In Africa, Cheap and Deadly Rocket Launchers Find a Niche
But unguided, indiscriminate MLRSs have an uncertain future
The Multiple Launch Rocket System, or MLRS, is a staple of African arsenals. Its availability, ease-of-use, and low price tag have resulted in widespread proliferation throughout the continent.
Tactically, the MLRS has several advantages, performing practical yet rudimentary battlefield support roles. Unlike “tube” artillery, an MLRS can fire as fast as one round per second, repeatedly, for as many rockets that are loaded. “In this role there is the obvious advantage of being able to quickly saturate an area with rocket fire at an acceptably large range,” John Stupart, editor for the Africa Defense Review, told War Is Boring.
As rocket launchers lack the recoil of a heavy gun, an army only needs to buy the launchers and lightweight vehicles to carry them. “The older Cold War models are relatively cheap, making them easy purchases for a small or poorly-developed military,” Stupart added.
Thus, for their cheapness and firepower, MLRS technologies have arrived to meet the varied — and increasing — defense requests of African states. African armies have purchased hundreds of rocket launchers from a pool of international manufacturers, importing systems ranging from the truck-sized Russian “Grad” to the mammoth-sized American M-270.
The diversity of types of MLRS launchers in Africa matches the diversity of their manufacturers.
Gabon possesses eight Spanish Teruel launchers. Brazil delivered Astros II launchers to Angola during the Angolan Civil War. Zaire — now the Democratic Republic of the Congo — imported Czechoslovakian RM-51s, based on the Soviet Katyusha. The RM-51’s bulkier successor, the RM-70, later proliferated throughout most African regions, with pre-revolution Libya receiving hundreds.
Algeria received the BM-30 “Smerch,” a longer ranged, higher caliber system built by Russia. Egypt acquired American-built M-270s in 2003, although they are possibly no longer operational.
Yet, the most common of all is the short-ranged, Russian-built BM-21 Grad — also a Katyusha descendant. The Soviet Union originally supplied these 122-millimeter rockets in the 1960s, and they have ascended to near-ubiquitous status in African conflicts.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 22 of 27 African states with MLRS technology have Grad launchers. Moreover, several other states have “clones” of the Grad system, including Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Sudan.
Not all of Africa’s rocket launchers are imported.
Unlike most African states — with the exceptions of Sudan and Egypt — South Africa developed its own indigenous MLRS. It’s worth noting South Africa’s defense industry is by far the most advanced on the continent. Production on the first South African MLRS, the “Valkiri,” began in 1977, two years after the beginning of the Angolan Civil War.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, South Africa developed the Valkiri in response to the ever-present Soviet-supplied Grad system, which the communist FAPLA used to halt Zairian and South African advances toward the Angolan capital of Luanda in 1975. In 1982, South Africa completed the 24-tubed 127-millimeter caliber Valkiri system to perform the very same infantry-halting function against FAPLA.
The South Africans put the Valkiri to the test during the 1987 Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, where the Valkiries played a major role in slowing down a FAPLA offensive. This Cold War success contributed toward the Valkiri system’s staying power within the South African National Defense Forces. It was later modified into the 40-tubed Bateleur system, which is still in use 30 years later.
Besides the Bateleur, South Africa’s contemporary MLRS stock also includes the “Hornet” 4×4 Rapid Deployment Vehicle, which can carry mounted rocket launchers. The Hornet short-range weapons system proved itself during the 2013 Battle of Bangui in the Central African Republic, in which a small group of South African paratroopers and commandos narrowly escaped a major Seleka rebel force.
“SANDF soldiers made very good use of Hornet-mounted MLRS systems that had been airlifted in with them,” Stupart said. “With the severe lack of other heavy weapons, these systems — which I suspect were 70-millimeter rockets — mounted behind Hornet light vehicles, were able to fire multiple ripples directly into advancing Seleka infantry.”
As demonstrated through Cold War battles and more recent SANDF engagements, African MLRS can function as suppressive artillery with a considerable punch. But their utility within future armies’ arsenals depends on their adaptability in the face of many developments in warfare leading up to … and beyond 2016.
Despite some advantageous battlefield uses, MLRS launchers — including the Valkiri/Bateleur models — have setbacks. “The disadvantages are numerous,” Stupart added. “The single most glaring disadvantage has to be the high spread of its warheads in the modern battlefield.”
Another problem is that MLRS launchers are highly vulnerable to counter-battery fire, meaning when the target detects the rockets launching from their tubes … and shoots back. Another pitfall? The indiscriminate nature of firing masses of unguided rockets.
“Simply put, we don’t exist in a world where bombarding an entire area makes tactical or political sense,” Stupart said. “This is especially true of African conflicts, where the target forces are almost always interspersed with local civilians, unidentifiable, and/or spread out and scattered throughout the countryside.”
Notably, the deadly combination of chaos and raw power is more akin to the methods of many of the insurgents which African armies oppose. Large-sized MLRS use is possibly “far more useful for enemy irregular forces than their uniformed counterparts,” Stupart added.
Strategically, larger MLRS launchers face difficult 21st century challenges, as Cold War levels of force projection are no longer necessary for pitched battle between division-sized groupings that no longer occur. The question remains of whether or not there are relevant MLRS functions or variants compatible with unconventional warfare, the type of which has become the most common in the years since fully mobilized African wars ended in the early 2000s.
In response to the changing reality of warfare, some variants may not see additional development or production. “I certainly see less and less research into large, traditional MLRS platforms,” Stupart said. “There is simply little need for them. Locally they serve as a mildly-useful force projection tool, and abroad they are too large for our current SANDF to airlift them out.”
“The Battle of Cuito Canavale was a long time ago, and the modern operations which South African troops go on require smaller, smarter weapons, rather than large artillery systems that could slow down an entire division,” Stupart said.
Thus, the increasingly antiquated MLRS may need to be traded out, or at least modified. Mass amounts of rocket tubes could be replaced by smaller towable systems — with rockets equipped with smarter guidance systems.
“A far more practical application of MLRS technology, for South African and African warfighting in general, is the use of small, trailer-based launchers that can be moved quickly and effectively by medium airlift,” Stupart said. “These systems would certainly provide a more specific utility for SANDF forces than a large unwieldy MLRS vehicle that requires a significant support and logistics ‘tail.’”
Considering the vast transnational peacekeeping responsibilities of the SANDF, as well as the advanced level of South African defense manufacturing, the possibility exists for the development of a new generation of better balanced, more transportable MLRS replacements or modifications.
Yet, as in any democratic government, major military innovation in South Africa remains contingent on legislation-based funding. While the current restructuring of the SANDF — as recommended by policymakers in the 2014 Defense Review — could breathe life into new projects, it could also place others on the chopping block, or leave entire research fields uninvestigated.
Perhaps the bigger question will be whether or not MLRS, in its current form, will exist at all in future battles in Africa.