Britain Upgrades its M270 MLRS for Afghanistan
The 2006 controversy over the quality of Harrier support notwithstanding, close air support has proven to be a valuable asset to British forces in Afghanistan. When available and on-station, it provides a high-end counter to the standard enemy tactics of concentration and ambush. The cost of operating modern aircraft, however, and the size of modern air fleets, are both working to put a crimp in that option. Full battlefield coverage that can respond to any emergency within a few minutes is either cost-prohibitive, or beyond most militaries’ capabilities.
Fortunately, the rise of precision artillery fire offers an alternative with less reach, but 100% persistence and availability within its range. By 2010, MBDA expects to begin selling a loitering attack UAV called ‘Fire Shadow’ for use in Afghanistan. This one-shot, rocket-boosted UAV sports a range of 165 km, 10-hour endurance, and a 50 pound warhead. To succeed, however, it will have to outclass an already-fielded option: British forces began using the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System’s M30/31 GMLRS 227mm GPS-guided rockets and their 200 pound warheads in 2007, as a significant supplement to the UK’s close support options. British forces have recorded over 140 firings of the rockets in Afghanistan, which have earned GMLRS a nickname: “the 70 km sniper”.
During this period, the M270 MLRS has maintained 100% mission availability, often operating in ‘switched on and ready’ mode for 48 hours at a stretch. That kind of use, under conditions that differ significantly from their originally-envisaged role defending NATO from the USSR, created a March 2007 Urgent Operational Request for changes to the vehicle…
Britain’s MLRS Upgrades
Air conditioning isn’t critical in Germany’s Fulda Gap, for instance – but it is critical in Afghanistan’s Helmland Province during the hot months. The collapse of the very idea of ‘front lines’ changes vehicle protection requirements. So, too, does the prevalence of mine threats in Afghanistan, whether placed by deliberate enemy action, or present as leftover ordnance from the USSR’s long war.
In response, the GMLRS team, located within the Artillery Systems Integrated Project Team at MOD Abbey Wood in Bristol, worked on a modification set. Bar armour and applique armor now surround the cab, to provide protection against small arms fire and even odds against RPGs. Wire cutters have been added. Some mine protection was added under the vehicle, and energy-absorbing seats minimize the shock transmitted from an underbody blast into the backs of the 3-man crew. A machine gun is mounted on top, supported by 3 thermal imaging cameras with driver and vehicle commander screens for night-time operation and better awareness of nearby threats.
Turnaround was quick, and upgraded M270 vehicles began deploying to Afghanistan in May 2008. Contractors included Lockheed Martin UK Insys (armor, seats, night vision), Dytechna (electronics), and Qinetiq (electronic and automotive trials). UK MoD release.
These upgrades position the M270 GMLRS combination in two ways.
One, they adapt the systems for the needs of modern counter-insurgency warfare. The M270 can now operate on mined battlefields with greater assurance. It can protect itself against surprise enemy infantry attacks through a combination of firepower and true all-terrain mobility, especially if accompanies by firepower support from a fast Jackal wheeled vehicles or a BvS-10 Viking tracked infantry vehicle. Operating autonomously in this fashion, they can remain available for long periods to provide overwatch and close support out to 70 km. With the RAF’s C-17 fleet on call to deploy them if needed, M270 vehicles can be expected to become frequent participants in Britain’s future military operations.
The second positioning has to do with competitors like the MBDA ‘Fire Shadow.’ At GBP 60,000 per rocket, with the ability to fire only as required and arrive in less than a minute, the M270 creates a formidable technical and cost challenge for competitors. As The Daily Mail’s Oct 12/08 Fire Shadow article reported, it’s:
“… a cost that the MoD is well aware of as it seeks to develop Fire Shadow. ‘We need to get Fire Shadow’s price to around that, which is a big challenge,’ said an industry source.”
Nov 23/09: The UK MoD highlights an incident in which 3 members of 39th Regiment Royal Artillery escape unscathed when their MLRS vehicle detonates a large anti-tank mine in Helmand province:
“The blast blew off the vehicle’s left-side track, separated three wheels from their axles and ripped off the bar armour. Shock absorbers and armour sponson plates were also damaged. However, the crew survived without a scratch thanks to improved ballistic and mine protection which included underbody armour and better protected seats in the cab, fitted to the system over the last year as part of an Urgent Operational Requirement.”