Nothing beats artillery for suppressive fire, or for cost-effective casualties inflicted upon the enemy. But to master the modern battlefield, artillery must be able to react instantly with a high-volume of fire (think rocketry), must be highly accurate (think high-tech rocketry), and must be highly mobile to avoid counter-battery (think HIMARS). The artillery that was effective in the set-piece battles of history has much less place in the highly mobile, hide-and-seek GWOT.
The dual challenges being faced by the U.S. military—transforming for future operations while simultaneously fighting the GWOT—have been likened to the engineering challenges of building an aircraft while in flight. But the U.S. Army’s ability to successfully meet those challenges was recently observed first hand on the east firing range at Fort Sill, OK where the service certified its newest HIMARS (High Mobility Rocket System) firing battery: Charlie Battery, 1st of the 14th Field Artillery.
The 21st Century HIMARS traces its birth and justification back more than 35 years. In the service’s statement to the U.S. Congress on the fiscal year ’82 budget, senior Army representatives noted, “The new Multiple Launch Rocket System, or MLRS, will be able to deliver massive indirect firepower in short response times…The need for a system to suppress artillery and air defense threat was well illustrated in the 1973 mid-east war. In the first afternoon of battle the Israelis lost about 35 aircraft to anti-aircraft fire. Such air losses dramatically declined after the Israelis employed rocket artillery against enemy air defense systems. Similarly, Israeli tank losses to antitank guided missiles declined dramatically when they ‘relearned’ how to use artillery suppressive fires…”
The original MLRS, designated M270, placed two “six-packs” of MLRS rockets on the rear of a tracked, armored derivative of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Fielded during the final decade of the Cold War, the MLRS received its combat baptism during Operation Desert Storm, where the rockets and their dispersed submunitions earned the Iraqi nickname, “Steel Rain.”
Those submunitions reflected just one of many warhead options within a growing MLRS Family of Munitions, or MFOM, which include basic rockets, extended range and reduced range (practice) rockets, the ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System), and the recent combat fielding of the new guided unitary MLRS rocket.
It’s Rocket Science
With hundreds of the guided unitary rockets fired in combat to date, the new munition has contributed to a brand new nickname, “The 70 km sniper weapon.”
In parallel with maturation of MFOM, the U.S. Army began converting its MLRS fleet to a new M270A1 configuration in ‘02. Externally identical to the M270s, the M270A1s incorporated an IFCS (Improved Fire Control System) and an ILMS (Improved Launcher Mechanical System). The result was greater survivability (through reductions in aim and reload times), reduced operating cost, increased munition options and GPS navigation.
But subsequent strategy-shifts toward more rapidly deployable expeditionary forces had also prompted a re-examination of the basic launcher platform itself. While Heavy Brigade Combat Teams certainly retain their need for the M270A1, another new MLRS platform prototype emerged from an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program known as the Rapid Force Projection Initiative. Dubbed the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), the new concept placed a single MFOM “six-pack”—or a single large ATACMS missile—on the rear of a 5-ton truck variant of the FMTV (Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles). The resulting HIMARS is designated as the M142.
In 2000, the U.S. Marine Corps joined the Army for the HIMARS program. In March 2003, HIMARS received approval from the ASARC (Army Systems Acquisition Review Council) to transition from testing to production, with Lockheed Martin receiving a $96.4 million contract to commence LRIP (Low-Rate Initial Production) in April 2003.
According to program overviews by HIMARS manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the system “offers the Army and Marines an early-entry weapon that can provide intimidating firepower support for light forces. The HIMARS vehicle is C-130 transportable, and uses the same fire control system, electronics and communications units as the standard MLRS M270A1 launcher. Due to its smaller size, HIMARS can be moved into areas previously inaccessible to the larger C-141s and C-5s required for the M270 launcher. And on the road, the lightweight HIMARS travels at much faster speeds.
“HIMARS retains the same self-loading and autonomous features that have made MLRS the most formidable artillery rocket system in the world,” they continue. “The fully loaded HIMARS vehicle weighs approximately 34,000 pounds, compared to more than 54,000 pounds for the MLRS M270A1 launcher.”
1st of the 14th’s journey to HIMARS was a bit convoluted. Until a couple of years ago, the unit was equipped with tracked M270 MLRS platforms (not yet upgraded to M270A1). But the mandates of current operations frequently lead to what are termed “nonstandard” mission deployments, so unit veterans were hardly surprised when the unit was instructed to turn in its launchers and prepare for combat deployment as truck/convoy drivers. Only somewhat surprisingly, a subsequent change then redirected training, with the bulk of the unit eventually deploying to combat—as radar operators.
Fortunately, far-sighted unit leaders and service planners were also able to circumvent original plans for the unit to temporarily “re-draw” its M270s after return from theater. Instead, the unit was allowed to accelerate its long-planned transition from M270 to M142 and immediately begin HIMARS training and fielding.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Buhlig, battalion commander for 1st of the 14th Field Artillery, the HIMARS fielding process had involved three weeks of intensive classroom instruction, followed by three additional weeks of field training. The live-fire event was the culmination of that field training.
Train Like You Fight
“Just like you might qualify with your individual rifle or pistol, you train on it; train on it; train on it; and then you actually go out and put bullets downrange,” he said.
“Today we have Artillery Table VIII for Charlie Battery, 1st of the 14th Field Artillery,” explained 1st Lt. Pete Wakefield, Battalion Fire Direction Officer. “They have gone though NET (New Equipment Training) and fielding for the HIMARS system and today serve as the capstone for that fielding. 1st Platoon of Charlie Battery will fire nine rounds. 2nd Platoon will fire their nine rounds tomorrow. And it will all culminate in Charlie Battery being a HIMARS-certified firing battery.”
Noting the unit locations on Fort Sill’s east range, he continued, “Zero-One-November-Alpha is 1st Platoon’s firing point. The platoon is in route to that location now with three HIMARS launchers. They will locate in a nearby ‘hide position.’ As soon as I send my ‘At My Command’ mission they will move from the hide point to the firing point where they will launch their first rocket. After each launcher has fired three rockets they will return to the battery assembly area.”
For the certification firing, the distance from the firing point to the impact point was 9,700 meters.
Out at Zero-One-November-Alpha, Cpt. Stephen Alley, Charlie Battery commander, explained that the three launchers of 1st Platoon would follow their initial “At My Command” rocket firing, with a second series fired “When Ready,” and then a final series of three fired as “Time of Target.” Each of the mission types required the crews to demonstrate particular skill sets in launcher placement and operations.
“For ‘TOT,’ or Time on Target, they have to execute the fire mission within a particular allotted time,” he said. “For example, if we are expecting all the bad guys to be at a particular location at a certain time, that’s what we might use. If everybody is there at the right time and the TOT goes off, we take care of it.”
With that, the first of the launchers drove approximately 300 meters from its hide point to its firing position, with medical personnel determining where observers could position for the event.
The only indication of the imminent launch involved the closing of the hatch. There was a brief flash and roar before a world of smoke and dust enveloped the launcher. Once it had passed, the crew quickly disembarked the cab and extinguished a few small grass fires that had been started and fanned by the rocket’s departure.
One of the certifying HIMARS crewmen had recently arrived to the unit from a tracked M270A1 unit in Korea. When asked about differences in the firing experience between HIMARS and the heavier tracked system, he acknowledged differences between the wheeled launcher and the M270A1 track’s pivot steer at the firing position, adding that the truck cab also “bounced around a little bit more.” However, he was quick to note that the other firing controls and processes were the same, with the same result: Effective and efficient fire support for today’s warfighters.
When asked what he might want people to know about his firing battery, Captain Alley focused his response on the HIMARS system itself. “The advantage of HIMARS over the M270, which was the previous version of the Multiple Launch Rocket System, is inter-theater mobility; these launchers can be moved around quickly within the theater. You load them on a C-130 or C-17. They roll off. They shoot. They can roll back onto the airplane. And they can get out of the area. That’s it. They’re done. That’s how quickly they can move and that’s the real tactical advantage of these things.”
Nothing beats artillery for suppressive fire, or for cost-effective casualties inflicted upon the enemy. But…
by Eric Poole / Jan 15, 2009