Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Multiple Rocket Launcher Duel : M-142 HIMARS vs ASTROS II

Lockheed Martin M-142 HIMARS and Avibras ASTROS II


For the uninitiated, these are multiple launch rocket artillery systems made by the USA and Brazil respectively. They have been exported to many other countries, including Malaysia ( ASTROS II ) in 2002 and Singapore ( M-142 HIMARS ) in 2009.

Malaysia became the second country in South East Asia to operate rocket artillery systems when it procured the ASTROS II. The honour of being the first goes to Thailand. By nature, rocket artillery are more suited for offensive operations rather than for defence. So it will not be easy to justify such a purchase unless your neighbour does it first. It came as no surprise therefore that once Malaysia has acquired that capability Singapore also ordered rocket artillery systems to boost the firepower of its Army. The US government would not have approved the sale if Singapore's neighbours had not acquired that capability first anyway, as they have always been reluctant to allow the introduction of a new capability into any region.

M-142 Himars at Bagram Air Field Afghanistan ready to execute fire support mission. Photo via wikicommons

HIMARS battery live firing exercise code named Ex. Daring Warrior
by 23rd Battalion Singapore Artillery at Fort Sill,
 Oklahoma, USA, Nov 2010 Source : MINDEF

A Brief History of the Rocket and the Multiple Rocket Launcher

Illustration of Korean Rocket Launcher of the 1500s ( source : Wikipedia )


Ever since its invention by the ancient Chinese scientists sometime around the 13th century, the rocket, in its various forms, had been deployed as a weapon of war. The Chinese and Koreans had their own primitive version of the multiple rocket launcher which fired one or two hundred blackpowder projectiles upon ignition. For centuries since then, the rocket had remained largely for ceremonial use in fireworks and such.

Dr. Robert H. Goddard and a liquid oxygen-gasoline rocket
in the frame from which it was fired on March 16, 1926,
 at Auburn, Massachusetts ( source : Wikipedia )


It was not until the 20th century that modern rocketry was founded, with the American scientist Robert Goddard attaching a supersonic nozzle to the combustion chamber of a liquid-fueled rocket engine, increasing the efficiency of the rocket engine from 2% to 64%. He was also the first to launch a liquid-fueled rocket in the year 1926.


Replica of A WWII German V-2 Missile ( source : Wikipedia )


Since then advancement in rocket science has been rapid and relentless. With World War II came the production of new weapons such as the anti-tank rockets, tank, truck or ship mounted multiple launch rocket systems, air-to-ground rockets, rocket powered fighter planes, and the V-1 and V-2 missiles.

Post World War Two saw the development of multi-staged rockets that would evolve into launch vehicles for nuclear weapons. Eventually, these ballistic missiles were modified to launch artificial satellites into earth orbit and beyond, leading ultimately to the moon landing in 1969 and allowing for unmanned exploration of the inner solar system.

Modern Rocket Artillery

The first iron-cased metal cylinder rocket artillery were developed by Tipu Sultan, the Indian-Muslim ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, and his father Hyder Ali, in the 1780s. He successfully used these rockets against larger forces of the British East India Company during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. These Mysore rockets were more advanced than anything the British had at that time mainly because the iron tube that held the propellant powder allowed for a higher internal pressure to develop during combustion and achieve a higher thrust and therefore longer range.

The rocket was lashed with leather thongs to a long bamboo stick and had a range of perhaps three quarters of a mile ( 1.2km ). They were hurled into the air after being lighted or were allowed to skim along the surface of the dry ground. Although individually they were not in anyway accurate, their effect when deployed in mass numbers can still be devastating. They were particularly effective against the cavalry.

During the Battle of Seringapatam in 1792 and 1799, these iron rockets were used to considerable effect on the British. The eventual defeat of Tipu meant that the British captured a number of the rockets which deeply influenced subsequent rocket development, ultimately inspiring the Congreve Rocket which was used during the Napoleonic Wars, including the Battle of Waterloo, and other wars during the 19th century.

Russian Soldier Firing a Congreve Rocket. Source : Wikipedia

You can read about the fictionalised Battle of Seringapatam in Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's Tiger : Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Seringapatam (1799) where a young British Redcoat by the name of Pte Richard Sharpe fought the Tippu Sultan Army and eventually killed Tippu and horded some of his treasures.

Cover art of Sharpe's Tiger by Bernard Cornwell.

German 15 cm Nebelwerfer 41 launcher while reloading, 1943. ( source : German Archives / Wikipedia )
During World War II, it was the Germans and the Russians who developed and deployed large numbers of rocket artillery. The Germans had the Nebelwerfer series of towed rocket artillery although some were self-propelled ( Panzerwerfer ) and the Russians had their Katyusha series which were usually vehicle mounted and therefore more mobile. The Americans and British were late to develop their rocket forces with the US Army eventually mounting rocket launchers on top of modified M-4 Sherman Tanks. These were known as the T-34 Calliope rocket tanks. The US Navy however, made extensive use of rockets fired from warships and landing crafts during the Pacific War to soften up Japanese-held islands before an amphibious landing.


The T-34 Calliope Rocket Tank of the US Army during WWII. Source : Wikipedia


Since World War II, having seen the destructive firepower of rockets deployed in masses on area targets and the terrifying psychological effects the rockets bring about on the enemy, many nations have developed their own rocket artillery systems.

The Avibras ASTROS II

Saudi Arabian Astros II SS-30 launch during Operation Desert Storm ( source : Wikipedia )


The ASTROS II ( Artillery SaTuration ROcket System ) is made by Avibras Aerospatial SA of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Avibras has been manufacturing MLRS since the 1960s. In the early eighties, a middle-eastern country, believed to be Iraq, requested Avibras to develop a mobile modular MLR system and the result was the ASTROS II. It was used against Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Currently it is in operation with the Brazilian Army, Saudi Arabian Defense Force, the Malaysian Army, and the defense forces of Bahrain, Qatar, Angola and soon Indonesia. The ASTROS II is a battle-proven system which was also deployed by the Saudi Arabians during the first Gulf War in 1991 and by Angola in their civil war against the UNITA forces.

The ASTROS II is basically a self-propelled multiple rocket launcher mounted on an all-terrain 6x6 wheeled vehicle. It features modular design and employs rockets with calibre ranging from 127mm to 300mm. It is usually deployed in batteries consisting of 6 launcher vehicles with 6 ammunition resupply vehicles and a radar equipped fire control vehicle, all mounted on the same Tectran 6x6 chassis. Each resupply truck carries 2 complete reloads.

Malaysia bought 18 ASTROS II launchers in 2002 and another 18 in 2007. This will enable it to form 6 batteries in total.

The trucks can reach a maximum speed of 90km/h on the road and 40km/h over rough terrain. They are largely unarmoured, therefore do not provide much protection against enemy fire. They also do not provide protection against nuclear, biological and chemical agents. A 0.5in heavy machine gun is mounted on the roof of the cab for self-protection. They are equipped with 6 smoke grenade launchers. The entire system is air-portable on the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft which the Royal Malaysian Air Force also operates.

Saudi Arabian ASTROS II with SS-30 multiple rocket systems
 on Tectran 6x6 AV-LMU trucks, 1992. Photo via Wikicommons

Saudi Arabian ASTROS II firing SS-30 rocket, 1992. Photo via Wikicommons

ASTROS II TECTRAN AV-UCF fire control vehicle, Saudi Arabia, 1992 Photo : wikicommons

The ASTROS II launcher is capable of firing rockets of different calibre with different warheads. The SS-30 variant consist of 127mm rockets packed 32 rounds to a launcher and has a range between 9km to 30km. The SS-40 variant is made up of 180mm rockets packed 16 rounds per launcher with a range of 15km to 35km. The SS-60 and SS-80 variants pack 4 300mm rockets per launcher and have ranges of up to 60km for the SS-60 and 90km for the SS-80.
The warhead options include the traditional high explosive - fragmentation warheads, cluster munitions with multiple dual purpose ( anti-personnel , anti-armour ) bomblets, high explosive white phosphorous incendiary warheads, smoke deploying and mine deploying warheads, runway denial warheads and also chemical warheads.

The M-270 MLRS and Lockheed Martin M-142 HIMARS


US Army M-270 MLRS


Lockheed Martin / Vought Systems M-270 MLRS

The M-270 MLRS is an armoured, self-propelled, fully-tracked multiple launch rocket artillery system that was designed in the late 70's and in service with the US Army and several of its NATO and non-NATO allies since the early 80's. Production had ceased since 2003 when the last batch had been produced for Egypt.

It fires 227mm guided or unguided rockets packed 6 to a pod, 2 pods to each launcher. It can also fire the long range ATACMS ( Army TACtical Missile System ) ballistic missile one to each pod. It is a versatile weapons platform designed to supplement traditional tube artillery by delivering massive volumes of firepower in a short span of time against high value, time sensitive enemy targets under all weather conditions across the entire depth of the tactical battlefield. Some of these targets include enemy forward air defences, armoured units, artillery placements and personnel.  

Effective as it is, the M-270 is rather heavy at close to 25 tons. It can only be air lifted by the C-5A Galaxy, the C-17A Globemaster or the C-141 Starlifter heavy transport. Hence the development of a lighter wheeled version - the M-142 HIMARS ( High Mobility Artillery Rocket System ).

Danish M-270 MLRS in the rain and mud, 2003. Photo via wikicommons.

British Army M-270 firing practice rounds at Otterburn 2015. Photo via wikicommons.

German M-270 MLRS firing in 2013. Photo via wikicommons.

Awesome South Korean Army 5th Artillery Brigade M-270 night firing. Photo via wikicommons.

Awesome South Korean Army 5th Artillery Brigade M-270 night firing. Photo via wikicommons.

US Army MLRS Logo

Lockheed Martin M-142 HIMARS

The M-142 HIMARS is essentially a M-270 Lite. It shares many commonalities with its heavier cousin, using the same command, control and communications system, fire control system and launcher module. It carries one instead of two launcher pods and at about 11 tons is only half as heavy as the M-270. It is transportable by the C-130 medium transport ( roll-on roll-off ) and can be operationally deployed within 10 mins of landing.

Soldiers from Charlie Battery, 3/27 Field Artillery Regiment out of Fort Bragg, N.C., get ready to aim their High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) as part of the Rapid Force Projection Initiative field experiment (RFPI). This experiment is being used to test new equipment and its usefulness with the light forces in the field. Photo : US DOD

Himars : Preparing a rocket pod for undocking. Photo via wikicommons

M-142 Himars at White Sands Missile Range, 2005. Photo : Wikicommons
Two US Marines Himars. Photo : Wikicommons

Himars firing : Second Platoon, Battery B, 5th Bn, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment
 at Yakima Training Centre, Washington State, 2009. Photo : Wikicommons

Tennessee Army National Guard 1/181st Field Artillery Battalion's
 Himars on ANG C-130 Hercules. Photo via Wikicommons

Himars of the 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment loading onto
C-17 Globemaster Ex HI-RAIN 2014. Photo via wikicommons

It is mounted on a standard US Army Medium Tactical Vehicle which is actually a 6x6 all-wheel drive 5-ton truck and it can launch the entire Multiple Launch Rocket System Family of Munitions. Some of these include :

M26 Unguided 227mm rocket with 644 M77 DPICM* bomblets range up to 32km 
M26A1 Extended range with 518 M85 ( improved M77 ) bomblets range up to 45km
M30 GMRLS GPS guided rocket with 404 M85 submunitions range up to 60km
XM31 GMRLS guided rocket with unitary ( single warhead ) high explosive warhead range up to 70km
MGM-140 ATACMS precision tactical missile with up to 300km range

* DPICM = dual-purpose improved conventional munitions


The HIMARS has an armoured cabin and can travel at speeds of up to 94km/h on paved roads. It is usually operated by a crew of 3 but the automated fire control system can be managed by even a single crew member if necessary.

 The HIMARS is in service with the US Army, US Marines, UAE, Jordanian and Singapore Armed Forces. Singapore has acquired 18 launcher units with 32 XM31 unitary high explosive pods making the Singapore Armed Forces the first HIMARS operator outfitted entirely with GPS guided MLRS.

Himars of Delta Battery, 2nd Bn, 14th Marine Regiment
assigned to III Marine Expeditionary Force gets ready to fire
during Ex Ssang Yong 14, South Korea. Photo via Wikicommons

As above, Himars fires reduced range practice rounds. Photo via wikicommons

As above, the aftermath. Why you should avoid firing MLRS
 near vegetation and how every MLRS artillery corpsman
 had better be expert firefighters. Photo via wikicommons 



So in a head to head duel, which system will prevail?

There are plenty of similarities between the two MLRS. Some common features include :

Battle proven systems adopted by several countries

Wheeled chassis mounting for high mobility
Air portable by the C-130 Hercules / Embraer KC-390 or equivalent tactical transport planes
All-weather day and night capability
High volume of fire effective against area targets
Short ripple time reduces shoot to scoot interval

The ASTROS II's modular nature allows for rockets of different calibre to be deployed according to target type and range, in contrast to the HIMARS which fires rockets of fixed calibre, not counting the ATACM tactical missile.

The unmatched advantage of the M-142 HIMARS over the ASTROS II is the availability of GPS guided rockets. The GMLRS has a range of up to 70km and an improved version the GMLRS+ up to 120km. GPS guidance significantly increases the accuracy of the rocket and for the unitary version reduces collateral damage and civilian casualties. GMLRS has been nick named the 70km sniper for this long range precision capability.

At the end of the day, one must realise that the ASTROS II is an older system dating from 1983 and fires unguided rockets, though it is still a formidable artillery system at this day and age and should not be underestimated in anyway.

Until the ASTROS 2020 upgrade is completed and the system acquires the capability to fire the precision strike missile AV/MT-300 which has a range of 300km and a payload of 200kg not unlike the ATACM, I would consider the HIMARS a more advanced system.


Seems like 2016 is upon us and the world has moved on. The Avibras ASTROS 2020, sometimes known as the ASTROS III, is now a reality with the Brazilian Army. Unless otherwise stated, all ASTROS 2020 photos below were taken in June 2014 by Jorge Cardoso via Wikicommons.



Friday, 16 November 2012

What The Republic Of Singapore Air Force Should Acquire

This is a lay citizen's opinion of what the Air Force should be buying, based on information that is openly available over the web. The RSAF has recently acquired 24 Boeing F-15SG Strike Eagle to replace its McDonnell Douglas A-4SU fighter, 6 Sikorsky S70B naval helicopters to equip the Formidable class stealth frigates, 4 Gulfstream G550 Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft to replace the venerable Grumman E2C Hawkeye, 12 Alenia Aermacchi M-346 advanced jet trainer to replace the TA-4SU Skyhawk, 19 Pilatus PC-21 basic trainers to replace the SIAI-Marchetti S.211, IAI-Malat Heron 1 medium altitude long endurance UAV to replace the Searcher 2 UAV ... but there are more old hardware that are in need for replacement. For all we know, the Singapore Armed Forces may already be in the process of procuring some of these toys. Here's the list.

Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor ( USA )

F-22A Raptor Source : Wikipaedia


Proposed as a replacement for RSAF's ageing fleet of 49 1970s vintage Northrop F-5E and F5F Tiger II fighter. The F-5E is a modernised verion of the 1950 era F-5A Freedom Fighter, a low cost light weight fighter designed for export to the less developed allies of the US. They have been last upgraded 18 years ago in 1994 by ST Aerospace and designated F-5S and F-5T, and are probably near the end of their useful life.

The F-22A Raptor stealth fighter is the western bloc's most advance jet fighter. Apart from having the latest stealth technology, the F-22A has super-cruising capabilities and is super-maneuverable with thrust vectoring. It has internal bomb bays for beyond visual range ( BVR ) missiles, namely the Raytheon AIM-120 and is strike capable and compatible with the deployment of the 250 lb GBU-39 small diameter bomb ( SDB ). With its origins as the Advanced Tactical Fighter programme of the mid-80s, it was meant to be a one for one replacement of the F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter, to counter the Russian Su-27 and MiG-29 fighters then in development. However production has stopped after only 187 planes have been delivered to the USAF from an initial target of 750 planes. This was due to budget cuts, the then perceived lack of threats from delayed Russian and Chinese stealth fighter programmes and the impending availability of the then assumingly cheaper F-35 stealth fighter. The premature termination of production meant that the per unit cost of the F-22A escalated to a mind-bloggling USD 412 million. However should production be restarted for another 75 aircraft, it would probably cost the US government an additional USD 75 million a piece in a 2009 estimate. That's just USD 25 million more than a F-15SG.

Although Singapore has joined the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Programme as a Security Cooperative Participant ( for a grand sum of USD 10 million ), it is not something we should look forward to buying eventually. Recurring massive cost overruns have now pushed the unit cost of the 5th LRIP batch ( Low-Rate Initial Production ) F-35s to more than USD 200 million. This fighter has also been plagued by performance issues and has yet to complete many tests. It is many times less capable than the F-22 in many ways and has been estimated to cost USD 35000 in maintenance per hour of flight, much more than the F-16s and F-18s that it was supposed to replace.

The only catch with the F-22A is that there is currently a blanket federal export ban on this aircraft. Not even for a scaled down F-22EX export version for key allies of the United States. Hopefully the US will wise up and ditch the F-35 and restart production of the F-22. The USAF needs the original planned numbers of 700+ F-22 to counter the huge proliferation of 4th and 5th generation Russian and Chinese fighters all over the world. If only they could replace the planned 2443 F-35 purchase with F-22s and renounce the export ban, the F-22 could be much more affordable.

The F-22A Raptor, if inducted into the RSAF, would definitely be more than a match for Malaysia's Su-30MKM, Indonesia's Su-30MK2, Vietnam's Su-30MK2V or Thailand's JAS-39. It will ensure US and its close allies air superiority for many years to come.

Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Super Hercules

C-130J Super Hercules Source : Lockheed Martin


This latest stretched version of the venerable C-130 Hercules tactical transport is ideal to replace the 10 C-130H and KC-130B ( tanker version ) bought second hand since 1977. The J model looks similar to the older models externally but have new engines with all-composite six bladed propellers, new flight deck with digital avionics, countermaesures, HUDs and glass cockpits. The J model thus have enhanced performance in almost every field compared to the older models : 40% shorter take-off distance, 21% greater speed, 40% greater range. The stretched versions have a longer fuselage with the cargo floor length increased from 44ft to 55ft and can carry 128 equipped combat troops or 92 paratroopers. Crewed by just 2 pilots and a loadmaster, there is significant reduction in manpower requirements.

The C-130 has been in continuous production since 1954 and over 2300 has been built for 67 countries. Since the first delivery to the Royal Air Force in 1999, more than 300 C-130Js have been ordered. It has been configured as troop transport, aerial refueling tanker, aerial gunship, ECM platform, weather reconnaissance platform ( hurricane hunter ), fire fighter, search and rescue platform etc. Its ability to land and takeoff on unprepared runways is legendary. Many resupply flights to the scientific research bases in Antartica are made by C-130s which actually land and takeoff on ice runways.

Having these latest stretched Super Hercules will definitely increase the tactical airlift capabilities of the SAF while reducing the operational cost through better efficiency and reduced crewing.

Note : since RSAF's C-130s have just been upgraded by ST Aerospace recently, they may yet last a little longer before new transport aircraft needs to be procured.

Boeing KC-46A Aerial Refueling Tanker ( USA )

KC-46A refueling F/A-18 Hornets Source : Boeing


This wide body tanker is the intended replacement for another venerable aircraft - the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker of which some 732 had been built between 1957 and 1965 for the USAF. To this day, about 550 are still in active service with the USAF, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves. 4 of the upgraded KC-135R versions were sold to Singapore in 1997 to replace the ageing KC-130B Hercules Tanker and they have all been delivered by 1999. The KC-135s were a derivative of the Boeing 367-80 jet transport "proof of concept" demonstrator which the Boeing 707 civilian airliner also evolved from. As such, the KC-135 looks similar to the Boeing 707 but has a narrower and shorter fuselage. The KC-135 predates the 707 and even the youngest airframe is now 47 years old and urgent replacement is due.

So just how good is the KC-46A supposed to be? It is essentially a tanker variant of the Boeing 767-200LRF freighter, one of the most fuel-efficient aircraft in its class of wide bodied jet. It would be rather similar to the KC-767s operated by the Italian Air Force and Japanese Air Self Defense Force which are based on the Boeing 767-200ER freighter.

Apart from better fuel-efficiency and lower maintenance cost compared to the KC-135R, the KC-46 also fields an improved boom like the one found on the KC-10 Extender heavy tanker. It can carry thrice the fuel load, twice the passenger load and has a longer range. Add to that a digital flight deck taken from Boeing's latest 787 Dreamliner passenger jet and upgrading is a no-brainer.

Having just won the KC-X next generation tanker tender in the US in 2011, the KC-46A is understandably not yet available even to the USAF. The current contract calls for Boeing to deliver 18 KC-46A for initial operations in 2017. By the time the KC-46As can be made available for foreign sales, the KC-135Rs would have served the RSAF for more than twenty years, with airframes more than half a century old!

2013 latest : Singapore is the first foreign country to express an interest on the KC-46 Tanker ......

2014 Just In : RSAF will acquire 6 Airbus Military A330-200 MRTT ( Multi Role Tanker Transport ) to replace the ageing KC-135. It makes much sense as Singapore Airlines is currently flying the A330 as well and that will make the maintenance a lot easier. Also, the KC-46 can only be available after 2018 and RSAF, it seems, could not wait that long.

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper aka Predator B ( USA )

MQ-9 Reaper. Note AGM-114 Hellfire missiles on wing pylons. Source : Wikipedia


What would you look forward to after owning tactical UAVs like the Elbit Hermes-450 and medium altitude long endurance UAVs like the Heron-1? These unarmed UAVs are used mainly for surveillance and reconnaissance and lack the teeth to strike at the target. Although there are unofficial accounts of armed Hermes-450, there is only so much you can load on a small UAV with a 39KW engine.

Enter the MQ-9 Reaper. Also known as the Predator-B, the first thing you notice about the Reaper is that it is BIG. It has a wing span of 20m, twice that of the Hermes-450 and a troboprop engine rated at 671KW. It can carry a load of 1700kg ( about 360kg internally and 1360kg externally ). Its seven ordnance hardpoints can be configured to carry AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, 500lb GBU-12 Paveway laser guided bombs, 500lb GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions ( JDAM ), and feul tanks. Efforts are underway to adapt the MQ-9 for firing air to air missiles.

The Reaper has a maximum speed of close to 483km/h and a service ceiling of 16000m. It has an endurance of 14 hours when fully loaded and perhaps 42 hours maximum endurance with external fuel tanks. It is a force multiplier that compliments piloted strike aircraft.

Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow Block III ( USA )

Boeing AH-64D Apache Block III Source : Boeing


The AH-64 Apache is the most advanced multi-role combat helicopter of the United States and will remain its primary attack helicopter for decades, ever since the cancellation of its replacement, the RAH-66 Comanche stealth attack helicopter programme. Singapore operates a fleet of 20 AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters with the initial purchase of 8 helicopters dating back to 1998. These are most likely the Block II versions. With the latest Block III offering, there will be 26 new technological innovations that among other things, improve flight performance , lower maintenance costs, allow control of UAVs etc. Of course Singapore does not have to buy new-built AH-64D Block IIIs. The existing fleet of Block II Apaches can simply be sent back to Boeing's Mesa, Arizona facilities to be upgraded to Block III standard. This will be less costly than an outright purchase.