Official Story On The Rockets The Army Fired At A Ship During RIMPAC Doesn't Add Up

Artillery soldiers reportedly used short-range practice rockets when even standard types wouldn't have had the range to reach the target area.

US Army

There have already been a number of notable instances where the U.S. military and its allies have demonstrated new and emerging capabilities during the latest iteration of the U.S. Navy’s biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise, or RIMPAC. But the available details about one notable portion of the event, the U.S. Army’s use of 227mm guided artillery rockets to help sink a decommissioned ship, simply don’t make sense.

On July 12, 2018, a number of RIMPAC participants employed various missiles, as well as the rockets, and finally torpedoes, to send the ex-USS Racine, a retired Newport-class landing ship tank amphibious vessel, to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Elements of the Army’s 17th Field Artillery Brigade, based at Joint Base Lewis–McChord in Washington State, were the ones to employ the truck-mounted M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, during this portion of the exercise.

“Thank you for reaching out regarding the recent SINKEX [sinking exercise] at RIMPAC,” U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Julie Holland, a spokesperson for the RIMPAC Combined Information Bureau Media Cell, wrote in an Email in response to a request for more information about this event from The War Zone on July 19, 2018. “I can confirm that all the HIMARS rounds were Reduced Range Practice Rounds, known as RRPR rounds.”

The only problem is that this physically can't have happened. The U.S. Navy towed the ex-Racine to a spot approximately 55 nautical miles, equivalent to more than 60 regular “statute” miles, from the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The blunt-nosed RRPR, which the Army developed specifically for use in constrained training areas, has a maximum range of approximately 10 miles and contains no guidance system or warhead whatsoever. 

What appears to be the HIMARS rockets impacting near the target area can be seen beginning at around 2:00 in the runtime of the video below.

It's also worth noting that, even when using standard 227mm GPS-guided rockets, HIMARS can only hit targets at distances up to around 50 miles at the very most, which still wouldn't necessarily have given the Army artillery troops the range they needed to reach the ex-Racine's floating hulk.

Video the Navy released, seen above, also seems to indicate that none of the rockets hit their mark, or at least directly. This would seem to call into question the practicality of using a weapon with a unitary warhead and only GPS and Inertial Navigation System guidance against even a stationary target at sea. 

At present, there are no public plans to integrate a data-link, laser guidance package or imaging infrared or radar seekers to the 227mm rockets, which could drastically improve its utility against ships at sea and moving targets in general. It might be possible to use rockets with cluster munitions or special fragmentation warheads to increase the probability of the weapon affecting its target, at least to some degree, which could result in a mission kill or suppression of combat activities. This would make particular sense for countering an attempted amphibious operation.

US Army

Rockets, at top, and Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missiles, below, available or in development for the tracked Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and truck-mounted HIMARS as of 2016.

After we followed up, Holland again confirmed that the doomed landing ship was indeed 55 miles offshore and that the Army fired only RRPRs. When we asked about the discrepancy, she indicated that we would have to follow up against with the Army. We subsequently reached out to the public affairs office for the Army's I Corps, the unit that oversees the 17th Field Artillery Brigade’s parent organization, the 7th Infantry Division.

An I Corps public affairs officer then referred us to another individual with the brigade itself for further clarification. At the time of writing, a week after our initial inquiry, we have not yet received any additional information about the use of HIMARS during RIMPAC.

What we do know is that the 17th’s 1st Battalion, 94th Field Artillery fired at least five 227mm rockets of some type at the ex-Racine from the Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands on Kauai. A standard ammunition pod for the HIMARS system contains six rockets, which could indicate that one of them failed or was otherwise grossly off target.

It’s also clear that RIMPAC 2018 was a major opportunity for the HIMARS crews, as well as other Army personnel. For instance, it was the first time an element of the 17th had been under the control of a Navy commander as part of a larger joint force.

It was the first time MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones from the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, situated in Hawaii, had worked as part of a so-called “Multi-Domain Task Force” together with units from other U.S. services and partner nations on land and at sea, as well. Together with an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, the unmanned aircraft supplied targeting information to the HIMARS crew, as well as American and Japanese shore-based missile launchers, as well. 

The Gray Eagle then monitored the situation as the missiles and rockets impacted, continuing to sharing information all the while via its Link 16 data link to Army and other units. "Soldiers crowd around the television screen in the TAC [tactical command post] as they watch the feed ... The target is a decommissioned naval vessel also known as ex-USS Racine … it's a good hit!" the Army described in a subsequent news story.

US Army

An MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone.

“We are an asset the Navy and our joint services can utilize,” U.S. Army Colonel Chris Wendland, the commander of the 17th Field Artillery Brigade, told the service’s reporters earlier in July 2018. “What our maritime adversaries conducting this exercise are looking for are other ships or submarines as threats. What they are not looking for is the Multi-Domain Task Force, our ground forces, who can acquire the target and fire upon it using land-based surface-to-ship missiles, then be able to move freely.”

The ability of Army units to work together seamlessly with other services and allied units during distributed operations is especially important for any potential crisis in the Pacific region, as we at The War Zone have explored in depth on multiple occasions. At the same time, HIMARS has continued to present itself as an increasingly viable tool for supporting those operations on land and at sea, with the U.S. Marine Corps having now successfully test fired the system from the deck of an amphibious assault ship. Using unmanned aircraft to help spot and monitor targets for ground-based stand-off weapons, and even provide information to cue those shells, rockets, and missiles directly onto a target, is likely to become an increasingly common part of U.S. military operations, as well.

With all this in mind, it would make sense for the Army to also use RIMPAC to experiment with longer-range versions of the 227mm guided artillery rocket, which would be especially useful in the open expanses of the Pacific. In June 2018, the service disclosed that it was working on just such as variant, the Tail Controlled Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, or TC-GMLRS, which has already hit a test target at a range of approximately 70 miles.

In announcing the success of the TC-GMLRS experiment, the Army also noted that a second flight test would be coming, though it didn’t say when it would occur specifically. It seemed very possible, given the distances involved, that HIMARS units at RIMPAC had employed this particular round during the exercise, which is why we asked what ammunition they had used in the first place.

If the Army didn’t fire TC-GMLRS rockets, it seems almost certain that they used some other extended-range type or otherwise employed the launchers from a position closer to the landing ship. It seems difficult to believe that the service would have used the shorter range practice rockets in this case for any reason.

If the HIMARS crew did employ RRPRs, the exercise would have allowed them to go through the motions of receiving the targeting information and performing a "multi-domain" fire mission against the ex-Racine. It would not have given the Army an opportunity to actually gauge the weapon's effectiveness against a naval target, though.

US Army

One of the few pictures of artillery troops from the 17th Field Artillery brigade and their HIMARS launcher at RIMPAC 2018. Curiously, it appears to show only three rounds loaded in the ammunition pod.

It’s unclear when we may get clarification on these particular points, though. As journalists who cover the U.S. military have felt increasingly compelled to point out, there has been a steady decrease in the quantity and quality of official responses to inquires. This has impacted the release of even relatively basic information that the U.S. military has readily given out in the past without any impact on operational security. 

We will, of course, be sure to give an update on the Army’s contributions to the ex-Racine SINKEX when we learn more about this important demonstration of the service’s ability to take on enemy ships in a littoral environment.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com