Australia considers its LAND 8113 Long Range Fires options
Skulking amid the islets of the Banda Sea, the Kamarian mothership figured it was so distant from Northern Australia as to be unnoticed and hence able to continue dispatching small vessels to attack Timor Sea oil and gas facilities.
Distant, yes, but unnoticed? No. Streaking from the Australian mainland at several times the speed of sound, the missile arrived so fast the Kamarian radar operator barely had time to express surprise before his ship’s bridge and combat information centre disintegrated in a flaming ball of fire.
This ability to reach out with precision missiles and destroy targets far beyond Australian territory is an emerging and revolutionary Army capability.
Once, Army gunners could lob artillery shells around 30 kilometres. For any need to go further, they had to call in the RAAF.
So just how revolutionary is this?
According to the Director of War Studies at the Australian Army Research Centre, Albert Palazzo, “LAND 8113 Long Range Fires is a momentous acquisition program for the Australian Army. I believe it will revolutionise the Army’s way of war, as well as the land force’s place in the strategic defence of the nation; its effect on defence capability will be transformative.
“At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I suggest it is not too far to say that the significance of precision Long Range Fires on the character of war will likely rank with the introduction of the airplane and the tank,” he added.
Army hasn’t disclosed quite how it plans to proceed under Project LAND 8113 and, at time of writing, Defence hadn’t responded to ADBR’s questions.
However, on August 12, Defence Minister Peter Dutton announced that Australia would join the US in development of the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), contributing $70 million towards the $907 million program cost (see page 29 this issue).
The Minister said a recent Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Australian Army and the US Military cemented this collaboration, with a commitment to increasing the lethality, range, and target engagement of the baseline missile which is now in development.
So what does PrSM look like? It would seem a bit like its predecessor, the stubby four-metre Lockheed Martin MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), developed during the 1980s and first fielded in 1991.
This offspring of the Cold War was designed to smite Warsaw Pact follow-on forces, initially with a warhead comprising 950 anti-personnel and anti-materiel sub-munitions.
This certainly would have proved effective, although it would also have littered the landscape with unexploded sub-munitions to the detriment of future generations of European farmers. Cluster munitions were banned under the 2008 treaty and, although the US isn’t a signatory, Australia is.
Subsequent ATACMS variants featured payloads of multiple smart anti-tank munitions and, ultimately, a unitary 230-kilogram HE warhead.
More than 500 have been fired in combat, most in fighting in Iraq, and it has been widely exported with users including South Korea, Bahrain, Greece, Turkey, and the UAE.
But with growing capabilities came a rising price tag. The website Breaking Defense cites a unit cost of US$750,00 to US$820,000 – or more than A$1m. In 2007, the US Army terminated ATACMS because of cost.
However large numbers remain in inventory and were to be upgraded under a service life extension program, adding seeker improvements, a proximity fuse, and replacement of the no longer politically acceptable sub-munition warhead with the unitary HE warhead.
PrSM aims to do everything ATACMS could do, and more, in a smaller missile which can be packaged two per launcher pod compared with one for ATACMS.
PrSM is designed to exceed ATACMS’s nominal Mach-3 velocity. Lockheed Martin lists a curiously specific range of 499 kilometres, a figure set not by technology but by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia which barred development of missiles with ranges between 499 and 5,000 kilometres.
But the INF is no longer an issue for the US following its withdrawal in 2019. Australia was never a signatory as it previously had no such capability.
These missiles need not be restricted to launch from the Australian mainland – they could just as easily be deployed aboard one of the Navy’s Canberra class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) vessels. The US Navy has previously demonstrated such a capability from its LHA and LPD amphibious vessels.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) senior analyst Malcolm Davis said the ability to strike at moving targets was important, not only for supporting land forces ashore, but also for defending maritime approaches.
“A 500-kilometre, range precision strike missile could form an inner layer for an anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) system along Australia’s northern and northwest coasts into the sea-air gap,” he wrote on ASPI’s The Strategist blog.
Davis noted that acquisition of PrSM was a good start, but more was needed including resilient battlefield intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technology, and effective self-protection measures for such valuable assets.
The PrSM missiles themselves are just part of the capability, as they require a mobile launcher. This is where the familiar and likely preferred capability – the Lockheed Martin High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) – comes in.
HIMARS is a light wheeled version of the tracked M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), jointly developed by the US, UK, Germany, France, and Italy in the late 1970s and initially deployed in 1983.
The impetus for MLRS was a realisation that the Warsaw Pact far over-matched NATO forces for artillery rockets.
Starting it all was the Russian Katyusha of WW2, a simple unguided rocket launched from a lightweight rail or tube system on the back of a truck.
The Katyusha’s range was around 10 kilometres, with each rocket delivering about 4.8 kilograms of explosive. Marginal accuracy was more than compensated for by the ability to fire dozens, even hundreds of rockets, in vast volleys, saturating German forces with high explosive.
Along with the T-34 tank, the Katyusha was a signature weapon of the war on the Eastern Front, and any subsequent European war pitting NATO against Warsaw Pact forces would certainly have featured huge numbers of Katyusha-type rockets.
MLRS was first used operationally in the 1991 Iraq war and again in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It has been widely exported to, among others, UK, Israel, Germany, and France.
MLRS is prolific, with more than 1,300 systems manufactured in the US and Europe, the last being delivered in 2003 to Egypt. It’s also large and heavy, weighing in at 25 tonnes thanks to its Bradley IFV-based chassis.
At just 16 tonnes, HIMARS emerged as a lighter version for the US Army, with a loadout of six rockets compared with 12 for MLRS. It is based on a standard US Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) truck chassis, itself based on a design by Steyr of Austria.
Significantly, HIMARS is deployable aboard a C-130. The system was first used operationally in Afghanistan and subsequently in campaigns against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
HIMARS can launch the same types of munitions as MLRS. Initially those were M26 unguided free flight artillery rockets, and subsequently, M31 INS/GPS precision-guided rockets with a range of more than 60 kilometres and accuracy to within a couple of metres.
Australia spelled out its interest in acquiring a rocket system for Army in the 2016 Defence White Paper which announced that the government would enhance Army’s firepower with a new long-range rocket in the mid-2020s to complement existing artillery capabilities.
“The new system will be capable of providing fire support to defeat threats to our personnel at ranges of up to 300 kilometres,” The White Paper says.
The accompanying 2016 Integrated Investment Program added a few more details, saying enhanced C4I and high levels of airspace and target coordination will support the introduction of this substantial new capability for the ADF. The projected cost is between $750m and $1bn over the period 2023-30.
The 2020 Force Structure Plan takes that a little bit further. Initially procured will be a battery of long -range rocket artillery and missile systems with upgrades to the range of these systems to enable a land-based operational strike capability. Ultimately Army will field a full regiment of three batteries, comprising around 18 launchers.
There are various systems on the world market which could prove appealing to the ADF, including the Hanwha K239 Chunmoo. But HIMARS would appear to be the front-runner, with some qualifications.
First off, it’s reasonably familiar to the ADF because the US Marine Corps has deployed some of its HIMARS systems to Australia, conducting the first live-fire exercise at the Bradshaw Field Training Area in the NT in August 2019. The Marines’ HIMARS returned for Exercise Talisman Saber 2021, including a trial of transporting the systems aboard an RAAF C-17.
In a live-fire exercise at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in July – viewed by Defence Minister Peter Dutton – the Australian Army demonstrated full integration of the latest version of the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS) for joint fires of US and Australian artillery and HIMARS rockets.
The US would appear to have no problem selling us HIMARS, most likely through a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) deal. In October last year, the US announced the proposed sale of 11 HIMARS launchers, 64 ATACMS rounds, and a wide range of support equipment to Taiwan for US$436 million.
Although Australia would likely want to buy HIMARS off the shelf, the US FMTV truck chassis will add yet another fleet of vehicles to ADF inventory, along with its particular spares, training, and support requirements.
If practical, a better solution might be integrating the HIMARS launcher to a Rheinmetall 40M truck already in service with the ADF. Regardless of vehicle used, there will be a certain amount of Australian-specific integration involved, including radios and battle management system.
The Australian government is intent on standing up a domestic industry to manufacture guided munitions, reflecting the reality that the ADF is overwhelmingly reliant on a diverse range of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) which are mostly made in the US.
The ADF does not maintain substantial stockpiles and, in event of conflict, these will be rapidly depleted. And with the US military busily increasing its PGM war stocks, there likely won’t be much surplus available, even to close allies.
In event of a ground conflict, a ready supply of HIMARS rockets would be desirable, and the basic M31 technology would appear to be well within reach of a nascent Australian missile industry.
But there are other possibilities. Saab Australia is pitching its innovative rocket-launched small diameter bomb (SDB) – a 110kg bomb body fitted with a GPS/INS or tri-mode seeker and folding wing kit – as a lower-cost complementary capability for the Army’s proposed ground-launched missile system.
The ground-launched SDB comprises a rocket booster attached to a Boeing SDB I, offering a precision strike capability out to 150 kilometres at relatively low cost by PGM standards.
According to US analyst Joseph Trevithick, a basic GPS/INS-guided GBU-39/B SDB I costs the USAF a relatively modest US$39,000. Putting that in perspective, a single AIM-9X Sidewinder costs the USAF US$472,000. SDB I is proven, with more than 35,000 produced and 9,000 dropped in combat. It’s also in RAAF inventory.
Saab Australia says ground-launched SDB is a complementary capability to longer-range munitions such as PrSM.
“What we are trying to pitch here is a very cost-effective system. It doesn’t have the legs of a PrSM or ATACMS but it still has a decent range,” Saab Australia sales director for land, Marc Bryant told ADBR at June’s LAND FORCES show in Brisbane.
“You can load up to six of these in standard HIMARS or MLRS containers,” he added. “You can launch multiple SDBs at any one time to get a multiple round simultaneous impact.”
Trials of ground launched SDB have been conducted in Norway and the US. The USAF has even experimented with swarming SDBs in a program called Golden Horde.
Bryant said the rocket motor could be made in Australia under the program to stand up a domestic missile capability. Should Australian engineers manage to improve on the existing M26 rocket motor, there’s potential to substantially increase the range.
“This is a great opportunity and this is really low hanging fruit for a sovereign guided munition capability,” he said.
This article appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of ADBR.