U.S. Rocket Artillery Will Blast Islamic State From Turkey
Precision rockets are an increasingly popular weapon
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
The United States will soon surround the Islamic State on three sides with rocket artillery batteries. The plans follow months of aerial bombardment, but the ground-launched rockets represent an expanding and less-publicized element to the war.
On April 26, the Pentagon announced it will send U.S. Army troops and the rocket launchers to southern Turkey. The ground combat branch already has similar units in Iraq and Jordan — and the use of the launchers are by no means exclusive to these three countries.
“HIMARS is a fantastic system and it will be able to range exactly where we need it to range,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten, the deputy commander in charge of operations and intelligence for America’s task force fighting Islamic State, told reporters. “[They] will work in combination with our air assets.”
HIMARS stands for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. The vehicle consists of a six-round launcher on the back of a modified, armored truck. Small enough to fit inside a C-130 cargo plane, the Pentagon can quickly rush the trucks to wherever they might need to go.
Each 227-millimeter rocket packs a 200-pound warhead and can hit targets up to 43 miles away. The truck can also carry and fire a single Army Tactical Missile System missile — a.k.a. ATACMS, pronounced “attack-ums” — with more than four times the range. Both weapons use GPS coordinates to find their mark. The HIMARS can fire all six of its rockets in just 30 seconds.
“We have reached an agreement with the Americans to seal off the Manbij region and our strategy on that is clear,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the Haberturk newspaper. The Syrian city is less than 20 miles south of the Turkish border and just over 30 miles southwest of the border town of Kobane.
Driving the Islamic State out of this region — which the terrorist group has used to launch rockets into Turkey — is a major priority for the Pentagon. And while U.S. military officials decline to discuss commando operations in Syria, the launchers may support Special Operations troops. On April 25, Pres. Barack Obama said he is ordering up to 250 additional troops to Syria to join around 50 personnel already there.
Depending on where the launchers are based exactly, the standard rockets could reach as far as the contested Syrian city of Aleppo from inside Turkish territory. On top of that, they have the range to hit near the Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa, farther to the east.
According to Gersten, a second contingent of HIMARS will link up with an existing battery based at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. That battery has been there since summer 2015 and has hurled more than 400 rockets at Islamic State fighters before the year was out.
“HIMARS will be exactly where we need it to be at any given time,” Gersten said, adding that the weapons would join Baghdad’s upcoming offensive to retake the city of Mosul. “It’s a mobile system, very agile, and we’ll put it where we need [it].”
Despite being an awesome weapon, ground rockets are in some ways less visible than air strikes — which the Pentagon discloses in daily press summaries. The task force in Baghdad does not report rocket launches since “ground-based artillery fired in counter-fire or in fire support to maneuver roles are not classified as a strike,” according to an official press release.
On the face of it, the rockets may seem like an odd choice for blasting terrorists and their camps in the countryside or inside densely packed cities. The Army designed the rockets in the 1970s with a eye toward destroying hordes of Soviet tanks and troops in Europe. But the modern version of the weapon is considerably different than the Cold War version.
Decades ago, the rockets carried hundreds of tiny grenades — a deadly weapon when applied to conventional troop formations. Each grenade had an anti-tank charge to blow up vehicles and a fragmenting outer shell to kill soldiers.
The Pentagon’s top research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, later developed a longer-range projectile dubbed the “Assault Breaker.” This weapon eventually morphed into ATACMS. Again, these missiles carried small bomblets.
Sharing components with the Bradley armored vehicle, the system’s original tracked launcher could lob 12 rockets or two ATACMS missiles at an enemy before needing to reload. The Army still uses these vehicles alongside the lighter and more flexible HIMARS.
The system became popular among Washington’s NATO allies. France, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the United Kingdom all fielded versions, sometimes using their own locally produced ammunition.
While the Soviets and their allies never did march into Western Europe, the Army sent the rockets and missiles to the Middle East during the first Gulf War. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s troops were subjected to what American troops euphemistically called “steel rain.”
Unfortunately, the M-77 grenades were terribly unreliable, often creating a hazard for American soldiers, their allies and civilians caught up in the fighting. It took the Army almost a decade to get an improved bomblet into production.
At the same time, the ground combat branch hired defense contractor Lockheed Martin to develop a guided variant. First test fired in May 1998, it is this GPS-directed rocket that has quietly become a go-to weapon for Washington’s world-wide fight with Islamist extremists.
Unlike the earlier versions, one type of guided rocket comes loaded with a single, large “unitary” explosive payload. Eight years after the original test launch, the Army stopped buying the grenade-filled guided rockets. The supposedly improved M-85 bomblets were still having too many malfunctions.
In 2006, Army units used the unitary-warhead rockets in the Iraqi city of Ramadi. The next year HIMARS crews worked with commandos in Afghanistan to try and (unsuccessfully) kill a member of Al Qaeda, according to a report by the Washington Post.
Unlike manned aircraft or drones, launcher crews don’t have to worry about overcast skies or similar weather restrictions. Nor is there much waiting around for the munitions to make their way to the battlefield. The rockets go out as soon as the call comes in and gunners make the appropriate adjustments.
Most notably, the rockets fly in such a way that they come screaming straight down onto the target. The round “strikes a target with pinpoint accuracy with minimal potential for collateral damage as it impacts a target at a 90-degree angle and has a relatively small blast radius for the effect achieved,” a public affairs official with the American task force in Baghdad previously told War Is Boring in an email.
These benefits haven’t been lost on Washington’s allies. While countries such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom have signed up to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the treaty does not ban members from using the launchers or the unitary rockets.
All three of those nations have upgraded their vehicles to only use those type of guided rockets. The British Army has nicknamed its improved launchers the “70 kilometer sniper.” Many of America’s Middle Eastern allies, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have bought these updated systems.
In February, Paris sent the launchers to Mali as part of operations in the Sahel. French troops are stationed from Mauritania to Chad to battle various terrorist groups in this region that divides the Sahara desert from true Sub-Saharan Africa.
This was the first time the French army’s 1st Artillery Regiment had sent its upgraded Lance-Roquettes Unitaires into combat. In March, the French Ministry of Defense posted a video online — seen above — showing the vehicles in action.
For unknown reasons, the video briefly disappeared before popping back up, unmodified, on YouTube on April 13. The French Ministry of Defense did not respond to a request for comment about how the rockets had affected operations.
Still, Paris appears to have found the weapons useful, and has been using them regularly. On April 12, the Pentagon’s main weapon broker announced plans to sell 21 six-shot rocket pods to France, along with other related equipment. The total value of the proposed deal was $90 million.
But you see the unfolding pattern. Where there are Western armies at war, there is precision-guided rocket artillery, as well.