Poland has joined fellow East European nation Romania in adopting the use of GMLRS (GPS guided MLRS) and building its own version of the American HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) rocket launchers. Rather than buying the HIMARS vehicles Poland is buying HIMARS technology and arranged to integrate that with the existing, and similar Polish Homar (“Lobster”) rocket system.
The HIMARS launcher would be mounted on Polish 6x6 truck rather than the standard HIMARS system mounted on the 6x6 U.S. Army vehicle system that Romania (and other export customers) purchase. Poland is buying 25 GMLRS rockets as well as 61 ATACMS rockets, 34 practice rockets 1,642 GMLRS guidance systems to be fitted to Polish made rockets as well as GMLRS guidance system test and maintenance systems. This $250 million sale will enable Poland to build a Polish version of HIMARS launchers under license and integrate the Polish HIMARS with Polish artillery fire control systems using NATO standards.
This is cheaper that the American made $5 million HIMARS truck mounted MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System). HIMARS carries only one, six MLRS rocket pod instead of two in the original larger, tracked, MLRS vehicle. But the 12 ton truck can fit into a C-130 transport (unlike the 22 ton tracked MLRS) and is much cheaper to operate. The first HIMARS entered service in 2005, about a year after GMLRS (GPS guided MLRS rockets) did. The two new innovations worked well together and were a major reason for the success of the GMLRS and the HIMARS rocket launcher.
Poland, like most HIMARS and MLRS users are now only buying guided rockets. Poland plans to integrate longer range (150-499 kilometer) Homar guided rockets it had already planned into the American HIMARS system. Poland was a major weapons manufacturer during the Cold War, when it was occupied by Russian military forces and secret police. During that period Poland produced Russian designs under license and gradually developed improved versions of the Russian designs.
Since joining NATO in 1999 Poland has largely replaced Russian weapons with Western ones or upgraded Russian systems to NATO standards. That alone created a new business opportunity for Polish defense firms and Poland is again becoming a major arms producer. This it is no surprise that Poland will be building its own version of the guided MLRS rockets that entered service back in 2004. This was the GMLRS (guided multiple launch rocket system). Like the unguided version, the GMLRS are packaged and used in containers (pods) holding six rockets each. The fire control system was upgraded to handle precision targeting rather than just a general area.
Since 2004 over 3,000 GMLRS rockets have been fired in combat. GMLRS rockets cost about $100,000 each and have been very successful. That has meant even less work for tube artillery, which had dominated the battlefield since the 17th century. The Polish GMLRS rockets will be based on existing Polish rockets and be cheaper to manufacture. Meanwhile the U.S. manufacturer has had to resume production of the M142 American HIMARS vehicle system for the growing number of export customers.
The 309 kg (680 pound) GMLRS missile is a GPS guided 227mm rocket. It was designed to have a range of 70 kilometers and the ability to land within meters of its intended target, at any range. This is possible because it uses GPS (plus a back-up inertial guidance system) to find the target location it was programmed with. In 2008 the army tested GMLRS at max range (about 85 kilometers) and found that it worked fine and this is the design Poland will use. This enables one MLRS/HIMARS vehicle to provide support over a frontage of 170 kilometers, or, in places like Afghanistan, where the fighting can be anywhere, an area of over 20,000 square kilometers. This is a huge footprint for a single weapon (an individual MLRS/HIMARS vehicle), and fundamentally changes the way you deploy artillery in combat. By way of comparison, Excalibur (GPS guided 155mm shell) has a max range of 37 kilometers, and 120mm GPS guided mortars about 7.5 kilometers.
Until recently most of the GMLRS rockets were fitted with an 89 kg (196 pound) M31A1 high explosive ("unitary") warhead. About half of that is actual explosives. That's twice as much explosives as the U.S. Air Force 130 kg (285 pound) SDB (Small Diameter Bomb). A 155mm artillery shell has 6.6 kg of explosives, and the 500 pound (227 kg) bomb has 127 kg of explosives, which produced an excessive blast for many urban combat situations. The GMLRS seemed to be just right most of the time. In 2014 an M30A1 warhead was introduced in 2016 and it used less explosives but added 180,000 tungsten pellets which were effective against personnel and unarmored vehicles over a much larger area. The GPS guided ATACMS rocket has a range of 300 kilometers and a 230 kg (500 pound) warhead.
GMLRS has been used with great success in Iraq and Afghanistan, where most have been fired so far. The guided rocket is much more effective than the older, unguided, version, and is replacing it in most cases. No more of the unguided rockets are being purchased by the U.S. The accuracy of GMLRS means that one rocket does the job that previously required a dozen or more of the unguided ones. That's why HIMARS is so popular. While HIMARS only carries six rockets, that's often enough to last for days, even when there's a lot of combat.
Since the end of the Cold War in 1991 the U.S. Army has drastically reorganized and reduced its artillery force. At the end of the Cold War most artillery was conventional “tube” artillery. That meant towed 105mm, 155mm, 203mm howitzers and self-propelled 155mm howitzers. The MLRS, a 12 tube 227mm unguided rockets was just entering service when the Cold War ended. In the 1990s it became obvious that smart bombs (JDAM) first used in the 1991 Gulf War, were more effective than artillery and that led to a major shift away from using artillery. By 2004 over 40 tube artillery battalions had been disbanded.
Noting the success of GMLRS, Russia and China have developed and put into service their own GPS guided rockets. Russia has long led in the design of new rocket systems was is playing catchup when it comes to using guided rockets. The multiple rocket launcher was first developed by the Russians before World War II as a cheap alternative to massed artillery fire by individual guns. Long seen as a supplement to regular artillery, the introduction of the high tech U.S. MLRS rocket system in the 1980s began to make a lot of conventional artillery obsolete even before GMLRS came along. Of course, artillery has always been ripe for innovation. The U.S. 175mm gun, introduced in the 1960s, was rendered obsolete in the 1980s with the introduction of special long range ammo for the 203mm (8 inch) howitzer. The U.S. Army stopped using the 175mm gun in the 1970s. When the MLRS entered service, one of the three batteries in each division's 203mm howitzer battalion was equipped with MLRS units instead. But MLRS proved so effective that the 203mm howitzer battalion became an MLRS battalion and the 203mm gun was dropped by the U.S. Army.
There were always non-divisional MLRS battalions, as the MLRS was seen, from the beginning, as an ideal weapon for massed artillery fire. The Gulf War allowed the MLRS to show off what a potent weapon it could be. The larger rockets also provided room for more complex payloads (cluster and "smart" munitions) and guidance systems. This was another example of how technology can transform an old weapon. While the Russians have been using rocket launchers for over 70 years, they never got around to enhancing their effectiveness with a lot of technology until recently and then only because they noted others were doing so and succeeding. Now everyone is changing their artillery forces and adapting to the use of many fewer guided projectiles.