There is a renewed talks about the US supplying MLRS launchers to Ukraine. Ukraine maintains that the reason it’s loosing the war is the lack of this or other “wonder weapon”. As soon as it would be supplied with it, the tides of war will surely change directions. Let us examine those assumptions.
MLRS in the US service overview
US has two types of MLRS: the older, Cold War veteran system designated M270 MLRS, and the newer, post Cold War M142 HIMARS, which can use the same launcher containers as the M270. Designed to fit better the expeditionary nature of the modern US military, it is much lighter than its predecessor, and can only carry half of the ammo.
HIMARS (High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System) is more likely to be supplied to the Ukraine, than the heavier M270. US weapons developed after the Cold War, as a rule will have much better strategical mobility (how easily can a certain weapon be transferred from one theater of operation to another) and much worse tactical mobility (how easily can a weapon be transferred from one position to another).
Than is why we saw the light-weight M777 being supplied for Ukraine, even if they are not intended for this type of a conflict. It just much easier to transport them to Ukraine than heavier howitzers, and especially the self-propelled howitzers: you can fit a lot more into C-17 heavy cargo plane, or put them on rail-road carts, or tow them on the road with any track.
That being said, since both the M270 and the M142 use the same launch containers, and, consequently, can use the same munition, it doesn’t really matter: 2 HIMARS would have the same fire-power as one, twice heavier, M270.
MLRS vs tube artillery
MLRS have its pros and cons in comparison with tube artillery (cannons, howitzers, mortars). It has different requirements for the launchers, and different requirements for the ammunition. For example: MLRS launcher will be much lighter than a howitzer of the same caliber. Its ammo will have much thinner and lighter skin. MLRS also enables to fire a large number of munition very rapidly, until reload is required. Since it doesn’t have to use very long and heavy tube, it can fire munition much heavier and larger than tube artillery of the similar dimension and weight, and to much longer range. These are the pros.
The cons are: much lower precision of (unguided/uncorrected) rockets, in comparison to canon or howitzer rounds. It has much lower sustainable rate of fire, once the loaded rockets are depleted, and a reload is required. And because of the thinner skin of its munition, it would have less penetration, so it is less effective against heavy fortifications.
In conclusion, MLRS is effective (depending on used ammo) against unprotected personnel, thin skin vehicles, armored vehicles, including main battle tanks, and against enemy artillery. If tactical missiles are used instead of basic rockets, it becomes a tactical ballistic missile launcher.
Capabilities of MLRS: ammunition types
MLRS family has a wide range of available ammunition. From the basic, unguided rockets to the MGM-140 ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles.
MLRS/HIMARS uses a few types of 227/240-mm rockets. The basic range was ~35 km, which was extended to ~45 km, and eventually to ~70 km (the latter, using GPS assisted course-correction to improve accuracy). Those rockets use a few different types of submunition, which are dual-purpose bomblets, intended as anti-personnel and anti-materiel munition. There are around 400-600 of those bomblets (depending on the range of the missile: the more the range, the less submunition there are), carried on each rocket. They dispense above the target area, descend and detonate on impact. This king of submunition can be very effective against unprotected personnel and materiel (lightly or unarmored vehicles, artillery, communication systems, etc.). That is why it is best to be used against enemy located in an open field. Given the Ukrainian use of artillery and ballistic missiles, we would probably see these rockets falling mainly on towns and civilians, with entirely predictable consequences.
The MLRS/HIMARS also uses the ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) missiles. Unlike the 227/240-mm rockets, which are stored and launched from two (for M270) or one (for M142) pack, with 6 rocket containers per each, the ATACMS missiles are much larger and heavier, and thus each pack hold only one missile container.
ATACM missiles are guided, and have ranges up to 300 km. It can carry bomblets, much like the 227/240-mm rockets, or guided anti-tank submunition, or a one big high-explosive warhead.
There is also a newer missile, called Precision Strike Missile (PSM), with a range of 500+ km.
Eastern Block analogues
Ukraine was left with an array of Soviet-made MLRS after the break of the Soviet Union. The three types are: “Grad” (hail), “Uragan” (hurricane) and “Smertch” (tornado). It also took into possession the “Tochka-U” (dot-[i]mproved) and “Iskander” (Alexander in Turkish) tactical ballistic missile systems.
BM-21 “Grad” is a division-level multiple-launch rocket system. It uses unguided 122-mm rockets, with a typical range of up to 40 km, and carries 40 of those ready to fire. It has a maximum fire-rate of 40 missiles in 20 seconds. After which, the manual reloading is required. Typical 122-mm rocket will have high-explosive/fragmentation warhead or bomblet submunition, effective against unprotected personnel and materiel. This is the most prolific MLRS system in Russia/Ukraine arsenals. It is somewhat inferior to the MLRS/HIMARS 227-mm unguided rockets it terms of range and effectiveness of its munition. But it has a very good mobility, it doesn’t require special purpose reload vehicles, it is easy to use and well-known to the personnel, and its munition is abundant since the Soviet times.
The next is the “Uragan” MLRS. It is the closest analogue to the US-made MLRS/HIMARS. It is intended for the higher, usually corps or army level of the military hierarchy. It carries 16 of unguided 220-mm rockets (compare to the 12 of M240), which can be fired in a salvo in 20 seconds. It has a typical maximal range of 35 kilometers (compare with M240’s 35-45 km), and its weight is 20 ton (similar to the 24 ton of M270 MLRS). It uses high-mobility wheeled vehicle, and requires a specialized reload vehicle as well (much like M240). It has a wide range of warheads and submunitions.
“Smerch” is the late Cold-War heavy MLRS, intended for army or front level of operations. It carries 12 of 300-mm semi-guided (Soviet) or GPS-guided (Russian) rockets. The basic rocket has a 70 km maximal range, and it uses a semi-guidance system, which provides range-correction, intended to reduce the range-related dispersion (but not azimuth-related). The newer rockets can have a GPS guidance system, and their range is extended to 90 km. Basically, the older rockets make the “Smertch” comparable to the MLRS/HIMARS with the GMLRS GPS-guided, 70 km range rockets (missiles). The newer missiles (guided rockets) are superior to the American GMRLS rockets (missiles) regarding their range and payload.
“Tochka-U” is a late Cold-War tactical ballistic missile, intended for army or above levels of operation. It has a maximum range of 120 km. It has an inertial navigation system, with a circular error probable (CEP) of about 10 meters, and it carries a warhead of around 500 kg. As such, it is inferior to the ATACMS missiles given its much shorter range. Each launcher carries only one missile, similar to the M142 HIMARS.
“Iskander” is a modern tactical ballistic/cruise missile system. It can carry 2 of either the aero-ballistic, or the cruise missiles. The ballistic missile range is classified, but it exceeds 300 km. It is probably around 500 km. The cruise missile range is also classified, but it is at least 500 km. Both are very precise, to the CEP of few meters, and are much more difficult to intercept, compared to the typical ballistic missile. For those reasons, Iskander is superior in its capabilities to the MLRS/HIMARS with ATACMS missiles, and at least equal to the newer PSM missile.
According to quick search, at the start of the war, the available (active + storage) numbers of aforementioned systems were as such:
M270 MLRS (USA) — ~1,000 M270 launchers, of which (?) 220 were upgraded to the M270A1 variant.
M142 HIMARS (USA) — ~417 launchers (2016).
BM-21 “Grad” (Ukraine/Russia) — ~185 in Ukraine, ~2,600 in Russia.
BM-27 “Uragan” (Ukraine/Russia) — 70 (Ukraine), 900 (Russia).
BM-30 “Smerch” (Ukraine/Russia) — 81 (Ukraine), 100 (Russia).
“Tochka-U” (Ukraine/Russia) — 90 (500-800 missiles) in Ukraine, 24 in Russia.
Iskander (Russia) — ~150 of the M variant (ballistic missile), unknown number of the K variant (cruise missile).
To summarize, at the start of the war:
USA — ~1,500 theoretically available launchers (MLRS+HIMARS);
Ukraine — 236 available 122/240/300-mm launchers + 90 TBM launchers.
Russia — 3,600 122/240/300-mm multiple-rocket launchers + 150+ TBM launchers.
Given the very large number of rocket-launchers and available ammunition in Ukraine before the start of the war, as well as relatively modern tactical ballistic missiles, any realistic number of MLRS/HIMARS supplied to Ukraine will not provide any numerical, and hardly any performance boost to the Ukraine fighting capabilities. It would also, at the very best, level the field against existing Russian capabilities.
Moreover, until this day, Russia has destroyed 408 multiple-rocket launchers in Ukraine (which is significantly more than the existing estimates at the start of the war), and almost each day Russians intercept up to a few dozens of “Smerch” rockets and a few Tochka-U missiles. And finally, ammunition and weapons stockpiles are often destroyed in the Ukrainian rear, and the fuel is scarce.
If we’ll consider all of the above, as well as the training, targeting, maintenance issues, we can see that MLRS supplies would not “change the game” in Ukraine. Realistically, I would expect a few dozens of HIMAR systems to be supplied, make little difference to the military situation, and then the narrative would move to the next “wonder weapon”. We saw the same narrative regarding “Stinger” and “Javelin” missiles, and then we heard the talks about tanks, and then M777 howitzers, and now it’s MLR systems…
Leave a Reply