Nenonen’s heritage, pt 4: Rockets for Multiple Purposes

Since some have asked, it deserves to be reiterated for readers who might not have followed the series from the start: this post, like all of my posts, is based entirely on open source data. I have no inside information, either through documents or other sources, about the wartime doctrine and order of battle of the Finnish forces. Where I describe these, they are based on the rather broad descriptions that are used by sources whose judgement regarding what should be open information I trust, such as the writings of reputable officers or governmental publications. For artillery specific issues, besides what is described in the officially sanctioned 100-year anniversary book mentioned in the first post, most sources are generic international (Western) artillery ones, as the same general trends affecting these can be assumed to be in play when it comes to the Finnish forces as well. With that out of the way, it’s time to get on with the last part.

Finland currently sport two very different multiple-rocket launcher systems in service: the tracked US-built M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (often abbreviated MLRS, which causes some headaches as that can also be used a generic term for all rocket launchers with more than a single rocket) and the wheeled Slovak RM-70/85 (originally built in Czechoslovakia). It should come as no surprise that neither system was bought new, but were acquired through surplus buys from Dutch/Danish- and ex-NVA-stocks respectively. In Finnish service, they are locally known as 298RSRAKH06 and 122RAKH89 in a designation system sporting calibre and year of entering service with the Finnish abbreviation for ‘rocket launcher’ (fi. Raketinheitin, RAKH) in between. The M270 in addition has the letters RS to denote it as a ‘heavy’ (fi. raskas) system, something which also makes the designation impossible to pronounce smoothly. Note that in keeping with the US designation system, the 298RSRAKH06 uses the 298 mm from “Rocket Pod, 298 mm” and not the actual 227 mm rocket diameter as the calibre designation.

GMLRS firing 2018 Maavoimat homepage
Finnish M270 in white-wash camouflage test-firing the M30A1 GMLRS AW in 2018. Source: Maavoimat homepage

The M270 isn’t going anywhere. The system is still modern and has plenty of life left in Finnish service. According to the Finnish Defence Forces’ homepage, their main mission is to support the higher tactical formations, something they usually do in the area that is the centre of gravity of the battlefield. Kesseli more clearly gives their role as handling operational fires:

For operational fire missions heavy rocket launchers, the artillery of the operational forces, electronic warfare units, sensors able to provide targeting, and those heavy batteries of the regional forces that can use special munitions, are used.

The main changes affecting the heavy launchers in Finnish service has been (and likely will continue to be) the introduction of new munitions together with internal modifications to the launch platforms to make them able to employ these new munitions to their full effect. The most recent addition was the guided M30A1 GMLRS AW (Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System Alternative Warhead) which is capable of precision fires out to 80 km, where the pre-fragmented tungsten warhead provide an area-effect (especially considering that each launcher can fire up to twelve rockets in a single salvo). Finland also has acquired the unitary warhead version of the GMLRS family. For potential future upgrades, it can safely be assumed that Finland is keeping an eye on the US PrSM currently being developed. Before the decision to acquire the GMLRS was made, Finland had filed a DSCA request for the ATACMS which provided a similar 500 km range precision strike capability as the PrSM, but eventually decided against ordering the weapon due to the high cost. If the costs of the capability is brought down compared to the earlier generation, it might certainly renew Finnish interest in getting an even longer reach for the ground-based fires (however, note that while the INF is out of the window, the MTCR is still alive and might create issues once ranges start climbing over 500 km).

The lighter end of the rocket spectrum is more troublesome. As noted, Finland acquired a number of RM-70 (specifically of the Mod 70/85 version) rocket launchers from ex-NVA stocks following the German reunification. These replaced the older Soviet BM-21 ‘Grad‘, which had been fielded under the designation 122 RAKH 76 in Finnish service. You would be excused for mistaking the RM-70 for a Soviet design, as it best can be described as a Grad-launcher mounted on a Tatra T815 8×8 (yes, the same chassis that is used for the Danish CAESAR). It also fire the same 9M22 rockets as the BM-21, with a range of just over 20 km. The rockets are something of a headache due to their Soviet origin. According to Kesseli, the light batteries are used for tactical fires, which makes sense considering their limited range.

Compared to traditional artillery, the rocket launcher is nice as it provides a huge volume of fire in a short amount of time. A six-vehicle battery of 122RAKH89 is able to put 234 rockets downrange in just twenty seconds (following the firing of a single ranging rocket from each of the vehicles). The downside is obviously the lack of endurance, as once the rockets are fired the vehicles will have to pull back and reload. However, with the increased importance of shoot and scoot-style tactics, the rocket launcher seems set to keep their place on the battlefield, and the prevalence of podded solutions in modern systems has significantly sped up the loading times.

Finland is far from the only country that is invested in the 122 mm as a rocket calibre and that now is finding sourcing new rockets to be something of an issue. Some have countered this by indigenous projects, such as Poland. Poland is both upgrading their BM-21 (though the ‘upgrade’ is rather reminiscent of the ship of Theseus, as they are replacing the chassis, rockets, and FCS) and producing a new family of 122 mm rockets. The latter include the the M-21 FHD which sport a pre-fragmented HE warhead designated F-M-21 OB attached to the new Fenix engine, giving it a stated 41 km range (these are official range figures quoted by Jane’s, though some have questioned the veracity of them). In the same family a stated 36 km range cargo rocket has also been developed with the F-M-21 MK and K1 warheads with five scatterable anti-tank mines or 42 anti-tank submunitions (HEAT-FRAG) respectively, though these do not appear to have entered Polish service (at least not yet). This upgraded WR-40 Langusta will in time be accompanied by the larger HIMARS, which beat the Israeli Lynx to win the WR-300 Homar program. The Polish contract signed last year is for a battalion of 18 HIMARS (plus two vehicles for training duties), and curiously will be of a US standard and not fitted with the usual Polish C2 system for artillery.

The current generation of Israeli rocket launchers can trace their roots to vehicles such as the MAR-240 (closest to the camera), a somewhat crude conversion mounted atop a Sherman-hull that could fire thirty-six heavy 240 mm rockets in a salvo. One particular feature of this design was that the rocket pod was stowed sideways for transport. Source: Own picture

The aforementioned LYNX is interesting, as it is the latest in a long line of Israeli rocket launchers. Israel is one of few Western countries that throughout the Cold War kept a varied arsenal that included both domestic and imported MLRS systems, including the M270. Much like the Russian arsenal, Israel has invested in a number of different sizes of rockets, though Israel has also invested considerable resources in ensuring that they all fit the same basic launcher. This means that multi-calibre systems such as the LYNX can be used to fit two 40-rocket pods of Grad-rockets, two 13-rocket pod of 160 mm rockets, two 4-rocket pods of heavy 306 mm rockets, or two 2-rocket pods of the Predator Hawk 370 mm rocket. In the smaller calibres, both guided and unguided versions are available, while the larger versions are generally all guided. Without going into detail of all possible rockets, in general it can be noted that HE, penetrator, and cargo (cluster) warheads are available in most sizes, and that the guidance usually rely on GPS supported by INS (similar to the GMLRS). The LYNX system can be mounted on a number of platforms, starting with 6×6 trucks. There has been some success on the export market for Israeli rocket systems, with the older LAR-160 having sold well mainly in South America but also seeing service in the Georgian Army during the Russian invasion of 2008. A mixed-calibre version is in Romanian service as the LAROM 160. This is in effect a conversion of the local Romanian BM-21-wannabe (Aerostar APRA), allowing it to fire both 122 and 160 mm rockets that also include the guided ACCULAR-family. However, the newest exported Israeli rocket systems are found in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in the form of the LYNX (the Kazakh version being called Naiza) and in Vietnam where the EXTRA is used for defence of the Spratly Islands.

The really neat trick on the Israeli side is that the pods are made to be able to be used on the M270 as well. Exactly to what extent this modularity works is unclear to me, but if  it really is something approaching plug-and-play throughout the series, it certainly would offer interesting possibilities for a joint-LYNX/M270-force to have a wide assortment of fireworks that could be used throughout the fleet. In essence this would create a similar situation as what is aimed for with the Finnish field artillery standardising on 155 mm as the main calibre, with a large number of batteries being able to perform either tactical or operational fires depending on what munitions they use (though they would still retain one as a main role depending on where in the organisation they sit).

Obviously the Israelis aren’t the only ones to have realised that there are a lot of flexibility to come from being able to fire different kinds of munitions, or that the 122 mm is a bit light in certain cases. Diehl and the Slovak company Konstrukta Defense converted 26 of the Slovakian Army’s RM-70s to something called RM-70 MODULAR which is able to swap out the original 40-round 122 mm launcher to a single M270-style 6-round 227 mm pod (the designation MORAK is also used, though my understanding is that this refers to the more general modernisation program of the vehicles). The system isn’t actively marketed, and it is questionable if it would make sense from a Finnish point of view as making the 122RAKH89 able to fire 227 mm rockets wouldn’t necessarily be of great utility in their current role of providing tactical fires (though the new FCS might be nice).

K239 Chun-Mu ROK Army FB
The Chun-Mu firing a light 130 mm rocket. Even with these low-tech weapons the system offer significantly superior performance to the RM-70. Source: ROK Army FB

Another artillery-happy country that has developed their own answers to the question is South Korea. Their sledgehammer is the Chun-Mu, which sports a modular design mounted on the back of an 8×8 truck, capable of carrying two at a time of the following pods:

  • eight 239 mm HE-rockets with 80 km range and GPS/INS guidance. The warhead is able to be set to delayed action, giving the 4 meter long rocket a certain capability in penetrating hard targets (concrete),
  • eight 227 mm rockets, range up to 45 km. Presumably these are from the M26 family of unguided rockets used by the M270,
  • twenty 130 mm unguided HE-rockets, with the K33 having a maximum range of 36 km and the K30 having a maximum range of 30 km.

It isn’t clear to what extent the system is compatible with the M270, many sources seem to agree that it can accept the MLRS pods while Jane’s is a bit more careful and just notes that they “in appearance are very similar to the 227 mm (12-round) MRL, also deployed by South Korea.” It seems safe to assume that while the high-end systems such as ATACMS and GMLRS might not be integrated at this point in time due to the domestic 239 mm rocket filling that role, the basic pod design and M26 rockets can be used. Whether the modularity works both ways, i.e. if the Korean pods could be integrated onto the M270, is more uncertain.

For those wanting something different, Hanwha has also made a light MLRS system that hasn’t been accepted into service. This is a 70 mm system mounted on the back of a KIA KM45 4×4 light truck, either sporting 40 or 32 launch tubes (the 32-tube one having a faster rate of fire at 4 rds/s). The system feature two different rocket engines, with the standard Mk4 having a range of 8 km, being improved to 10.4 km when using the K223. The warheads include HE, dual-purpose HE (armour and personnel), as well as a cargo rocket with nine submunitions against soft or lightly armoured targets. Guided versions are reportedly also in development. The concept is interesting in a world where military systems tend to just grow in size and weight, as it offers short-ranged tactical fires in a 4.2 ton package (including loaded rockets). However, it is difficult to envision a role for a system with such a limited range and small warhead on the modern battlefield, and it seems set to remain a curiosity (or niche capability at best).

MEFEX 2014
US Marines with Delta Battery, 2nd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, fire a reduced-range practice rocket from a HIMARS at a joint combined live-fire exercise March 28, 2014 in South Korea. Source: US DoD/Cpl Lauren Whitney via Wikimedia Commons

As discussed when it comes to tube artillery, having heavy tracked vehicles operating together with units not normally associated with tracked behemoths is bound to cause issues. As such, the need for a wheeled platform was evident in the homeland of the M270 as well The answer was the M142 HIMARS which was developed during the 90’s, with the first deliveries taking place in 2001. Both the US Army and Marine Corps have used the system to great effect in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, where it has built up a reputation especially for long-range pinpoint strikes with guided missiles. In essence, the system is a 6×6 wheeled truck with a single pod from the M270-family. While this obviously means it only has half the firepower compared to a M270, this is balanced by the higher (strategic and operational) mobility, as well as having a generally lighter logistics chain due to being truck-based. Granted, while this is a benefit compared to the M270 when discussing a replacement for the Finnish 122RAKH89, it doesn’t set it aside from competitors such as the Chun-Mu and the Lynx. What does however, is the fact that it is a US-built product making it a given buddy to accompany the M270. Exactly to what extent the two systems sync together is unclear to me, but a safe guess is that synergies are at least not worse than for the non-US competition when it comes to questions such as C2 and supporting equipment. The heavy US investment in the system, especially if the USMC is cleared to go forward with their plan of converting serious numbers of tube artillery battalions to HIMARS, also ensures that it will stay relevant and up to date for the foreseeable future. On the flip-side, the single-pod design and reliance on US munitions means it doesn’t have the firepower and flexibility of the Chun-Mu or the LYNX. However, it should be noted that it is notably lighter and smaller than both the modern competition as well as the 122RAKH89.

For once, the FDF has actually has quite a few routes open when it comes to replacing old ex-NVA indirect fires. Depending on the state of the trucks themselves, modernisation certainly might be an option with different options covering everything from new non-Soviet rockets and minor changes to the FCS up to basically outfitting them to LYNX standard. If, however, the trucks themselves are also starting to show their (considerable) age, a tender for a new platform is likely to see a three-way battle between the LYNX, Chun-Mu, and HIMARS. Which one is the favourite would depend on the future role of the light rocket launcher batteries in Finnish doctrine, and as we have seen earlier as well the Army isn’t necessarily looking for one-to-one replacements for aging systems. The question of optimal calibre, few guided rockets per salvo versus classic massed fire of unguided ones, and not at least cost to procure and operate the systems, will all come into play. The unique capabilities and role in Finnish doctrine of the light multiple-rocket launcher does however mean that we are unlikely to see the 122RAKH89 retire without a replacement.