December 11, 2013: Strategy Page
A Brazilian firm is upgrading its Astros MLRS (multiple launch rocket system) to include better electronics, more reliable mechanical systems, and GPS guided 180mm rockets. Astros already uses 180mm unguided rockets in a launching container, holding 16 of them and having a max range of 35 kilometers. Astros can also carry a container holding 32 127mm rockets with a range of 30 kilometers or one holding four 300mm rockets of three different types (ranges of 60, 90 or 150 kilometers). The 6x6 truck carrying these launchers weighs ten tons and also carries the three man crew and is armed with a 12.7mm machine-gun.
The new Astros 2020 system will work with all existing unguided rockets available, in addition to 180mm guided ones with a range of 40 kilometers. There will also be a container that can carry four of the new (still in development) 300mm GPS cruise missiles with a range of 300 kilometers. The Brazilian Army has ordered 30 of the new Astros 2020 vehicles. Export sales are more difficult because there is so much competition in this area and Astros 2020 does not bring much that is new or unique to the market. Actually, Astros 2020 is inferior to the competition. The existing, battle proven American MLRS is far more attractive to many buyers. The American GPS guided 227mm rocket is most frequently used from the HIMARS rocket launcher. Only costing about $3 million each, these smaller, truck mounted MLRS (HIMARS) rocket launcher systems carries only one, six rocket container (instead of two in the original MLRS vehicle). But the 12 ton truck can fit into a C-130 transport (unlike the 22 ton tracked MLRS) and is much cheaper to operate. The first HIMARS entered service in 2005, about a year after GPS guided rockets did.
The 309 kg (680 pound) GMLRS (guided multiple launch rocket system) missile is a GPS guided 227mm rocket. It was designed to have a range of 70 kilometers and the ability to land within meters of its intended target, at any range. This is possible because it uses GPS (plus a back-up inertial guidance system) to precisely find its preprogrammed target area. In 2008, the army tested GMLRS at max range (about 85 kilometers) and found that it worked fine. So the American MLRS has more than twice the range of the Astros 180mm rocket.
The U.S. Army is buying over 800 HIMARS vehicles along with 100,000 GMLRS rockets, most of them fitted with an 89 kg (196 pound) high explosive warhead. About half of that is actual explosives. These have been used with great success in Iraq and Afghanistan, where nearly two thousand have been fired so far. The guided rocket is much more effective than the older, unguided version and is replacing it in most cases. No more of the unguided rockets are being purchased by the U.S. The accuracy of GMLRS means that one rocket does the job that previously required a dozen or more of the unguided ones. That's why HIMARS is so popular. While it only carries six rockets, that's often enough to last for days, even when there's a lot of combat in places like Afghanistan.
The American MLRS also has an ATACMS long range version. This is a 610mm rocket that fits in the same size container that normally holds six 227mm MLRS rockets. The ATACMS has been around since the 1980s and current models have a range of 300 kilometers. The current version of ATACMS is equipped with a 227 kg (500 pound) high explosive warhead. The U.S. used over 700 ATACMS in Iraq and Afghanistan. These rockets use GPS guidance to precisely hit targets up to 300 kilometers away. The U.S. MLRS has been sold to seven foreign customers.
Over a billion dollars’ worth of Astros systems were bought in the 1980s. Typically an Astros battery consists of 3-6 Astros trucks, 3-6 resupply trucks, and one headquarters/fire control truck. The Brazilian Army only bought 20 Astros vehicles in the 1980s, with most of the sales going to Middle Eastern countries (66 to Iraq and 60 to Saudi Arabia). After the Cold War ended in 1991, sales collapsed and picked up by the late 1990s. But the cheap Cold War surplus systems dried up sales at the low end of the market and America, Israel, Russia, and China had plenty of new offerings for the medium and high end. Existing Astros customers will be able to upgrade their existing Astros vehicles to the Astros 2020 standards so they can use the new rockets.