Army Plans To Double Guided Artillery Rocket's Range By Putting Control Fins On Its Tail

Moving the control surfaces from the nose to the tail allows the weapons to be more aerodynamic and strike the enemy nearly 90 miles away.

US Army

The U.S. Army has begun flight tests of a new variant of its 227mm guided artillery rocket that could eventually hit targets out to a maximum range of more than 85 miles. The new design will significantly increase the capability of the service’s tracked and truck-mounted launchers and comes amid a surge of artillery developments intended to help American troops defeat potential near-peer opponents, such as Russia, in a major conflict.

Earlier in June 2018, the Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) disclosed the successful test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, which had occurred months earlier. During this experiment, the rocket hit a target around 70 miles away, but the goal is to extend that range by at least another 15 miles.

“The flight test couldn't have gone better,” Brett Wilks, the head of the Tail Controlled Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (TC-GMLRS) project at AMRDEC, said afterward. “We collected massive amounts of in-flight data on sub-component performance and environment conditions that will be very useful to the entire MLRS Family of Munitions.”

As its name would imply, the improved rocket design has its flight control surfaces in the tail. The existing Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) rocket has its control section in the nose, which the Army has found limit the maximum range of the weapon.

GMLRS, which has a maximum range of around 43 miles, first entered production in 2003. The Army, along with the Marines, who also employ the weapon, has since been working on a joint project to extend its range.

With the fins on the tail, the new version of the rocket can be much more aerodynamic, helping it to fly further. It’s not clear whether TC-GMLRS will feature an improved motor, as well. The weapon does require a new guidance package to account for the change in position of the control fins.

The improved rockets still use a GPS/INS guidance system to steer them to their targets, limiting them to engaging static targets. In the future, the Army could potentially consider adding in a laser-guidance package, especially since there is now free space in the nose. This could allow troops on the ground, as well as manned or unmanned aircraft, to cue the weapons to engage moving targets, but could again impact its overall range.

So far, it appears that the design with the tail-mounted control surfaces is just as accurate as the existing type. In the March 2018 flight test, the prototype TC-GMLRS rocket, which did not have a live warhead in it at the time, plowed almost straight down into the ground within two meters of the designated target.

US Army

Members of the Army's TC-GMLRS team stand next to the hole the prototype weapon left at White Sands Missile Range right next to the marker indicating the intended impact point.

AMRDEC employed an M270 tracked launcher to conduct the experiment, but the rocket will work with the truck-mounted M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), as well. The added range significantly expands the total target area that both systems can cover, making them more flexible, even in smaller numbers, and able to rapidly refocus from providing fire support in one area to another without necessarily having to relocate.

For HIMARS, the improved rockets could be especially important when combined with the system’s existing mobility and air-portability. The Army, as well as the Marines, trains to rapidly deploy these truck-mounted launchers via U.S. Air Force cargo planes and quickly get them into action to support distributed and expeditionary operations.

The added range would only expand the number of potential locations where aircraft could drop the vehicles off. It could also reduce the total time it might take to get the launchers into position, which could be particularly important for engaging time-sensitive or otherwise fleeing targets before they can relocate.

In May 2018, the Army used HIMARS to level a building in Afghanistan where approximately 50 Taliban leaders were meeting. This highlighted the value of the existing system as a way to rapidly respond to actionable intelligence, as well as requests for fire support from troops.

TC-GMLRS could give the Army and Marines a better tool to strike deeper into hostile territory to rain death and destruction down on enemy forces well behind the front lines, especially at forward bases and other assembly areas. The extra range also means American artillery units can provide fire support with less of a threat of immediate counterattack from hostile forces.

The Army says this latter point was a particularly important factor in the development of the longer-range 227mm rocket. The service says it has identified nearly 70 foreign rocket artillery systems – including those in the hands of non-state actors – that have a range that is the same or greater than that of GMLRS. Potential opponents, such as Russia and China, are also developing guidance kits for these systems that could make them even more effective.

Russian rocket artillery has been a major factor in keeping Ukrainian forces from retaking positions from separatists and could help them control constrained environments in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions during any future crisis. China could use these weapons, combined with its longer-range anti-ship cruise missiles and air defense systems, to further dominate areas it controls in the Pacific, especially in the South China Sea.

Smaller nation-states and non-state groups, such as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, increasingly have access to powerful rocket artillery systems. This means that TC-GMLRS will be an important weapon in any limited conflict, too. In addition to supporting operations in Afghanistan, HIMARS has proven to be invaluable in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria just with the existing GMLRS rockets.

“We've got to push the maximum range of all systems under development for close, deep and strategic, and we have got to outgun the enemy,” U.S. Army General Robert Brown, head of U.S. Army Pacific Command, declared at panel discussion at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Global Force Symposium in March 2018, the same month as the TC-GMLRS test. “We don't do that right now; it's a huge gap. ... We need cannons that fire as far as rockets today. We need rockets that fire as far as today's missiles, and we need missiles out to 499 kilometers [approximately 310 miles].”

Depending on how many components the TC-GMLRS shares with the existing rockets, it could be one of the more cost-effective initiatives the Army is pursuing. The service is also looking into a variety of other artillery weapons, including ramjet-powered shells for its howitzers, new short-range quasi-ballistic missiles, and even ground-based railguns.

US Army

The TC-GMLRS rocket right after launch during the initial flight test in March 2018.

And in addition to the Army and Marines, the improved rockets are likely to be of interest to other U.S. allies and partners who operate both the tracked M270 and wheeled M142 already. This could help spread the cost burden of procuring batches of new, tail-controlled rockets in the future.

It’s not clear when the TC-GMRLS might be ready for production for any customer. though. The service hasn’t said when the second flight test, which will see the weapon fly to its maximum range of around 86 miles, will occur.

The Army is clearly making significant strides in the project, which looks set to make its rocket artillery units, and their cousins in the Marine Corps, even deadlier than they are already.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com