MLRS units also took part in a number of artillery raids over the next month as the Allied air campaign ground down the Iraqis. During these raids, artillery units would sneak close to the forward lines, fire, and fall back before the enemy could respond. In a single raid, three MLRS batteries fired 287 rockets at 24 separate targets in less than five minutes. The amount of firepower unleashed in that short span would have taken a cannon battalion well over an hour to fire. When the ground forces attacked on February 24, the M270s went with them. As the U.S. VII Corps advanced, it massed its artillery to punch its way through the Iraqi line, firing 11,000 cannon rounds and 414 rockets. This had such a profound effect on the defending Iraqis that the lead American unit, the 1st Infantry Division, met no real opposition when it assaulted.
The attack continued on the 25th. One American officer recorded, “The MLRS fires lit the sky and invigorated our soldiers as much as it disheartened the enemy.” A captured Iraqi artillery officer stated his battery had fired only one missile before bomblets covered his position, killing two-thirds of his men and destroying the majority of his guns. His surviving troops immediately deserted. When asked to explain why they had surrendered, numerous Iraqis said: “No more rockets” and “Please stop the iron rain.” The MLRS was particularly useful in knocking out enemy artillery positions; some units reported no attacks by enemy artillery at all. By war’s end, 6,000 of the 57,000 artillery rounds fired were MLRS rockets; 32 ATACMS were fired as well. The MLRS had exceeded expectations in its first combat use, proving even more effective than the Army had estimated.
MLRS in the Post-Cold War Era
After the Gulf War, the Army experienced a large reduction in its size and budget throughout the 1990s, which led to extensive reorganization. MLRS batteries were reduced in size to six launchers each, and many launchers were given to National Guard units to replace their aging 8-inch and 155mm howitzers. Despite dwindling financial support, research continued to improve the M270 series. Experience in the Middle East had shown that, although the weapon possessed great firepower, it needed to shoot farther, which led to the introduction of the M26A1 rocket, with an extended range of 45 kilometers. A practice rocket lacking bomblets, the M28A1, was designed to reduce the cost of live fire training; troops jokingly call it the “telephone pole.” During the present decade, work also began on rockets with GPS guidance and a single “unitary” warhead instead of submunitions for precision strikes. Similar improvements were begun for the ATACMS. The newer missiles have a range double that of the original. The German and British militaries have adapted the AT2 rocket to dispense antitank mines.
The launcher itself was upgraded as well. Its electronics, vintage late-1970s technology, were replaced with newer GPS and digital instrumentation, increasing accuracy and reducing the time needed to get the weapon into action. The new launcher was designated the M270A1 and it works with the Army’s new digital systems.
The improved MLRS would be put to the test in March 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In this return engagement with Iraq, the MLRS performed well once again, although adaptations were necessary. The threat of Iraqi airstrikes and artillery fire was quite low. Instead, the danger came from guerilla-style attacks by enemy troops equipped with small arms and RPG handheld antitank weapons. The standard doctrine of spreading out only made the launchers more vulnerable. To counter this threat, many MLRS units abandoned the concept and stayed together for mutual support, forming ad hoc mobile firebases.
The combination of GPS guidance and the unitary warhead has kept the MLRS useful as the Iraq War of 2003 has evolved into a grinding fight against the Iraqi insurgency. Civilian casualties and “collateral damage” are unacceptable both politically and ethically in such a situation; the M26 rocket with its hundreds of bomblets is simply unusable. Bomblet-dispensing munitions, including the MLRS, have one major disadvantage in the contemporary environment: dud submunitions. The MLRS has a dud rate of 2 percent, giving the M26 rocket an average of 12 or 13 bomblets that will fail to explode; some estimates place the dud rate even higher. Since most of the fighting has taken place in populated areas, large numbers of bomblets have been left in fields and trees and on top of buildings, resulting in civilian casualties when Iraqis unwittingly find and handle them. In truth, the MLRS is far from the only bomblet-dispensing weapon in use, and there is a lot more leftover Iraqi ordnance lying around than dud allied munitions. The unitary warhead helps solve both the dud problem and allows for the precision attacks that have come to characterize American strikes, giving artillery units ability previously only available from aircraft. The first combat use of the weapon came during September 2005 at Tal Afar. Two rockets were fired from a range of over 50 kilometers at a pair of insurrectionary strongholds. Both rockets hit their targets, killing 48 insurgents.
Counting the United States and the NATO countries that helped develop it, some 13 nations currently use the MLRS, including Israel, South Korea, Egypt, and Norway. Many of these nations have simply bought launchers and rockets directly from the United States while others have undertaken production on their own. Since many thousands of Soviet-pattern MLRs are in service around the globe, the MLRS is not the world’s most numerous rocket system, although it is likely the most widely used Western launcher in current service.
Given the large costs of creating such weapons, the M270 MLRS can be expected to soldier on for the foreseeable future with occasional technical updates and improved ammunition. As part of the U.S. Army’s efforts toward lighter, more easily transportable weapons, it is developing the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), a truck-mounted version of the MLRS. It is expected the new weapon will supplement and partially replace the M270A1.
For the time being, the MLRS still provides an effective rocket system for U.S. armored units. Created as an answer to the Cold War menace of the now-defunct Soviet Union, the M270 was never used against the Russians, but instead saw extensive and unexpected combat in the Middle East. In doing so, the MLRS has shown itself to be a vital link in the Army’s artillery force, its combat record both versatile and deadly.
Originally Published October 30, 2018.
This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.