MLRS and Maneuver Warfare

by Maj Charles W. Morris

The Multiple Launch Rocket System is a war-proven weapon that adds immensely to a commander’s ability to bring massive amounts of fire to bear on deep targets-a capability that will enable commanders to destroy enemy cohesion more effectively.

As early as 1814, Sir William Congreve had written of the theory of rocket system employment. In his writings he discussed “the facility of firing a great number of rounds” as quickly as possible, thereby advocating the capability of massing fires and the benefits that accrue to a rocket system. He stressed two characteristics: the simplicity of a launcher and, primarily, its capacity to mass fires on a’large target instantaneously, thus effecting total surprise on the enemy. His theories on the tactical employment of rocket launchers are still valid, and were validated during the war against Iraq.

The U.S. Army acquired the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) in 1981. It is a tracked, self-propelled, allweather rocket system capable of launching twelve 227mm rockets in a single ripple of approximately 60 seconds or engaging targets individually with a single rocket. The armored self-propelled loader-launcher (SPLL) is operated by a crew of three and provides an automated positioning and firing capability. Its onboard communications system and fire-direction computer are digital and provide a burst transmission link to higher and adjacent headquarters. It is produced by the LTV Corporation and each dualpurpose, improved conventional munition (DPICM) rocket is able to deliver 644 antimaterial/antipersonnel grenades. It is air transportable by both the C-141 and C-5A aircraft. It is highly mobile and is designed to augment cannon artillery in its suppression, counterfire, and interdiction roles. It may be used in the general support (GS), general support-reinforcing (GSR), or reinforcing (R) role as an indirect-fire, area artillery weapon system. The inherent responsibilities of each of these missions are similar to those for tube artillery. The MLRS provides additional firepower while freeing tube artillery units for the direct support (DS) role. Its present range is more than 30 kilometers, but with the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) that was used with great success against Iraq, its range can be increased to 130 kilometers.

The Army is presently organized utilizing the MLRS battalion (three batteries of nine launchers each) as a corps asset, either independently deployed or attached to a field artillery brigade within the corps. The battalion is organized to provide rocket fires in support of the corps, as well as to reinforce other corps artillery units. In addition, an MLRS battery is organic to the divisional artillery of the Army’s heavy divisions (mechanized and armored). This provides general support fires for the division. The batteries that are organic to the division artillery are virtually identical to those within a corps’ MLRS battalion.

The concept for employment of the MLRS is GS and GSR at the division level while the battalion can be used in an R, GSR, or GS role at the corps level. It can be used not only for the attack of deep, high-payoff targets, but also to augment tube artillery suppression of enemy air defense, counterfire, and interdiction. Its value in augmenting tube artillery by providing additional firepower is made evident when considering that one rocket with 644 submunitions equals 7.3 rounds of 155mm (88 submunitions per round). This equates to a single launcher with 12 rockets equaling or exceeding the massed firepower (one round per tube) of 11 batteries of 155 mm howitzers.

There are some drawbacks to the MLRS, including cost and logistics; still, the system does offer some significant advantages when considered in light of the Marine Corps’ concept of deploying as a Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB) and employing as a Marine expeditionary force (MEF), and when considering the system’s potential employment in conjunction with maneuver warfare. Due to the fact that many potential enemies are now equipped with Soviet-style mechanized, armored, and rocket units, thought must be focused on these types of forces and what the Marine Corps will need to face them in future conflicts. The intensity and complexity of warfare has increased due to extended engagement distances, very mobile armored forces, and shorter duration of engagements due to those highly mobile forces being placed in armored formations. In such an environment, the commander of a Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) is going to need more firepower than three or four battalions of artillery can provide him. He will have to mass his fires repeatedly and with great intensity if he is going to succeed in his mission. It is under these circumstances that a rocket launcher becomes a very useful weapon system. Its major characteristics of heightened volume of fire, shock, and surprise-effect fulfill a definite requirement for the massing of fires on high-priority targets.

At the present time Marine Corps GS artillery is limited to the 155mm M198, the same system used in each of the Corps’ DS battalions. While bold and aggressive use of this artillery by means of flexible command and control and organization for combat may temporarily suffice, long-term considerations for additional fire support need to be addressed. Given the growth of artillery capabilities worldwide, the Corps will need the greater range and volume of fire traditionally available from GS artillery. A possible solution is the acquisition of the MLRS as a GS system. The major disadvantages and advantages to this proposal are discussed in the following paragraphs.

The first of the disadvantages that require discussion is the problem of cost. Currently, one MLRS launcher costs approximately $3.04 million, according to the FY94 Program Objective Memorandum. The real issue, however, is the cost of ammunition. A 30-day supply for the planned acquisition would cost nearly half a billion dollars. Based upon the number of launchers acquired, this can become an expensive proposition. However, the increase in combat power available to a MAGTF commander must be weighed, as must be done for every acquisition, against the cost. It appears to be well worth it.

A second drawback is logistics support. The rockets are large and cumbersome, but while 30 days of ammunition for the MLRS is slightly heavier, its cube is smaller than the ammunition for the 8-inch howitzer Marines previously fielded. Still, it is important to have support vehicles to transport this load. A ripple of 12 rockets fired in less than one minute can expend a great deal of ammunition, so indiscriminate use of the MLRS against all targets should not be contemplated. Current five-ton trucks (M900 series) would not be able to provide the necessary ammunition resupply support. But the acquisition of three Mk48 logistics vehicle system (LVS) per artillery regiment has relieved this problem to a certain degree. Still, the additional costs of this logistics system must be considered. Prioritization of the overall targeting effort to consider high-value targets for engagement by MLRS would aid in the justification for accepting these additional problems.

An additional disadvantage to be considered is the fact that MLRS is not helicopter transportable. On balance, this is not an overly significant weakness considering that the M198 howitzer can be transported only by the CH-53E.

One last disadvantage to be addressed is its firing signature. Once the rocket is launched, the dust and smoke create a signature that can be easily identified visually and the trajectory of the rocket can be identified electronically. This vulnerability has been overcome to a certain degree by the employment of “shoot-and-scoot” tactics; that is, firing followed by immediate launcher displacement. This requires in-depth planning of battle zones to allow for the rapid movement of launchers and uncovering a large number of firing positions for their sites. (For more on “shoot-and-scoot” artillery raids and MLRS, see LtCol Mazzara’s “Artillery in the Desert, 1991,” MCG, Apr91.)

While the disadvantages are significant and must be considered in light of possible acquisition, there are many advantages to the current MLRS fielded by the Army. Foremost among these is mobility. The M270 MLRS is a tracked vehicle, providing much greater crosscountry mobility and speed in displacement for survivability than current towed weapon systems. The M270 is lighter and smaller than earlier self-propelled systems and is compatible with all present landing craft and the landing craft, air cushioned (LCAC). In addition, it is capable of being airlifted by both the C-141 and C-5A aircraft, making its strategic mobility a point of considerable interest. The ammunition weight and cube are similar to that of the old eight-inch howitzer, which keeps it compatible with the present amphibious lift capability. In addition, the onboard fire-control computer and navigation system allow for individual launcher employment or the massing of the fires of several launchers.

The advantage of increased lethality available with the MLRS has already been mentioned. This increased killing power is due largely to the numerous and diverse types of munitions available and under development for the system. At present, the M77 rocket fired by the MLRS delivers DPICM to a range of 32 kilometers. The MAGTF Master Plan calls for increased capabilities for counterfire and the development of a GS system with a range of 40 kilometers. The MLRS approaches this now. At present, tube artillery is capable of ranging 30 kilometers with rocket-assisted projectiles, which comprise only a small portion of the base ammunition allowance. But maximum charges fired to achieve this contribute heavily to tube wear. Developmental warheads for the MLRS include scatterable mines, terminally guided warheads, seek-and-destroy armor (SADARM), and chemical munitions. However, the most significant developmental munition is the ATACMS, which has extended the range to 130 kilometers. While only two missiles per launcher can be employed, literally no launcher modification is required, and the capability of the system in terms of depth of attack will be markedly increased.

An advantage for the Marine Corps lies in the fact that the MLRS has already been fielded by the Army, providing a war-proven, off-the-shelf system for acquisition. There would be some research and development costs associated with it-for instance, hardening of the computerized systems against salt water associated with amphibious operations-but these would be minimal. In fact, the Army may be convinced to participate and gain a product improvement. Overall, there would be limited developmental costs incurred.

Finally, the demands for manpower resulting from adoption of MLRS would be minimal. In these days of tight budgets and manpower reductions, this is an important consideration. The battery structure proposed by then-Maj Andrew F. Mazzara (MCG, Sep88) calls for 5 officers and 71 enlisted (a crew of 3 is required to operate the launcher)-a relatively small investment for the capability acquired.

When looking at a numbers comparison only, the advantages definitely outweigh the disadvantages. However, if the MLRS were acquired, the Marine Corps must still determine how it will be employed. Since the considerations following acquisition are still in their infancy, a possible method of employment for the Marine Corps requires development.

Before developing a Marine Corps concept of MLRS employment, we must first examine how the MLRS would be employed and integrated into the maneuver warfare concept. By its very nature, MLRS would lend itself readily to employment as a GS weapon system with which the maneuver commander can influence combat. Maneuver warfare must be thought of in terms of space and time to gain a positional advantage as well as generating a faster operational tempo to gain decisive superiority at the required time and place. Attempts should be made to shatter the enemy’s morale and physical cohesion through rapid, violent, and unexpected actions. Basically, the aim is to create a situation with which he cannot cope. Firepower, especially that which will shock and surprise the enemy force, will be critical to accomplishing these tasks. The idea is to shift combat power, defined as the sum of firepower and maneuver, to decisive points and times in the battle. Firepower, such as that provided by the MLRS, can rapidly shift combat power without the physical movement of maneuver units. MLRS, with its capacity for mobility, lethality, surprise, and shock, equating to instant suppression and destruction of large areas of the battlefield, can provide that concentration of combat power at decisive places and times. It is capable of immediate response to a situation with massive coverage of a particular area of the battlefield.

Any joint munitions effects manual will bear out the increased effects of a first-round, massed time-on-target (TOT) as opposed to second and succeeding volleys. The key to the employment of the MLRS is the selective application of its massive capabilities against critical enemy vulnerabilities. This would lend itself to the GS mission where control is centralized and exercised directly by the maneuver commander through his artillery headquarters. The attempt is to pose dilemmas to the enemy so rapidly that the maneuver commander dictates terms of battle. He actively works to seek out enemy vulnerabilities and concentrate his combat power against them. Rapid rates of fire and the capability to mass on a single target or engage 12 individual targets from a single launcher provide a capability heretofore unknown by the maneuver commander. The munition pattern from a single rocket covers an area on the ground approximately 200 meters in diameter. The vanety of warheads under development would give the commander a great deal of flexibility.

The present range capability of the MLRS with ATACMS munitions exceeds that called for in the MAGTF Master Plan. ATACMS would allow the maneuver commander to engage extremely deep targets with a surface-to-surface fire support system in any kind of weather and in any type of terrain. Survivability of Marine air assets, the only system now capable of deep interdiction, as well as an overall savings of air sorties available, hang in the balance.

It is interesting to note that the Army organizes its defensive framework to include an area for deep operations. An Army commander has the MLRS as well as joint air attack team (JAAT) operations at his disposal to extend his area of influence and pursue deep operations. While the Marine framework considers three echelons-security, main battle area, and rear-and stresses deep attack, the only fire-support asset available for deep operations is air, weather permitting. Can the MAGTF commander afford to squander air assets and sorties, or worse, let his vital mission requirements go unfulfilled, when there is an all-weather system available that would allow him to provide deep interdiction of enemy second-echelon elements and counterfire? MLRS offers an exciting alternative to extend the MAGTF commander’s area of influence. Given proper intelligence regarding his area of interest and new capabilities for target acquisition provided by the surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence group (SRIG), he now has an additional capacity for altacking highpriority targets acquired well beyond the security area.

If, in fact, these points are deemed to have merit and the MLRS is acquired, we must now turn our attention to the numbers of launchers the Marine Corps will require and how they will be employed. It is recommended that the Marine Corps buy 42 launchers (12 each for the 10th and 11th Marines, and 18 for the 14th Marines). (This figure accounts neither for a maintenance nor operational readiness float, nor launchers for the Maritime Pre-positioned Force, all of which may also have to be considered.) The austere artillery assets that would remain without this acquisition are totally inadequate. The 12th Marines would maintain their light stnicture for GS artillery while the 10th, 11th, and 14th Marines would increase their GS capability with procurement of the MLRS.

The increase in firepower and lethality for the MAGTF commander would be substantial. Twelve launchers (two six-launcher batteries) of MLRS can provide the equivalent first-round firepower of 84 tubes of 8-inch howitzers (14 six-gun batteries) per MEF with comparable embarkation characteristics to presently employed systems (comparison is based upon numbers of submunitions delivered in one volley). An added advantage is the strategic mobility of airlift by C-141 aircraft. One battery (six launchers) of MLRS could be attached to the DS battalion of each MEB to increase the firepower of that organization.

Upon compositing to form the MEF, one MLRS battery could provide GS fires to the ground combat element (GCE) and the other battery could provide GS fires to the MEF commander to take advantage of the SRIG’s acquisition capability and allow him to formulate his own counterfire and interdiction programs. Response to the GCE is critical, but the MEF commander must also have a means of increasing his area of influence and providing surprise while also providing rapid and massively destructive fires upon his own priority targets within that area. MLRS provides this by supplying the MAGTF commander an all-weather, expeditionary, surface-to-surface fire-support asset that provides greater survivability for aviation assets, particularly with the advent of ATACMS. Both the GCE and MEF commanders would now have a capability to not only extend their areas of influence, but provide a means of destroying enemy cohesion through selective use of separate counterfire and interdiction programs within these areas. They would have the capacity to mass an element of combat power with a ferocity that has been totally unavailable in the past.

By relying upon the present personnel within the artillery regiment (survey, meteorological, electronics, and track repair) there would be no real requirement for support personnel increases. The GS role for the MEF and GS, GSR role for the GCE would be appropriate with no real changes in the inherent responsibilities delineated in current Marine Corps doctrine. At the MEB level a mission of GS or GSR would be appropriate.

A reinforcing mission would not be appropriate due to the need to strike high-priority targets with mass destructive fires in accordance with the priorities set by the maneuver commander. In addition, the signature associated with those fires must be compensated for when planning zones of action. The maneuver commander must not only be aware of the MLRS mass destructive capabilities, but the fact that its employment makes it a very lucrative target.

The Marine Corps has had an interest in rockets either actively, as demonstrated by their use in World War II and Korea and developmental testing of various lightweight systems, or passively, as demonstrated by continuous study and periodic mention in professional journals. The MLRS is an offthe-shelf, expeditionary system that can provide the MAGTF commander the finest benefits of any rocket system with an increased capability for counterfire and interdiction. He is provided one of the simplest, most direct means of destroying enemy cohesion, the quintessential element in the maneuver warfare concept. The maneuver commander must concentrate on the enemy who, when considered in relation to a nonlinear forward edge of the battle area, may present many high-payoff targets well beyond the capabilities of engagement of the present tube artillery systems. MLRS acquisition and employment would provide increased lethality, strategic mobility, and an overall enlargement of the area of influence of the MAGTF commander, allowing those units assigned the direct support mission to concentrate on close support fires for the individual maneuver units.

The MLRS can exceed the present capabilities and will maintain a relative status quo in amphibious or airlift requirements. It is an expensive proposition, to be sure, but one that provides for an overall increase in fire support, as a subset of combat power. It will allow our maneuver commanders to destroy enemy cohesion, to save Marine lives and aircraft, and above all, to win!