What are “artillery rockets” and why is the US sending them to Ukraine?


Artillery rockets are powered by a solid fuel engine and can carry various warheads.

Demining experts from the Ukrainian State Emergency Service secure a Russian BM-30 Smerch rocket and remove it from a field May 31 in Borodianka, Ukraine. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

As the fighting in eastern Ukraine turns into an artillery duel, the Pentagon has announced it will send its most advanced artillery rocket launcher and ammunition to the Ukrainian military in hopes to give him an advantage over Russia.

Here’s how the system works and what it could potentially do, as the war drags on into a fourth month.

What is an artillery rocket?

A rocket artillery is a weapon that is usually powered by a solid fuel engine and can carry a variety of warheads. During the Cold War, most artillery rockets were unguided and inaccurate when fired at greater ranges.

In the 1970s, the United States invested in a new weapon they called MLRS, for Multiple Launch Rocket System, designed for use in the event Russian armored vehicles massed for World War III on the border. of Western Europe.

The M270 MLRS launcher was an armored vehicle that could carry two ammunition “pods”. Each pod contained either six cluster-weapon rockets that could fly about 20 miles, or a single larger guided missile, called ATACMS, for Army Tactical Missile System, which could fly about 100.

The 23-ton launcher moved on treads, at speeds of up to 40 mph.

Years later, the Pentagon introduced a more easily transportable version called HIMARS, for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, which relies on a much lighter wheeled truck. Unlike its predecessor, the M142 HIMARS truck carries only one ammunition pod, but it can move much faster on and off road, and can be shipped on a C-130 cargo plane.

Did the United States use these weapons?

Yes. During Operation Desert Storm, government records show the US military fired over 17,200 unguided MLRS rockets and 32 of the larger ATACMS guided missiles at Iraqi forces. The submunitions carried by these rockets had a high miss rate, and the misfires left behind killed and injured many American soldiers.

In 2005, the military fired a new guided rocket, known as the GMLRS, into combat in Iraq for the first time. This rocket has a range of over 40 miles, more than double that of older rockets, and its navigation is aided by GPS signals.

Since the invasion, the Pentagon has supplied Ukraine with 108 M777 howitzers, the deadliest weapons the West has ever delivered. But the range of the GMLRS is more than double that of the 155mm shells fired from howitzers.

The Pentagon has spent about $5.4 billion purchasing more than 42,000 GMLRS since 1998, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service last year, and commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan have used them frequently.

What is the difference between a rocket and a missile in this context?

Nomenclature can sometimes be confusing, but generally the word “rocket” is used in a military context to refer to relatively inexpensive unguided weapons powered by solid-fuel engines, while “missile” is usually shorthand for “missiles”. guided”, more expensive and complicated weapons that use moving fins to steer towards their targets and can fly much farther.

The Pentagon has already sent short-range, inexpensive, unguided anti-tank weapons that are classified as rockets to Ukraine, such as the AT-4, and the longer-range Javelin, which is a guided missile.

This delineation worked well in the past with MLRS and ATACMS weapons, but in recent years the military has built weapons it calls “guided rockets” — like GMLRS — which are often upgraded older rocket designs. level to have guidance systems and moveable fins on their nose to steer them.

The money part is still true, however. GMLRS rockets remain much cheaper than older ATACMSs and the Precision Strike missiles being developed to replace them.

How powerful are these rockets?

Using the HIMARS and GMLRS together can deliver airstrike-like firepower, all from a mobile platform.

The upgrade of the explosive power of the Ukrainian army will be profound. The warhead of each M31 GMLRS rocket contains a single charge of approximately 200 pounds of high explosive, while the 155 mm shells fired from howitzers contain approximately 18 pounds.

Howitzers like the M777 can fire at a rate of around two to three rounds per minute. GMLRS rockets can be fired singly or in a six-ripple in mere seconds, rivaling the power of an airstrike dropping guided bombs.

Does Russia have something similar?

The Russian army mainly used three types of unguided artillery rockets during the war in Ukraine.

The larger, the 300mm Smerch, can fire a guided rocket, making it more accurate, and has a range similar to the GMLRS, although few have been seen in war photos. Most Smerch launches in Ukraine are unguided rockets, many of which contain cluster munitions warheads.

Do American rockets have other advantages?

MLRS and HIMARS launchers have a major advantage: they can be fully reloaded in minutes.

Both vehicles have a winch that allows them to lower an empty pod to the ground, pick up a new loaded pod and put it into place. Russian launchers must be loaded manually, tube by tube.

Why didn’t the US send longer range ATACMS missiles to Ukraine?

President Joe Biden said in an essay published Tuesday in The New York Times that the White House “does not encourage or allow Ukraine to strike beyond its borders.”

While reporting on the war, a senior defense official who served in the field artillery and was not authorized to speak publicly about the Pentagon’s war planning, told me that the military had relatively few ATACMS missiles remaining in its inventory, and those it does have are reserved for use in extreme situations like a war with North Korea or an effort to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion.

Sometimes, however, the US military launches an ATACMS missile to send a message, as it did just over a week ago during military exercises with South Korea, after North Korea tested a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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