Artillery: The Rockets Red, But Precise, Glare



October 22, 2008: Britain moved some  U.S. made M270 MLRS (Multiple-Launch Rocket System) to Afghanistan in 2007. Using the GPS guided version of the 227mm rockets, the British have fired over 150 times, with stunning accuracy. The 70 kilometers range, 200 pound rockets, are much in demand by British troops (who call the system the "70 kilometer sniper"). The tracked MLRS carrier if often on alert (ready to fire in minutes) for up to two days at a time, to provide instant firepower for British troops out fighting the Taliban.

What makes the GMLRS most useful is not just its accuracy, which is about the same as air force JDAM GPS guided smart bombs, but because the 200 pound GMLRS warhead produces a smaller bang than the smallest JDAM (500 pounds). When it comes to urban fighting, smaller is better. Less collateral damage, and your troops can be closer to the target when the explosion occurs. In Iraq, the 200 pound GMLRS warhead is just the right size for your average Iraqi building. The structure, and the bad guys within, are destroyed, and adjacent structures suffer minimal, or no, damage. For that reason, even some Iraqi politicians have come out in praise of the GMLRS. In Afghanistan, most of the fighting is outside urban areas, but even there, in many cases the bad guys are in one building of a compound, while  civilians are in another. In such cases, the GMLRS could take out one building, without destroying the other.

The U.S. Army believes that GMLRS will remain the most useful smart weapon, even with the introduction of the hundred pound 155mm GPS guided Excalibur artillery shell, and the U.S. Air Force's 250 pound JDAM (the SDB, or small diameter bomb). Both of these weapons pack a smaller punch than the GMLRS, and that may be a drawback in some situations. Ground troops are certain that the GMLRS warhead is just right, at least in most cases.

In order to provide fire support for widely dispersed British troops, MLRS vehicles often have to position themselves in areas crawling with Taliban gunmen. The vehicles sometimes come under fire. To help deal with that, a modified version of the MLRS vehicle has been introduced. This one has armor added for protection against bullets and RPGs. The 7.62mm machine-gun mounted on the top of the cab has thermal imagers, for spotting gunmen at night or during the dust storms common to the area. These upgraded vehicles appeared in Afghanistan earlier this year.

Each tracked, 25 ton, MLRS vehicle carries twelve rockets and a crew of three. About a thousand MLRS vehicles have been built, and the system is in use by fifteen countries. Britain has four MLRS vehicles in Afghanistan, which is sufficient to cover all the areas where British troops are operating in Helmand province.