems with its T-300 Kasirga (Hurricane) the closest fielded equivalent to Russia’s BM-30 Smerch. Using a 300mm rocket its four launch tubes are capable of reaching 100km delivering a 90kg M31 unitary warhead. Generally mounted on a 6×6 or 8×8 MAN truck, it includes on-board navigation and fire controls.
The Peoples Republic of China also uses the 300mm calibre rocket in its PHL03. The 12 tube system mounted on an 8×8 truck was first seen in 2005. The initial 70km range rockets have since been joined by a more advance 150km model. Equipped with an automatic correction system, Norinco, the developer, claims “it is able to achieve more dense impact points allowing greater destructive power with fewer rockets.”
The tracked chassis Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) M270 is fielded by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Turkey. The system originally had with six M30 traditional rockets per pod with a 70km range and later with one guided MGM-140 ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) per pod. The missile initially carried a payload of cluster bomblets which covered a large area when disbursed but also suffered a high dud rate. These were replaced by a Block IVA variant developed by Lockheed Martin with a unitary warhead. A company spokesperson shared that “this is a 230kg (500 pound) high explosive air burst warhead with preformed tungsten fragments and a range of 300km, with an increased accuracy as a result of its upgraded GPs and guidance electronics.” The new versions were first delivered in 2016.
HIMARS M142 (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) is essentially the MLRS launcher mounted on a tactical truck but capable of carrying only one pod. It is, however, more easily transported and simpler to maintain. It has been adopted by seven militaries with the latest being Poland and Romania. HIMARS has recently received considerable attention as a system that can be rapidly air deployed to forward sites to provide control of a sea or land area. In the former role, the HIMARS has been outfitted with the Kongsberg’s Naval Strike Missile (NSM), a system with proven capability to engage stationary and moving ship targets with precision. Raytheon Missile and Defence, Kongsberg’s US partner was contacted by the US Marines in May of 2019 to fill this requirement. The US Army had originally given anti-ship engagement capability the priority in its Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) development to replace ATACMS that is underway under an accelerated programme. However, at a July 2019 conference at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Colonel John Rafferty, director of the the Long Range Precision Fires (LRPF) cross-functional team stated that it was determined that the target seekers available from US Navy anti-ship missiles could not be used. As most are sea skimmers, their targeting parameters differ from that of the high angle attack of the PrSM. Missile testing of candidates from Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin are now projected to begin at the end of 2019.
On 10 August, 2019, North Korean state media announced the country’s test firing of a tactical ground-to-ground missile. This new multi-tube rocket launcher is said to have a range of around 200km, much greater than the 70km range of previous systems. South Korean government officials suggested: “The weapon tested is very similar to the MLRS ATACMS.” When fielded this system will substantially add to the already massive gun and rocket artillery deployed along the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).
Future Missiles and Payloads
The US Army views the ability to conduct ‘deep strikes’ as an essential tool in ‘near peer-to-peer’ warfare. Attacking targets beyond the forward battlespace had since late in World War II been a task primarily taken on by air forces. Western tactical air has established supremacy and generally freely attacked rear command, support, logistics, and other facilities. However, given the demonstrated increasing effectiveness of air defences this air dominance is no longer guaranteed. Building a ground based ability to hit these critical targets positioned beyond the ranges typical of army artillery is now seen as essential. In fact, air forces are now looking to the ground elements to attack and neutralise opposing air defences so as to allow them to operate.
A priority system to accomplish this for the US Army is the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM). Its Precision Fires Rocket and Missile Systems (PFRMS) Project Office at Redstone Arsenal stated: “The Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) will destroy/neutralise/suppress targets at ranges from 70-400km plus.” The missile is intended to replace the ATACMS and will be fired from the MLRS and HIMARS. “It will have two missiles per pod and in to utilise a cluster munitions payload that is compliant with the insensitive munitions convention.”
This return to cluster munitions is a point of concern to many. These munitions dominated US military thinking for over 40 years from the 1960s when both artillery and air extensively relied on them. The problem is they demonstrate dud rates as high as 30 percent leaving large numbers of unexploded munitions. Although the US did not sign the 2010 Convention on Cluster Munitions it did until recently commit to abiding by the agreement and was moving to implement a full ban by 1 January 2019. However, on 30 November 2017 Deputy Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan indefinitely delayed implementation of this ban. Unfortunately, progress on development of cluster munitions with the one percent or lower dud rate viewed as necessary remains elusive. In fact, as shown by its use of such munitions in Syria, Russia not only clearly sees them as legitimate but is pursuing their expanded use. Sputnik News claims that “New Russian sub-munitions are way smarter than their US counterparts.” China also has missiles with cluster warheads which were used by Hezbollah against Israeli civilian targets, deploying 122mm rocket launchers during the 2006 war. The practical fact is that cluster bomblets that can cover a large target area generally offer the most efficient and destructive payload. As missiles achieve greater range and use against area targets like disbursed anti-air missile batteries and operational airfields, the attraction of the cluster payload increases.
Multiple vs Single Ballistic Missiles
The US and NATO militaries have been content to rely entirely on the multiple launch platform for their ground based long range in-flight propelled projectiles. They are incorporating autonomous guidance and in-flight correction with precise targeting using GPS supplemented by inertial guidance. Russia, however, has not only continued to develop its traditional multiple launcher systems but has also pursued tactical ballistic missiles. This is a direction the west has declined to pursue since the 1988 withdrawal and elimination of the Pershing II missiles under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Russia’s 9K720 Iskander-M is a potent two missile per launcher short-range ballistic missile with a range of 280km in export versions, and 400-500 km in domestic models. Its 700kg payloads include high explosives (HE), sub-munitions, fuel-air explosive, a HE penetrator and in the domestic model a nuclear payload. The Iskander is also designed to evade missile defences. It complied with INF limits, however, with the US withdrawal from the treaty its design could be pushed for increased ranges.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between tactical and strategic missiles, something which, despite its flaws, the INF provided guidelines. The aggressive development of the hypersonic missile is further compounding this line. This adds an increased level of uncertainty as to a missile’s intended use.