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PLA and IA High Altitude use of MLRS: Options

Employment of the HIMARS the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems by the Ukrainian Armed Forces has led to increasing focus on Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) in providing a battle winning edge in battles and campaigns.

The Ukraine armed forces are not new to the concept of using MLRS systems as these have been employing the Soviet/Russia Grad systems to much effect over a period.

Easy adaptability to the United States Lockheed Martin HIMARS was thus a given despite the technology sophistication entailed.

From the Indian perspective the question raised is of employment of MLRS in the operational scenario envisaged particularly in Eastern Ladakh and Tibet on the Northern borders given the peculiar high altitude terrain with lack of cover and limited access for mobility in the shoot and scoot scenario.

India has Pinaka Mark 1 soon to be upgraded to ER or Extended Range with guided rockets and the Russian manufactured SMERCH MLRS systems

The Russian made Smerch has a range of 90 Km and a battery of four launchers can fire a salvo of 48 rockets in 40 seconds neutralising an area of 1200m by 1200m.

The availability of rocket ammunition for SMERCH is however limited particularly after extensive employment of the same by Russia in the War in Ukraine.

Pinaka Mk-1 is a free-flight artillery rocket system of 38 kilometers range, quick reaction time, and a high rate of fire.

The System can fire a salvo of 12 rockets from a multi-barrel launcher in 44 seconds, while a battery can fire 72 rockets.

Pinaka Mark 1 is a free flight rocket of caliber 214 mm. However DRDO has already developed guidance kit for Pinaka Mk-II rocket for accuracy improvement was taken up by ARDE in association with RCI, DRDL, HEMRL and PXE.

Importantly for employment on the India China border a comparison with systems fielded by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Pinaka may be relevant. The caveat is that these are not counter weapons thus the Pinaka is not a direct counter to the PLA’s rocket systems.

Yet from the perspective of employment pattern there is a need to study the characteristics.

PLA MLRS Systems

PLA has two MLRS systems for operational and strategic employment.

The strategic system is the PCL 191 also known as the PHL 16 which has multiple configurations as per South China Morning Post – “eight 370mm rockets, each with a range of 350km (220 miles), or two 750mm Fire Dragon 480 tactical ballistic missiles, each capable of flying up to 500km.” With the use of 370 mm rockets the PCL 191 can be employed in an operational role.

London based the Times has reported that the PLA has tested the PCL 191 in the high altitude.

The standard Chinese operational MLRS is the PHL-03 a 12 tube 300 mm rocket system which has a range of 70 - 130 km. Each rocket has a 280 kg warhead of multiple types from high explosive to cluster and anti personnel sub munitions. A salvo can impact 170 acres as per the Wikipedia.

SCMP quoting Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong states that China is likely to employ the PHL-16, or the Type PCL-191 on the Tibetan Plateau as the PHL-03 at 42 tonne is too bulky.

The PCL 191 is also more versatile as it can employ multiple rocket configurations.

Comparison with Pinaka

Compared to the Indian Pinaka MLRS, the Chinese PHL 03 or the PCL 191 can deliver more explosives per rocket at 280 kgs versus 100 kgs for the Pinaka Mark 1.

There appears to be range advantage for the Chinese system while the PLA and the Indian Army will have to presently rely on unguided rockets, thus leading to limited accuracy.

Acquisition of targets of opportunity will depend on the resources that are available, with both sides possibly relying on UAVs for the purpose, while static targets would be pre-identified for targeting.

India has limitations of numbers with four Pinaka regiments at present and six on order against 22 which as per former Director General Artillery P R Shanker were projected in the past.

Employment Considerations

MLRS due to their bulk including the ammunition train have a large signature. There are limitations of areas for employment in high altitude areas due to the terrain configuration, thus security of location from satellites as well as UAVs is well nigh impossible.

The large signature on firing is also a major consideration and while shoot and scoot is the technique that has been employed in Ukraine to avoid counter battery fire by the HIMARS very effectively in the open configuration obtained on the Tibetan Plateau there are obvious limitations.

No doubt the PLA being aware of these restrictions will get around the same to be able to employ the MLRS systems in high altitude areas in the operational role.

Employment of the PCL 191 in the strategic role will be seen as an escalatory measure by India which can be easy to detect and attributable even where the range available is 500 kms. In such a scenario the Indian Air Force (IAF) may come into play. On the other hand a demonstration strike escalate to de-escalate cannot be ruled out.

While these are mainly theoretical scenarios, India Army and the PLA artillery forces are expected to overcome limitations with creative options for the future thus a high degree of assurance of employment of the Pinaka or the PCL 191 can be envisaged if the “balloon does go up.”


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