2009/11/02

The future of multiple rocket launchers

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finally after three weeks a new hardware topic :-)

Multiple rocket launchers (MRL) became popular in WW2 when Russia, Germany and later the U.S. introduced such systems in significant quantities. Their accuracy and range was poor, but the ability to fire many warheads at one target in a few seconds had a good impact if the enemy troops were inexperienced.
The same effect was available with well-coordinated fire of several artillery batteries, but that did put a much higher demand on artillery fire control.

Multiple rocket launchers were quite neglected in the West (NATO) during the 50's to 70's, with several R&D projects popping up during the 70's. This did finally lead to the NATO standard MLRS (in Germany: MARS) system of two 227mm rocket sixpacks on a self-propelled launcher vehicle.
The most important ammunitions were a 227mm rocket with bomblets and a 227mm rocket with anti-tank mines. The large ATACMS missiles aren't really MRL ammunition; the MRLS is rather used in a second role as a tactical short-range ballistic missile (~SRBM) equivalent launcher.

The Russians never neglected MRL tech, but they still didn't standardize on a long-range model as for example MLRS, still using many quite short-ranged 122mm MRL.

Several developing countries had their own MRL projects (noteworthy: Brazil and South Africa) and many short-ranged MRL of small calibres (70-110mm) were developed during the Cold War as well.

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Time went by, and the MLRS concept was also used on a lighter, cheaper truck chassis with only one sixpack at a time.

The MRLS ammunition of the 80's became quite useless in the meantime. Many user countries agreed to the DPICM (bomblet) ban that effectively illegalized the bomblet rockets. The anti-tank mine rockets are a quite questionable concept and today much less useful than during the 80's. Their utility is zero in small wars.


One MRLS ammunition that's a real hit is the GMLRS (guided MLRS) rocket - in the XM31 GUMLRS 85 km version (unitary HE warhead, no bomblets). That's about the only MLRS rocket of good value and versatility for the Heer (German army).
The introduction of GUMLRS was planned for this year and the introduction of GMLRS with SmArt submunitions was planned for next year.

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The 227 mm calibre is a poor choice anyway. It was an efficient calibre for the delivery of submunitions, but it's awfully inefficient for fragmentation effects. It's powerful - and inefficient. The fragmentation efficiency in terms of lethally covered area per weight is best with much smaller warheads - that was the point of submunitions in the first place.

The tube artillery uses the 155mm standard calibre, with very few 105mm gun still in service (mostly as a kind of infantry gun).

It would therefore make sense to standardize on 155mm - a calibre that allows for a good range, standardization of warheads and legal submunitions (as SmArt 155), decent fragmentation efficiency and adequate high explosive (object demolition) power.

The Israelis thought of this decades ago and turned during the development towards 160mm and achieved similar ranges as top 155mm gun systems and some export successes.

An even smarter move is to develop a MRL that accepts multiple calibres to match the situation (MRLS accepts 227mm and the much bigger ATACMS, but doesn't exploit the idea in the lower range except in Germany with old 110mm rockets). The Romanians did this with a combination of the Soviet 122m calibre and the Israeli 160mm calibre. The Russians are also working on such a MRL as far as I know - there are several such projects world-wide.


Finally, we could include good passive protection, good off-road agility and the ability to fire very heavy very short range rockets for very large blasts - that would be very handy against minefields and fortified opposition.

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The raison d'ĂȘtre of MRL in competition with tube artillery was always the low cost of the launcher and the good salvo capability. MRL are capable of ripple fire with up to 40 rockets in 20 seconds (BM-21) - compare that to up to 12 shots in 60 seconds by 155mm SPH!
This short + rapid fire lost relevance since we're expecting more artillery strikes on small high-value targets than on troop & tank concentrations nowadays. The expectations may swing back to more conventional war ideas, but a return to 80's expectations is unlikely.

The new raison d'ĂȘtre of MRL is very different (aside from the "we're already in the inventory" argument): It's much easier to develop and produce guided rockets than guided shells. The shells' spin and huge acceleration shock during firing are serious problems that rockets avoid. Fin-stabilized rockets need have a length:calibre ratio of seven or higher, while spin-stabilized shells (and rockets) should not be longer than ratio six.
This enables much longer & heavier rockets than shells for the same calibre - and subsequently offers much more volume for electronics and much greater payload at the same calibre. The more gentle acceleration of a rocket also allows for a thinner casing, which adds even more volume and saves weight.
New MRL systems should therefore be understood as very heavy indirect fire ammunition AND as guided indirect fire ammunition systems. The old salvo and area effect image has to go away.

Mission reports from Afghanistan already cheer the GUMLRS as 70+ km sniper missile for its ability to take out a tiny enemy positions at very long range with a single shot.

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An optimal concept would in my opinion look like this:
* A medium truck-based MRL with a range of munitions of 105, 160 and 227 mm size with emphasis on 160mm (plus ATACMS). This would be part of independent artillery units under corps HQ control.
* A tank-based MRL with the same range of munitions and emphasis on short-range 227 mm thermobaric munitions. This would be part of heavy brigades.
* A simple and extremely inexpensive trailer MRL with the same range of munitions. This would be a rather rare system for expert infantry formations (mountain, airborne...).

Many if not most would disagree with this idea of an optimal MRL system family, but one thing should be obvious by now:

The roles and capabilities of MRLs changed a lot since the 80's and the submunitions ban has a huge effect on MRLs, it turns a huge part of the ammunition inventory obsolescent/illegal.
MLRS is an outdated concept. The environment for MRL use has changed very much and the MRLS concept is nowhere near the optimum.


Sven Ortmann

edit: I forgot to mention that the truck-mounted MRL could be disguised as a normal military truck, thereby improving its survivability a bit.
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18 comments:

  1. The U.S. seem to prefer a vls system with their nlos-ls
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XM501_Non-Line-of-Sight_Launch_System
    (wiki for fast overview)
    I do not really understand how they can get five times the range of a hellfire with less weight, the pam version doesn't seem to use a turbojet so i think thats a little strange.
    Metric Dimensions 115x1750.

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  2. These Netfires things are like Polyphem - not really related to MRL.
    They're more like an indirect fire ATGM.

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  3. I think that vetical launch is just next generation MRL system that has different launch angle. ATGM warhead is just 1 technical solution. I'm sure that if there is demand, engineers will add different warheads to catalogue. Box system could very well used like prepositioned artillery ordnance that you can just leave behind like used condom. It depends all on your METT and TTP. The concealment factor makes boxes more interesting concept. There are more boxes on terrain than 45 degree elevated boxes.

    Israelis put already their Nimrod 3rockets to 160 mm MRL containers, why they can't put their LAHAT missiles to 10-pack box and Hilux. One box vs one tank company?

    Here is really good collection of Israeli missiles.

    http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php?t=109837

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  4. It's nevertheless not MRL tech. Multiple missile launcher probably, and it may be that 20+ km maneuvering missiles become an additional pillar of artillery in addition to SPH and MRL, but it's not really a MRL.

    There are more impressive things in the realm of gun & missile artillery if we look at the whole (and not just MRL); "MGM-164 ATACMS 2000", for example.

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  5. Maybe we should copyright acronym MML - multiple missile launcer :) If you put Nimrod 3 missiles inside 160 mm MRL box. Is this system called MRL or MML?

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  6. Sven, you wrote:

    "A simple and extremely inexpensive trailer MRL with the same range of munitions. This would be a rather rare system for expert infantry formations (mountain, airborne...)."

    Nebelwerfer 41 is almost 70 years old concept :)

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  7. That was descriptive of how it should be in an army.

    Btw, Nebelwerfer ammunition wasn't simple, it wasn't for mountain troops and it wasn''t for meant for airborne troops. ;-)

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  8. Sven,

    Lockheed Martin has started a company-funded effort to develop a 7 inch diameter missile called the P44 that will fit 10 per MLRS pod.

    They are pitching it as a long-ranged (70km) NLOS-PAM, but there's no reason a simpler GPS-only guidance couldn't be built.

    After reading about the Battle of Wanat recently, I've started to wonder if a smaller version Netfires for platoons/companies would be worthwhile.

    My thought is, take something like Spike-LR and pack them into a 15 round launcher similar to NLOS-LS. Figure the all up weight of the launcher plus missiles might be in the 400-500lbs range, so more than one launcher could be carried on a HMMWV or trailer.

    If you could build a control unit that could launch and direct missiles remotely (via RF), you could distribute them more widely in a platoon or company and keep the missiles centralized on the launcher units.

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  9. Why would you want to use PGMs in a Wanat-like scenario?
    The enemy were infantrymen; a good deal of frag area effects would have been the bet choice. That's easy with enough high angle fire weapons.

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  10. Sven,

    It wasn't easy in this case, The enemy effectively suppressed the 120mm and 60mm mortar positions.

    A remotely-operated Netfires-lite couldn't be suppressed and could provide near instantaneous 360 degree precision fires. LOAL would let you fire missiles towards the general area of an enemy position, and then guide the round in via datalink.

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  11. So every outpost would get how many NLOS missiles? You can scratch at most two enemies per half million dollar missile.
    So you would need dozens per outpost - and you'd need to harden them.

    Firebases protecting each other and their patrol with gunfire look much better to me.

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  12. Sven,

    Javelins "only" cost ~$75k USD. IIRC, Spikes are a bit less.

    US forces use Javelins today to take out enemy fighting positions, so I don't see how this is any different.

    The number of missiles available to an outpost would depend on the METT-TC.

    Even a single CLU with 15 rounds might be enough to blunt an initial assault by killing enemy MG and RPG teams.

    You could harden them with sandbags or HESCOs or even bury them.

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  13. Sven,

    If you consider up to 2-4 kills per missile, that's up to 30-60 kills for a single CLU.

    2nd Platoon Chosen Company was only attacked by around 100 insurgents, IIRC.

    No obviously not all rounds will hit...

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  14. The effectiveness of new ammunitions and weapons is usually overestimated in peacetime.
    The enemy would adapt, for example. It might easily end up at an average of .7 kills per missile.

    I consider it to be a perversion of small wars to think of guided missiles as ammunition against individual soldiers/warriors. Much cheaper, simpler tools are available for the same job.

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  15. Sven,

    Personally, I don't think it's a perversion to use precision munitions against individual soldiers or individual fighting positions, if it helps turn the tide of the fight.

    We routinely drop LGBs and JDAMs and fire Hellfires and TOWs on individual fighting positions all the time. Certainly it is an expensive way to kill the enemy, but sometimes it is also the most effective and least risky.

    Full-spectrum combat units will carry ATGMs as part of their TOE anyway, so those costs are sunk. You just have to pay for replenishment stocks.

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  16. Those costs are sunk if you use these missiles on minimal targets occasionally or when they're already obsolete.
    Those costs are not irrelevant if you anticipate to fight like that in the future; in that case you would stock more of them in the first place.

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  17. I agree, the cost of stocking additional munitions isn't irrelevant. Nor is developing and stocking missiles with specialized anti-personnel/anti-structure warheads and fuzes.

    Sorry for hijacking this MRL thread. I do agree with the anonymous poster that the distinction between a VL system like Netfires and a traditional MRL is fairly blurry.

    Is a notional, GPS-only guided, NLOS-PAM with a blast-frag warhead really much different from a GMLRS (other than range and warhead weight)?

    Is an MLRS-launched P44 with a tri-mode seeker much different, conceptually, from the NLOS-PAM?

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  18. FOG-M is here?

    http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php?201821-IDF-NLOS-missile-Direct-hit-on-rocket-firing-cell-in-Beit-Hanon-%28Gaza%29

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