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MLRS For Dummies... er, Maneuver Warriors

 

by COL(R) Ken Guillory

This might be one of the few times that I actually get to pontificate on a subject about which I actually know something. While I am retired now, it's not been so long that I've either forgotten what I know nor has our doctrine changed radically since I left active duty. So I'll share what knowledge, insights, TTP and good old horse sense I've gained from years dealing with MLRS.

First, I'll get my bona fides on the table. (details at the bottom) I have participated in MLRS operations from both the command and staff positions, in real-life wartime and in training scenarios from 1990-2001.

This does not make me any more or less qualified than any other MLRS experienced officer, nor does it endow me with Napoleon-like wisdom, but it does give me a rounded picture of what the system can do with ground elements, with Army aviation and in joint operations. I've included at the end of this article a detailed description of those operations, for those of you who are interested. For those who think this might qualify as the ravings of an old soldier, just ignore it. Now to business. The first thing you need to know is what the system is good for and what to avoid.

 

Where do you find it in our force structure? What command relationships obtain and how do they play out in planning and actual combat?

What it's good for and what to avoid.

MLRS is not a point target weapon nor is it your best choice to deal with tanks and armored vehicles. It can do damage to lightly armored vehicles but isn't the best way to handle them. It can make them button up and causes confusion. But heavy direct fire weapons (tanks, ATGMs, helicopters and CAS) are the killers.

MLRS is ideal for counterfire, SEAD, assembly areas, POL, CPs/OPs, enemy bridging operations, troops in the open (but how often does that happen?). It's good in the counterrecon fight if the target is stationary or if the maneuver forces can cause the enemy to stop. During the planning for Desert Shield, one of our supported units actually wanted us to use artillery fires (among them, MLRS) to destroy the enemy reconnaissance elements moving through the desert, a brilliant example of misunderstanding artillery capabilities and an exercise in asininity.

In conjunction with attack helicopters MLRS can be especially devastating, either with rocket fires or with ATACMS. Just remember that the artillery should hit the target area first, immediately before the helicopters arrive on the scene. In that way the attack aircraft come upon an enemy that is recovering from an MLRS strike and that will present juicer targets. Then again, as soon as the attack aircraft leave the area, the artillery should hit it again. Aviators don't particularly care for this; they like to hit the target first. But they're wrong.

So take care in what you ask your fire supporter/artilleryman to do. If you give him mission impossible, he cannot help you. Maneuver asks for fire support to do certain tasks.

Don't simply ask for MLRS.

 

Employment considerations

Positioning: Needs to be close enough to take advantage of range (32 km Max and 45 km for extended range - ER) Minimum range is 8 km. Minimum safe distance from impact for friendly troops is 2 km. That means that for maximum effect in the enemy zone, try to position MLRS assets from 6-10 km from FLOT - in my view, six KMs is better than ten.

Now you'll run into resistance on this point. Many maneuver commanders don't want to put MLRS so close to the enemy. Nor do they want to make space for it among their maneuver units. They know that the enemy makes MLRS a priority target and don't want to be near it.

Look, if you want the fires, you have to make space for the system and space means in a legitimate location where MLRS can be used to max effect. You give up some of its range capability for deep fires if you position it deeper in your own AO. In addition, you might have to provide "security" in the form of a maneuver component escort for MLRS assets in proximity to the enemy or include them in your own defense perimeter. MLRS elements have precious little capability to defend themselves; they rely instead on quickness and movement. Like many things, you decide if the trade off is worthwhile.
This is not a system for close fires. Cannon and mortar systems do that.

Response time: From the time a fire mission reaches a battery FDC until the launcher is ready to fire is 4 minutes. Remember that - 4 minutes. And you have to add on to that the Call for Fire time. So you don't get immediate response from MLRS assets like you do from cannons or mortars. It's not gonna happen.

Now, on planned targets or TOTs the system is terrific since it can be ready on the exact time. But be aware of on-call missions. They take time for MLRS. You get great firepower, but at a cost. On the other hand, look for opportunities to use it when you can gauge the time effectively. It's a devastating weapon when surprise is on your side and you have an accurate target location.

Here's what happens. The call for fire comes into the FDC and is sent digitally to the SPLL. The FDC decides how many rockets to fire based on size and type of target. Usually, the SPLL fires one or two pods (6 rockets to one pod). The SPLL drives from its "hide position" to a firing point 50-150 meters away and parks on the designated azimuth. The crew gives the command to lay the launcher and the SPLL rotates and elevates for firing. At the appointed time or when ready, firing starts. Rockets launch at one second intervals - or longer if appropriate. Sometimes, this process can go faster than 4 minutes, but 4 minutes is the standard. Then you add time of flight (normally 25-65 seconds depending on range; ask your FSO for precise times) to the "warhead event" when the fuse ignites and opens the rocket to release the bomblets. It then takes a few seconds for the bomblets to drop and activate on the target. Now we're in the effects business.

It then takes 20 minutes (yes, Two-Zero minutes) for that launcher to reload, update its survey and return to a hide area for the next mission. Well-trained crews can go faster, but a 20 minute "turn" is normal.

Mass fires: What the system can do is mass fires on multiple targets simultaneously. One launcher can provide the same firepower as a "Battalion 1" round of 155 mm DPICM. That's an enormous advantage if you use it properly. Now, let's be clear on this point.

Engaging multiple targets with MLRS is a capability you will not routinely encounter at battalion or brigade level. Perhaps you will if your brigade is the main effort. This is usually a division operation. What this does is allow the cannon units to give you all of their fires without having to concern themselves with other missions. It's an indirect benefit that you reap from MLRS.

Types of munitions: These are always under development (for example, SADARM) and by this time we might have more than I actually know about. But two types predominate.
Rockets - 32 or 45 km range. Usually used for influencing the close battle and for counterfire; it adds depth to the commander's fires capability. Six rockets to a pod with 644 DPICM bomblets in each. In the extended range (ER) rocket, you get fewer bomblets and therefore, less dense target coverage, in order to increase fuel capacity for greater range. Please note that theses are the same DPICM bomblets that we fire in 155 mm DPICM munitions. They act the same way in the impact area; the enemy cannot tell the difference except by the number of bomblets landing in his vicinity. Steel rain pours from cannons as well as from launchers (even though MLRS types don't like to mention that fact to you).

ATACMS - missiles - range up to 170 km with APAM (anti-personnel, anti-materiel) bomblet for deep fires. Usually controlled by corps or higher. Sometimes, but seldom, designated for division to employ. One missile to a pod. Visually, the pods are identical.
What's important to know is that commanders often "designate" a platoon (3 launchers) or certain launchers as "missile shooters," meaning that they are held for missile missions. When that happens, those launchers are not available for rocket missions. The SPLL cannot operate with a mix of munitions (rockets in one pod and a missile in the other); the computer software won't recognize both - it must have all rockets or all missiles.

Where do you find it in our force structure?

What command relationships obtain and how do they play out in planning and actual combat? or... What to expect as a maneuver officer

MLRS fires for you at division or brigade level if you are the main effort and if assets are allocated for planned missions. If you are at battalion level, fugeddaboutit! You plan for fire support and let the FSO coordinate the provider of it. You'll most likely receive cannon fire support unless you have one or two truly high priority targets that need more coverage.
MLRS fires counterfire and SEAD, critical missions that free up direct support systems (cannons) to fire in close support of maneuver operations.You will have to make space on the battlefield for MLRS positioning even though the batteries may not be supporting you directly. Maneuver types do not like this, but if we are going to use the system, we must give it space to do its work.

You might have to provide security for MLRS assets out of your already stretched units, especially during movement or during a covering force/recon/counterrecon fight. MLRS battalions have only a few 50cal MGs for defense and the capability to run like hell. Maneuver types like this even less than making space.

Keep these capabilities in mind when you plan your next operation, exercise or combat. They'll serve you well and save time in asking questions. Load your FSO up with questions. Even if he doesn't know, he has to find out to keep you informed.

My experiences as mentioned above

During Desert Shield/Desert Storm (Aug 90-Apr 91) I served as the S-3 of the 212th FA Brigade, alerted and then deployed with XVIII Airborne Corps in Saudi Arabia and later in Iraq. During this time one battalion of MLRS (3-27 FA) was subordinate to our brigade and operated with us throughout the deployment and ground combat in Iraq.

Moreover, as S-3 of 212 FA Brigade, I participated in all of the planning for Desert Shield (the defense of Saudi Arabia) with XVIII Corps, Corps Arty and primarily with the following maneuver elements - 101st Air Assault Div, 12 Aviation Brigade and 3d ACR, all in the covering force area and with the 24th ID (Mech) in the main battle area. I mention all of this not to recount history but to emphasize that these were detailed, ongoing war plans that involved artillery and other fire support assets with the maneuver commanders showing high interest in using MLRS as often and as comprehensively as possible. In addition to these tasks, the brigade had an additional task of providing counterfire support to MARFOR (Marine Forces) to our immediate east; this meant radar coverage and MLRS fires, thus giving us the additional headache of positioning forces to cover both Army and Marine Corps elements in our AO. This was an intense education in the planning and use of the MLRS system, in what maneuver leaders knew about the system and their expectations of us once fighting commenced.

Beginning with the planning for Desert Storm, 212th Brigade had the mission of reinforcing the 24th Divarty in the upcoming attack to liberate Kuwait and to destroy Iraq's offensive ground capability (meaning the Republican Guard Forces). So another kind of planning commenced, FA Brigade operations with one specific division - and another brick in the edifice of my education about fire support and MLRS. By the way, we actually fought the ground war in this mode. I tell war stories on request only, please.

Upon returning to Fort Sill in April, 1991, I resumed command of 6-32 MLRS and began immediately the process of rebuilding my former Lance battalion as an MLRS battalion. In February, 1993, my battalion deployed to NTC for Contingency Operations (CONOPS 93), the first deployment of an MLRS Battalion to the NTC. Smaller elements had gone earlier, but never a complete battalion. During these operations we "fought" not only with Army ground forces, but also with Special Forces and Navy and Marine Corps aircraft.

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