The Box MLRS Revolution

The BM-30 Smerch remains a fearsome weapon. It’s often compared and not unreasonably to the M270 MLRS on the opposite side of the Berlin Wall. But in many ways, it’s like the last generation of propeller aircraft, while the MLRS was one of the first jets. And I’m not talking about guided rounds.

One of the biggest differences is that the Smerch has to be manually reloaded one rocket at a time. The MLRS/HIMARS just involves plopping in a new canister full of rounds (and the launch vehicle itself has a crane to boot). Many other newer systems (primarily Chinese, Israeli, and Turkish) also use the canister system, even if some still need the extra expense and risk of a separate loading vehicle.

Though too little and late for the current war, the Russians did eventually go for the box MRL with the Tornado series. However, I’m earnestly baffled why they didn’t try to do so more while the USSR was still intact, given the obvious advantages of such a system. Sunk costs of existing rockets and later post-1991 financial troubles are a possibility. Or maybe it was because the Smerch’s giant rockets couldn’t be canisterized. But still, given the prominence of artillery, and the use of other mechanical aids (automated naval vessels, autoloaders for tanks), it still is a little surprising.

The Hungry King

High-intensity warfare uses up a LOT of artillery shells. Like, a lot. How much? Well, these charts from the Light OPFOR Tactical (for eastern calibers) and FM 101-10-1/2, 1987 edition (for western calibers) give a notional example. They’re not identical-the OPFOR norms chart is shells fired towards a target while the FM 101-10-1 one is shells used up by a certain artillery piece per day-but they both show how much metal and explosive is going to fly (the answer: A lot).

Artillery is called the “king of battle”, and the king can get very, very hungry sometimes. Moving large quantities of heavy, highly explosive shells is no small feat, and to succeed or fail with that task means the difference between victory and defeat. A conventional Fuldapocalyptic World War III in the 1980s would have a massive quantity of artillery shells fired every day.

Weird Wargaming: The Abrams-SPH

The year is 1995. Faced with either leaping into the unknown with a clean-sheet system or plugging along with legacy platforms, several contributors to Armor Magazine decided to pursue a middle ground. In the November-December edition, they unveiled their contraption: An Abrams-chassis 52-caliber (same as the PzH2000 and Archer) self propelled howitzer with an autoloader and a whopping 80 rounds inside.

The M1-Arty, or AFAS/M1. Of note is the Archer-esque “backwards” layout of the main gun.

AFAS/M1 would fire 4 to 8 rounds in a Simultaneous Impact Mission (SIM) between 6-40 km. All rounds will impact within 4 seconds (first-to-last round). This requirement can be attained with an effective combination of a battle management system, fire control system, global positioning system (GPS) and an autoloader.-claim for its power from the article.

A resupply vehicle on the same chassis would also be designed. The AFAS/M1 had a target weight of 55 tons.

For all the unusual elements about its design, in practice this beast would have been deployed conventionally. In action, it would have served with heavy divisions/brigades in the usual format. It could be simmed by using the offensive stats of the PzH-2000. Yet it still stands out, in appearance if nothing else.

Clustering launchers for fun and profit

You are a rogue state with limited resources, and you want to make more powerful rockets. What is your improvised expedient? The answer, be it in North Korea or (with the most documentation) in Saddam’s Iraq, is frequently to cluster existing engines.

And what kind of engines would they be? There are the ubiqutuous Scud derivatives, but there’s also something even more readily available-surface to air missile engines, especially those (ie, SA-2s) becoming ever-less effective against actual opposing planes. Iraqi rocket/missile designs made extensive use of repurposed Guideline engines.

It’s gotten to the point where I’ve been making (oversimplified, of course) hypotheticals using the launcher and ballistic missile online calculators. Just input the relevant characteristics, thrust and size dimensions for the engines/rockets in question, and see the result! Quite an interesting bit of diversion for me.

The Artillery Growth Spurt

I was looking through my old planning documents and noticed something very interesting. In a 1969 piece on conventional-only operations that was one of the first of its kind, the Soviet planners estimated their artillery could inflict a maximum of 20% enemy losses in the opening fire strike.

By 1974, just five years later, when their conventional balance was arguably at its height, it had grown to the more familiar OPFOR ratio of 30-40% in a similar document.

I’m thinking (pure idle speculation), various combinations of bigger guns, more mobile guns, more accurate guns, better shells (cluster warheads that make conventional SSMs more than just a nuisance are mentioned in the same document), and probably stuff I missed.

What I find extra-fascinating is that the Azeri’s Nagorno-Karabakh opening half-hour mega-strike apparently destroyed 40% of the Armenian artillery-which is in line with the previous estimates, especially if you take into account technical superiority and massive, massive advancements in smart weapons. (Also, though, for all that, the war still lasted a month and a half and claimed around Azeri 3,000 KIA by its own admission.)

The Pom-Pom turned Bazooka

Having gotten the chance to read a lot of late-WWI and early interwar doctrine pieces, one thing struck me in particular. Not the focus on trench lines or the different communications with no radios, but the presence of “1 pounder guns” like this.

The 1-pounder was described as being meant to hit targets like machine gun nests and armored vehicles. It was almost always intended to be used for direct fire. In other words, it filled the same niche that far less clunky recoilless and rocket launchers did in World War II and beyond. I found that interesting.

(And, of course, the widespread use of light AA guns for ground attack means even the original concept hasn’t gone away. That the pom-pom was also one of the first effective AAA pieces means the connection is even greater).

The Big Artillery Lethality Chart

The 1957 edition of FM 6-40, Field Artillery Gunnery, has these projected casualty figures for battery and battalion artillery barrages being fired at vile Circle Trigonist opponents. What makes this interesting is that it’s a time period that has all the calibers: The classic old 75mm, the 105 and 6 inch guns well known to later people, the big 8 inchers, and the really big monsters.

Now it’s important to note that these are in absolutely (to the point of being unrealistic) ideal conditions. There’s no cover whatsoever, the fuzes are proximity ones that will explode at the perfect height, and, for what it’s worth, it was made in an era where infantry body armor was far less prominent than it would later become. That being said, it’s still a great resource.

Leonid Kurchevsky Versus The Third Law Of Motion

One of the most bizarre footnotes in military history is the tale of Leonid Kurchevsky, an interwar Soviet weapons developer. Kurchevsky’s gimmick was recoilless guns. Everything from small antiarmor weapons to giant battleship-sized naval guns was made recoilless by him. He wanted the entire Red Army artillery park (and aircraft, and naval) to be recoilless, and managed to impress the legendary Marshall Tukhachevsky into going along with his scheme.

Of course, like Tukhachevsky, Mr. Recoilless ended up as a victim of the Great Purge. However, after all of my research I’ve found it very, very hard to feel sorry for him. First, because he’d tried to use Stalinism itself to get the factories to build his contraptions (what goes around comes around, something many Soviet industrialists learned the hard way int their “gang wars”). And there was the problem of the weapons themselves just not being very good. They tended to explode, they were overcomplicated, and they didn’t perform any better than conventional weapons of similar caliber (for instance, Kurchevksy’s Rube Goldberg anti-tank launcher didn’t really do any better than the classic PTRD anti-tank rifle).

All Kurchevksy’s recoilless mania did was delay the development of more effective weapons of that nature. While the postwar Soviet recoilless weapons were/are excellent, they had to go through World War II without an effective projector. While Kurchevsky was not the only reason (difficulty in making shaped charges and such weapons not being that much better than hand charges in the grand scheme of things, hence not the most worth it to put in the effort for a gigantic army and limited resources played a big role too), he didn’t help. Muddling the historical record is the Khrushchev-era anti-Stalinism, where Kurchevsky was portrayed understandably but falsely as an innocent victim and a genius who was halted by Stalin’s paranoia and tyranny. In fact, few were more detrimental to the cause of recoilless guns than he was.

I think a Death Of Stalin-style satirical, only somewhat exaggerated movie about Kurchevsky’s life and times, if done right, would be amazing to watch.

Big Guns in Big Units

The corps/army level artillery mission hasn’t really changed that much since World War I, at least from what I’ve seen.

  • Counter-battery
  • Deep strike
  • Supporting the right effort at the right time.

As always, the Soviets were the most explicit in spelling it out, as one set of field regulations shows.

The American FM 100-15, from a similar time, had a similar statement.

As far back as 1923, the regulations explicitly state:

“The primary mission of corps artillery is the destruction or neutralization of hostile batteries, the destruction of hostile defenses, and long-range interdiction fire.”

As technology has consistently improved, command has “flattened”, and the understanding of its role has become more obviously apparent, more recent documents don’t spell it out so exactly. But the general concept is still there and present.