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Why the HIMARS is so difficult to target
Just seconds after the stroke of midnight on December 31, in the early moments of 2023, a US-made M-142 HIMARS (highly mobile artillery rocket system), operated by the Ukrainian armed forces, fired off a pod of six Guided Multiple Rocket Launch System (GMLRS), each with a 200-pound unitary high-explosive warhead that is guided to its target using GPS, toward the 19th Vocational School in the town of Makeevka. At the school, soldiers from the Russian Ministry of Interior’s 20th Special Forces Detachment and 360th Communications Training Regiment, along with freshly mobilized Russian soldiers assigned to the 631st Regional Training Center of the Russian Missile Troops and Artillery Forces, were celebrating the arrival of the new year. The troops, numbering more than 400 in total, barely had time to get off a congratulatory toast when four of the GMLRS rounds slammed into the school building, levelling it (two other GMLRS rockets were successfully engaged and shot down by Russian air defense.)
The initial casualty reports issued by the Russian Ministry of Defense put the number of dead Russian soldiers at 63; that number later climbed to 89 as more bodies are discovered, and it is anticipated that this number could go higher.
Almost immediately, Russian social media blogs and channels were abuzz with criticism and condemnation of the Russian high command, demanding accountability for the Makeevka disaster. Questions about why the Russian leadership allowed such a concentration of forces to take place in such a vulnerable, easily identifiable location were followed by more asking why the Russian military, some six months after the HIMARS system was introduced into Ukraine, was still unable to interdict these launches, abounded.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a commission to be formed to investigate the Makeevka disaster, and it is to this commission that answers regarding the decision to concentrate Russian troops in the 19th Vocational School will hopefully be found.
Scott Ritter will discuss this article and answer audience questions on Episode 34 of Ask the Inspector.
As to the question of why the Russian military has failed to successfully interdict the Ukrainian HIMARS system, history provides the answer: mobile relocatable targets, such as mobile missile and artillery systems, are extremely difficult to locate and successfully target. While offering no solace to the families of the slain Russian servicemembers, the failure of the Russian armed forces to interdict the Ukrainian HIMARS echoes similar failures by the US and Great Britain in World War Two, targeting the German V-1 and V-2 rockets, and the United States during Operation Desert Storm targeting Iraqi SCUD launchers.
In early 1943, British intelligence began receiving reports regarding the development of a new class of weapons—rockets and missiles—by Nazi Germany which were intended to strike targets on the British Isles. In response, the British formed a special task force, known as Bodyline, to investigate the issue. By August 1943 the Bodyline organization had identified a German facility near the East Prussian town of Peenemunde as the likely source of production of these weapons, and in September 1943 the British carried out a long-range bombing attack on the Peenemunde facility which failed to knock it out of service.
As intelligence was gathered that indicated that the Germans were pressing ahead with the development of their new weapons, Bodyline was transferred over to the British Air Ministry, where it was renamed Crossbow. Crossbow was initially an intelligence collection and assessment unit, using specially modified Spitfire aircraft to carry out low-level photo reconnaissance missions designed to locate facilities and structures that might indicate that these new weapons, known as the V-1 and V-2, were being readied for use.
With the assistance of the French Resistance, the Crossbow photographic analysts identified several strange new structures for which no known purpose could be assessed. The confusion evaporated on June 13, a few days after the June 6 D-Day Normandy invasion, when the Germans launched the first of thousands of V-1 flying rockets into Great Britain, the majority of which were aimed at London. The V-1 made a loud noise when flying and flew slow enough to be discernable to the eye, enabling British anti-aircraft gunners and fighter aircraft to successfully intercept hundreds before they reached their target.
In October 1944, the Germans launched the first V-2 rocket toward England. Unlike the V-1, the V-2 was silent, and flew to fast to be either seen or intercepted. The combined impact of the V-1 and V-2 attacks on British morale was enough for the British government to make the location and interdiction of the launch sites and support facilities of these rockets the top priority of the British air force; eventually, more than 40% of all British bomber sorties flown during the Second World War were in support of V-1 and V-2 interdiction, with negligible results.
The V-1 and V-2 rockets killed thousands of persons, mainly civilians, in England, Belgium and the Netherlands. The greatest loss of life came from a V-2 rocket which struck a movie theater in newly liberated Antwerp, Belgium, on December 15, 1944. 567 persons were killed, most of them soldiers, and another 200 were injured.
The British tried numerous technological innovations, including special radars, electronic jamming devices, and new anti-aircraft artillery munitions, to defeat the V-1 and V-2 rockets. However, the Germans were able to avoid detection and destruction by remaining always on the move, and the V-1 and V-2 rockets only stopped firing when allied forces occupied the last firing sites, less than a month away from the end of the war.
The Great SCUD Hunt
In January 1991, the United States found itself facing off against the progeny of Germany’s V-2 rocket during Operation Desert Storm, when Iraq fired scores of missiles against targets in Israel and the Arabian Peninsula. Known as the Al Hussein, this rocket was an indigenously modified Soviet-manufactured SS-1 SCUD missile, itself derived from the reverse engineering of the V-2 by the Soviets at the end of World War Two.
The Al Hussein missile could be launched from fixed launchers located in western Iraq, from Soviet transporter-erector launchers (TELs) consisting of eight-wheeled chassis outfitted with a launch arm, or from an Iraqi-made trailer with a launch arm mounted on it and pulled by a truck. While The Iraqis never used the fixed arm launchers in combat, they did have 19 mobile launchers, which they organized into two separate brigades.
While the destructive capability of the Al Hussein was limited (to reach the range needed to strike its targets, the warhead had been reduced to around 1,000 pounds), and its accuracy was abysmal, the Al Hussein could be fitted with warheads containing either chemical and biological agent and, as such, were deemed by Israel to represent an existential threat to its survival. While President George H. W. Bush had assembled a powerful and diverse coalition of nations to confront Iraq following its August 1990 invasion and occupation of Iraq, the fact that many of the allied forces came from Muslim nations openly hostile to Israel, and that the US-led coalition was based primarily in Saudi Arabia, meant that if Israel were to enter the war—something Israel threatened to do if attacked by Iraqi missiles—then the coalition would fall apart, and Iraq would emerge victorious. When Iraq fired several Al Husseins at Israel on January 19, 1991, only the furtive promise on the part of President Bush and his senior advisors that the US would do everything in its power to stop the Iraqi missile launches kept Israel at bay.
The US-led coalition eventually flew more then 2,500 combat missions targeting the Iraqi SCUD missiles, and deployed scores of British Special Air Service (SAS) and American Delta Force commandos on the ground in what became known as the Great SCUD Hunt.
No SCUD missiles were destroyed by the coalition during the entire conflict.
The US also deployed numerous Patriot air defense batteries to the Arabian Peninsula and Israel to shoot down the Iraqi Al Hussein missiles.
Not a single Al Hussein was successfully intercepted by the Patriot system.
The Iraqis were able to use the mobility of the Al Hussin system, together with effective camouflage and concealment coupled with the innovative use of realistic decoys, to fool coalition intelligence systems, which included some of the most sophisticated imaging platforms and radar devices in existence and the time.
The failure to either interdict or intercept the Al Hussein had tragic consequences. On February 25, 1991, a single Al Hussein missile struck a warehouse in the Saudi Arabian port city of Dharan that had been converted into a barracks for a Pennsylvania National Guard unit. The Patriot missile batteries defending Dharan failed to engage the missile, and the resulting explosion killed 27 soldiers and wounded 89 others—the greatest single loss of life suffered by the coalition during the entirety of Operation Desert Storm.
The Counter HIMARS Campaign
Seen in this context, the HIMARS system represents a targeting challenge to Russian forces that is the modern-day equivalent of both Operation Crossbow and The Great SCUD Hunt. When the Russian-Ukraine conflict is over, and all of the data associated with both the employment of the HIMARS by Ukraine, and the methodologies used by Russia to interdict and intercept the HMARS rockets becomes clear, the Counter HIMARS Campaign will more than likely add yet another chapter in the annals of difficulties associated with targeting mobile relocatable targets such as the V-1 and V-2 rockets and the Iraqi Al Hussein.
Ukraine is said to be employing realistic HIMARS decoys to confuse the Russians, which might explain the disparity between the number of HIMARS claimed killed by Russia, and Ukraine’s ability to continue effectively employing the system in combat. The Ukrainian tactic appears to be quite successful at fooling Russian surveillance systems, including drones, and ends up absorbing expensive Russian precision strike weapons such as the Caliber cruise missile, leaving the actual HIMARS unscathed.
Likewise, while Russian air defense systems enjoy some success against the HIMARS rockets, it is clear that Ukraine is able to overcome the defenses by firing less accurate rockets from other multiple launch rocket systems, compelling Russian air defense to engage, allowing at least some of the more advanced, and more accurate, HIMARS rockets to penetrate through to their target.
The fact of the matter is that the Russians will more than likely not be able to fully interdict or intercept the Ukrainian HIMARS, meaning that, as was the case with the V-1 and V-2 rockets of World War Two, the only way to silence HIMARS is to defeat the Ukrainian military on the ground, and thereby destroying and/or capturing the HIMARS system.