Steel Rain: The Greatest Rocket Artillery

With a fantastic gun artillery system like the PzH 2000, one might wonder why we’d need anything else. Gun artillery is great at providing sustained striking power. To increase the destruction, you need more howitzers and more time, especially considering the cost of modern self-propelled howitzers. Sometimes you need a lot of destruction all at once. Sometimes, you catch the enemy with his guard down, and you really want to hit with a big haymaker and frontload your striking power all at once. For that, you want rocket artillery.

The first big users of (modern) rocket artillery were the Soviets, who used it to great effect against the Germans on the Eastern front. Rocket artillery hit really hard and was pretty cheap, since all you needed were rails on the back of a Studebaker truck. The rockets themselves were pretty simple too. Say what you like about the Russians, but they learn from their successes, and they continue to be a world leader in rocket artillery systems, with their flagship being the BM-30 Smerch. Being blatant copycats of the Russians, the Chinese are also big rocket artillery producers and they currently produce the biggest rocket artillery system available in the 400 mm WS-2. But we’re not talking about either of those systems. No, the best rocket artillery system is the American M270.

The M270 was designed in 1977, when the US Army remembered that the M4 Sherman Calliope rocket artillery was actually kinda helpful, and gee, if those Soviets had so many stupid rocket artillery systems, maybe we should get some too. It’s built on a Bradley chassis that’s been so heavily modified as to be almost unrecognizable. It’s more like the bastard spawn of a Bradley and a flatbed truck. The M270 has a crew of 3, a 500 hp diesel engine, and an operational range of 640 km. It carries twelve 227mm rockets, and can launch them all in under 40 seconds.

Big rockets like the 227mm units on the M270 are designed with cluster munitions in mind. The standard loadout is 644 Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM) per rocket. These are basically shaped charge submunitions with a fragmentation shell. The basic rocket has a range of 32 km. Variant rocket types are available with improved range at the cost of fewer submunitions (518 DPICMs and a range of 45 km). Other options include GPS guidance, a big unitary warhead variant, and a variant equipped with the high-end guided SADARM (Sense and Destroy ARMor) submuntion.

SADARM can be fired from rockets or 155mm artillery shells. It works by using a system of parachutes to slow its fall while it scans the area below it with both millimeter wave radar and an infrared optical system. If it detects an armored vehicle, it can be steered toward the target by altering its rate of spin. Once over the target vehicle, it deploys an explosively formed penetrator. It’s pretty lethal, sort of a “quality” alternative to the “quantity” attack option of DPICM.

The big DPICM attack option is pretty formidable. In the first Persian Gulf War, the British found that a single M270 could basically kill everything in a 1 km by 1 km grid square on a general’s map. This is pretty cool, but none of this is really unique to the M270. For those that are cool with cluster munitions still (yes, this includes Russia and China, and Borgundy too), the Russians and Chinese offer rockets of equal size or larger that can carry all kinds of submunition payloads. Satellite guidance is also something they can do, as is fancy guided antitank submuntions.

It should be noted that the big 300mm rockets of the BM-30 and the 400mm rockets of the WS-2 can both carry more submunitions, since they’re bigger. The big advantage of the M270 is that it can also launch the MGM-140 ATACMS short range ballistic missile. It can carry a pair of these instead of the dozen 227 mm rockets. Again, ATACMS can be equipped with submunitions or a unitary warhead, and GPS guidance is available. Not that we’ve tried, but you could put a small nuclear warhead1 in without too much trouble. Range is basically constrained only by the pesky MTCR. So the M270 provides both a standard rocket artillery capability and an SRBM capability in the same vehicle. It’s more or less equivalent to both the Russian BM-27 and Iskander systems, if you could combine those.

Production of the M270 ended in 2003. If there was one unit I’d like to restart the production lines for, it’d be the M270. Maybe we can make a deal, Fishbreath?

1.) The W84 seems like a good choice for a “physics package.” If you wanted destabilizing, anyway.

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