MLRS and the Totality of the Battlefield

Main Image Credit Taking aim: Ukrainian artillerymen operating RM-70 multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) donated by the Czech Republic. Image: / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

Multiple rocket launchers like MLRS and HIMARS have altered the totality of the battlefield in Ukraine. The integration of long-range precision effects and intelligence into a single system is therefore a critical lesson that other forces must learn.

The combat outcomes of a war are generally defined by the totality of the battlefield. This means that the sum of all working parts within a military decides whether that force is successful. This includes the ability of a logistics corps to bring a force and everything it needs into battle; the force’s signaller’s technical skill in ensuring and protecting communications; and a commander’s ability to understand a situation and position forces accordingly. It is rare that any one weapon or technology will alter the totality of the battlefield, as results are dependent upon so many different factors that defy effective centralised control.

The M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) provided to Ukraine have disrupted this trend and decisively shaped the battlefield by engaging Russia’s logistics, command and control (C2) nodes, and troop concentrations through much of the Russian Armed Force’s (RuAF) operational depth. This has prevented the RuAF from concentrating and massing artillery fire in a way that the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) could not match, disrupted RuAF attempts to concentrate forces for offensives, and made command of Russian units a risky endeavour. Without the above effects, the AFU would have suffered significantly greater casualties and setbacks. The value of HIMARS and MLRS is best understood through a combination of software, hardware and tactics.

The HIMARS and MLRS launchers are armed with six and twelve M31A1 220mm missiles respectively. The missile guidance kits enable them to strike within 15 m of a target, although US Army tests indicate that they can strike within 2 m. They have a range of 70 km and carry a 90 kg high explosive unitary warhead. There are also indications that the AFU has received the M30A1 rocket, which is fitted with a sleeve of ball bearings programmed to detonate at an optimal height, making the munition suitable for infantry and soft-skinned vehicles.

The range and accuracy of HIMARS and MLRS are critical to understanding their ability to shape the totality of the battlefield in Ukraine. The 70 km range of the rockets effectively places them beyond the reach of frontline Russian tube artillery systems and enables them to move on roads parallel to the frontline in response to identified targets. It also means that they are able to engage targets such as logistics and ammo dumps in Russia’s operational depth which are beyond the reach of Ukraine’s own conventional tube artillery.

The Russians have employed a rigid logistics structure that is reliant upon critical installations such as train lines and has a limited ability to operate away from railheads

Accuracy is important for two reasons. The first is that it reduces the number of rockets needed to achieve effects on targets, which is a critical consideration given that Ukraine and the West are facing constraints in their ability to meet the AFU’s demand for ammunition. The second is that it means vehicles can quickly relocate after firing and avoid counter-battery fire or attempts to locate them, which improves survivability – as evidenced by Russia’s difficulties in locating and destroying them.

However, this is likely due in part to Russia’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) gap. A Russian commander has complained that the RuAF has limited abilities to locate and engage targets beyond the immediate frontline, which allows the MLRS and HIMARS launchers to operate with relative impunity. Furthermore, the Russian air force faces difficulties in operating in Ukraine’s operational depth – where the launchers are present – because it has found suppression of Ukraine’s air defences difficult. In short, the range of MLRS and HIMARS, combined with Russia’s inability to generate targeting information or fly sorties at appropriate altitudes in the areas where the launchers operate, has conferred survivability upon them and enabled them to continue impacting the Russian forces.

The range of the M30A1 missile would account for little without the software and ISR that are used to provide targeting data. From the available information, the AFU uses a variety of reconnaissance tools to locate and identify suitable Russian targets. An innovative method is the use of mobile phone software that enables Ukrainian citizens to report the location of Russian troops using an app. This information is often shared with artillery systems or through the chain of command using applications like Google Meets. It is then shared with a US base in Europe, where operators provide precise targeting data from satellites and other assets, as well as target mensuration, which is necessary for the launchers to conduct an engagement and to shorten the targeting chain. This is fed into the missiles and then they are launched – the whole process takes only a few seconds. The speed of targeting decisions, and in some cases the target location, is reliant upon the use of software, which provides rapid communication and data sharing between Ukrainian operators and US analysts.

There is a further element that the AFU has little control over, and that is the way in which Russian forces have conducted operations. The RuAF has employed a rigid logistics structure that is reliant upon critical installations such as train lines and has a limited ability to operate away from railheads. This is combined with large ammunition dumps that are difficult to move quickly and command posts that are moved infrequently. This has allowed conservative HIMARS or MLRS strikes to have a disproportionate effect, removing tonnes of ammunition from Russian artillery batteries that are overwhelming AFU forces, or removing what senior leadership there is for Russian units at the frontline.

Ukrainian forces have embraced the mobility and lethality of HIMARS and MLRS to keep a relatively small fleet dispersed and alive

Russia possesses its own form of multiple rocket launchers that would theoretically be capable of reaching into the AFU’s operational depth and conducting the same type of strikes. However, there are three elements that stop this from happening: the ISR gap, the AFU’s dispersion, and a lack of guidance kits. The Russian equivalents are the BM-30 Smerch and BM-27 Uragan, firing 300mm and 220mm rockets respectively. They were designed for area effects and to be applied en masse against NATO formations, according to the 2021 edition of Janes Artillery and Air Defence. Smerch has a range of 70 km with its standard rockets, and in its modernised form as the Tornado-S can fire GLONASS and GPS-guided missiles with far greater accuracy. At an echelon above the Smerch, Russia has developed the reconnaissance-strike complex, which was designed in the 1980s to network sensors and effectors into a single system and target an opponent’s operational depth. The complex was supposed to use missiles such as the 9M723 Iskander to dynamically strike critical nodes within an enemy’s system. There is some evidence that this occurred in the opening months of the war. Strikes against single Ukrainian vehicles and a shopping mall in Kyiv that was claimed to house AFU multiple rocket launchers were recorded and appeared successful. However, the reconnaissance-strike complex and BM-30/Tornado-S have failed to locate and target HIMARS and MLRS launchers.

The likely reason for this is Russia’s ISR gap: it remains capable of targeting Ukraine’s fixed architecture but is unable to push its reconnaissance drones far enough into Ukraine to find and track targets. This is essential for providing live targeting data to missile systems like Iskander and Tornado-S. Furthermore, there appear to be challenges within Russia’s concept of fire support in terms of prioritising targets and passing timely targeting information to units that can act upon it.

There is an important lesson to be considered for Western forces from the HIMARS example, which is the ways in which targeting processes and cycles can be minimised to engage an opponent’s critical nodes. The AFU has found ways to leverage software to enable connectivity and reconnaissance so that targets can be identified throughout an opponent’s depth and engaged very quickly. It has also embraced the mobility and lethality of HIMARS and MLRS to keep a relatively small fleet dispersed and alive. The key point, therefore, is that long-range precision strike combined through software with innovative and conventional means of reconnaissance can decisively shape a battlefield and conflict. However, this requires a military to make brave decisions about the role of its long-range precision strike assets and their freedom to operate in any given area of operations.

The author is a seasoned weapons expert writing under a pseudonym.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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