More Than a Fancy Rocket Launcher

By Arieh O'Sullivan

(The IDF has high hopes for its MLRS rocket system, which widens the technology gap between Israel and its foes)
Syrian armor pours through a breach in the border; Syrian artillery pounds Israeli forces. The radios at divisional headquarters squawk with reports and instructions to head off the onslaught.

Suddenly, technology comes to the rescue: The IDF's advanced Multiple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS) starts eliminating the enemy targets, one by one.

"In this exercise, we are simulating a Syrian attack on the Golan Heights," says artillery regiment commander Col. Yoram, at a recent exercise held at a Negev firing range.

It is for precisely this scenario that the IDF started procuring the MLRS four years ago.

Outgunned five-to-one on the Golan, the army sees these high-tech rocket launchers as its main answer to the 2,200 cannons in the Syrian arsenal.

The IDF has great confidence in the MLRS. During a time of tension along the Golan Heights last year, one general in the North boasted that the MLRS units "will know how to deal with most of the Syrian artillery."

Col. Yoram, who commands an artillery brigade that includes the MLRS units, is a bit more modest. But his prediction of the damage he would do the Syrians was censored.

THE MLRS is more than just a fancy rocket launcher. It is the manifestation of the growing technological gap between the IDF and its traditional foes, like Syria.

This is something Israeli generals and defense officials don't like to talk about, since they'd prefer to perpetuate the image of the IDF as a Shimshon der nebechdiker (Samson the weakling), a line that ensures a heavier flow of funding.

This year, the defense establishment expects to receive about NIS 36 billion.

It is taboo to speak openly of Egypt's vastly modernized military as a threat, since we are technically at peace with the Egyptians. But privately, most IDF commanders also look at our southern neighbor with concern.

ON the ground the IDF is generally outnumbered by its potential foes, since most of the IDF's divisions are reserve-based.

Until 1982 - in other words, during all previous wars fought between Israel and its Arab foes - conflicts were fought with comparable equipment.

In many cases, in fact, Arab tanks, artillery, and other weapons were superior to the IDF's.

The common assumption was that IDF ground forces were two to three times as effective as their Arab equivalents - that is to say, that Israeli soldiers were two to three times better than Arab ones, mainly due to better leadership, training, and tactics.

But as the 1991 Gulf War demonstrated, technology has had a dramatic impact on the Middle East battlefield. And this swings the pendulum heavily in Israel's favor.

According to Jane's Intelligence Review, even the lowest-quality tanks among the IDF's 4,600 - with their night-vision systems, digital fire control and advanced munitions - are superior to the vast majority of Arab tanks.

Jane's predicts that direct-fire engagements would be "little more than live-fire exercises."

The review says Israel has over 1,200 medium and heavy self-propelled artillery pieces, while in general, Arab armies remain dependent upon towed artillery. Moreover, the Arabs don't have the command, communication, and control (C/3) assets of the IDF, assets which increase the IDF's combat effectiveness four to five times.

Syria has some 1,630 pieces of towed artillery and another 450 self-propelled cannons. It also has about 480 rocket launchers and 26 Scud B and C launchers with about 1,000 warheads, according to Jane's.

According to an IDF general, the entire Golan Heights is covered by Syrian artillery, with scores of artillery battalions located there.

The IDF lacks the cannons of the Syrians; but it has the MLRS.

THE IDF paid for the US-manufactured MLRS, made by the Loral Vought company, with funds from the US's $1.8 billion annual defense grant.

The initial purchase, in 1994, included six launchers, 726 tactical rockets, and 720 practice rounds - worth $15 million, Jane's said. The following year 42 more launchers were bought.

Brig.-Gen. Eval Giladi of the Planning Branch confirmed that the IDF has 48 launchers, split up among a number of units.

Each training round is relatively expensive, and only a limited number are fired annually. The IDF's rounds are made up of a cluster warhead, which drops 644 "grenades," the aim of which is to inflict casualties and not necessarily destroy equipment.

"If we hit a target with 12 missiles, that's about 7,800 grenades going off," said Col. Yoram. "If you cause casualties, it means they need to devote more soldiers to evacuating and treating wounded, and that paralyzes them."

The US has developed a warhead which breaks up into bomblets, each capable of homing in on an enemy tank or armored vehicle. The Germans have a rocket which lobs mines deep behind enemy lines (up to 30 kilometers) that can be timed to go off as needed.

Col. Yoram said that the IDF has not yet purchased such weapons. .

"It's all a question of money. We'd like more, but there is no money. More batteries would be about the price of two new jets [$200 million].

War isn't cheap," he said, as he monitored the recent exercise.

Suddenly, the battalion command center came under "incoming artillery fire."

Orange smoke grenades were tossed to simulate an attack, and, within minutes, the crews had moved on to safer ground and resumed the counterattack.

LIKE every branch of the IDF, the artillery also has its "elite" units, which it promotes to attract conscripts. Artillery has never brimmed with volunteers, and most soldiers have found themselves pressed into service there.

But the introduction of the MLRS units has changed the picture somewhat, according to a very senior artillery commander.

"I heard about the MLRS from a friend who was in the unit, and I wanted it because it uses computers and other sophisticated systems in a field unit," said Sgt. Nimrod Ziv of Yavne, as he watched mechanics attempting to fix a hydraulic problem in his launcher.

Nearby, the crew of Sgt. Dan Rimon's launcher contemplated the number of the coveted missile-tube coverings they have collected.

"I've got four," said the shaggy-haired Rimon, explaining that each one represented a practice round he had fired in his two years in the army. "We hang them up in our barracks."

Initially, the IDF sent its MLRS crews to the US for training, but that stopped about two years ago, thus actually eliminating one of the reasons Rimon opted for the artillery corps.

"I still wanted to be in an elite unit and asked to be posted to the MLRS battalion," he said.

Rimon does not feel technology has taken over, saying their job is not just to press the "arm" and "fire" button, but to maneuver the launcher into shooting positions, evade incoming fire, and fix any malfunction.

"The MLRS allows us to fire from very long ranges at a wide variety of targets," said Col. Roman, a commander of a reserve MLRS unit.

"The weaponry is very sophisticated. The ammunition is very accurate and deadly.

"Everything is computerized, with a lot of sophisticated electronics. To operate it you need highly trained people."

Fighters in the MLRS units perform routine security duties as well. But it's a small country, and the troops can be quickly summoned to their launchers.

THE MLRS works against enemy artillery like this: The IDF's counter-battery radar system electronically locates the site of an enemy cannon, based on its rounds trajectory.

It quickly shuttles the information to the MLRS battalion commander and directly to the launcher itself. The launcher then programs itself to return fire.

"The 155 mm. cannons can do this too, but it takes them longer because the flow of data is not direct. On the MLRS, the soldiers don't have to punch in the quadrants. Everything is computerized and automatic," Col. Yoram explained.

The system is based on a global positioning system (GPS), a satellite navigation system. Senior artillery commanders dismissed the idea that this could undermine the apparatus, saying they don't foresee any failure of the electronics during a war.

To make the MLRS more effective, Israel is developing a hyper-accurate rocket. It has a range of 32 to 45 kilometers for its guidance system, which makes it better than the Americans'.

The in-flight control provides a greater level of accuracy, meaning that fewer rockets are required to neutralize a given target. It increases the number of missiles per battery, and makes it more economical.

Roman said the IDF has basically adopted the US Army doctrine on operating the MLRS, but has added its own Hebrew-language computer software.

"The Syrians saw [the Americans use it during] the Gulf War, and they know we have it," said Col. Roman. "I hope they are scared of it. But I can't say how that's affected their doctrine.

"They aren't stupid. They aren't going to put their artillery where they know we know they might put it.

"But," Roman added, "our MLRS will know how to deal with most of the Syrian artillery."

© Jerusalem Post 1999

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