Another weapon high on Ukraine’s shopping list are Multiple Rocket Launch Systems (MLRS) such as the M270 made by Lockheed Martin which can strike a target 70 or more kilometers away, a three-fold increase over many of their current howitzer rounds […]
The two U.S. officials said the M270 or similar system like the M142 HIMARS would be considered for shipment to Ukraine once Congress passed a $40 billion supplemental funding bill that would authorize an additional $11 billion worth of Presidential Drawdown Authority.
I have no first-hand experience with the relatively new HIMARS, but the M270 MLRS? I spent three years doing fire direction for an M270 MLRS battery, and I can’t imagine a worst idea than sending them those pieces of junk.
To be clear, militarily, M270s are deadly systems, able to obliterate a football-field-sized grid of land with a single volley of its 12 missiles. It was nicknamed the “Grid Square Removal System.” A battery of these, on paper, would seriously make Russian lives difficult. The firing range is between 32 and 70 kilometers depending on the munition, with the shorter-range stuff being cheaper and more plentiful (like with howitzer shells).
These aren’t like cruise missiles. Rather, they are canisters containing 644 grenades each. Thus, 12 rockets times 644 grenades equals 7,728 munitions air-scattered on that football field plot of land. When you see stuff about Russia using “banned cluster munitions,” this is exactly the same thing. (The United States was due to get rid of those munitions by 2019, but the Trump administration rolled that back, of course.)
Aside from the morality of cluster munitions, which Russia has rendered moot, the M270s were a maintenance nightmare.
I joined my MLRS unit, A/76 Field Artillery, 3rd Infantry Division, in 1989. This was just six years after the M270 first entered service in 1983. And even then, all of them relatively new, keeping our battery’s nine M270s all up and running at the same time was impossible. They were perpetually broken down—both the drivetrain and the mechanism which swivels the launcher around. I can’t speak to the exact problems with the machinery, but as fire direction, it was my job to send mechanics to a launcher every time it broke down, and I’m not kidding when I say that, out of nine launchers in the battery, two of them were typically out of commission at any given time.
MLRS first saw action during Desert Storm. I remember seeing pictures of them in action: bunched up and firing from the safe rear position, no fear of Iraqi Army counter artillery fire or ground-attack aircraft. Saddam Hussein lacked such capabilities. And it was clear the Army wasn’t about to use the MLRS as intended—as shoot-and-scoot platforms, always in motion, hiding from enemy countermeasures (the way Ukraine certainly would need to in this war). It was clear to me why: You couldn’t trust those M270s to move and not break.
But hey, I have a terrible memory. Maybe I was misremembering, so I googled, and yes, I remembered correctly, but turns out it was even worse than I ever imagined and extended far beyond the M270 mechanics:
Just two years after the war’s end, the Government Accountability Office reported that M.L.R.S. rockets failed at far higher rates in combat than the Army had advertised, and that dud grenades left over from rocket attacks had killed and wounded at least 16 American troops. An Army report in the early 2000s noted that even though the M.L.R.S. was deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, “not one rocket was fired because of the lack of precision and potential for collateral damage as well as the high submunition dud rate.”
Time is not kind to anything, including military equipment. If we were having so many problems with our M270s in 1989, just six years from deployment, I can’t imagine the shape those vehicles are in today, 40 years from manufacture. We had an entire platoon of experienced mechanics dedicated to keeping these launchers up—during peacetime, without logistical challenges, and with endless supply of parts—and even then we could barely keep them running. Ukraine wouldn’t have any of those advantages.
The original M270 is still around, and is even being upgraded with new systems. Meanwhile, the M142 HIMARS entered service in the 2000s, dramatically lighter and easily transportable.
The wheeled truck chassis is undoubtedly simpler to maintain than the M270’s tracks. But the swivel launcher is the same, except that instead of using two six-missile pods, HIMARS uses just one. Hopefully, manufacturer Lockheed-Martin has improved the reliability and serviceability of their systems since my time.
If that’s the case, then for sure, send HIMARS to Ukraine. We don’t have that many; only 414 have been built. But sending a few dozen could make a world of difference. Logistical issues (like the size of the rockets, each weighing 675 lbs and 13 feet long) are less of an issue now that we’ve shipped hundreds of thousands of 155mm shells. Clearly, Ukraine and NATO have cracked the logistics code. We would need to send trucks capable of transporting the missile pods. We have over 13,000 HEMTTs trucks being phased out that could help with that and other supply matters:
Heavy trucks are not as sexy as weapons systems, but send those suckers over to Ukraine, please. Logistics are just as important.
Ukraine’s last two big wish-list items are aircraft and MLRS. For the love of God, please don’t send them M270s junk. HIMARS are the likely better option.
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