In late summer, in the deserts of southern New Mexico, a truck fired a rocket that then traveled 93 miles. Made and tested by defense giant Lockheed Martin, the Extended-Range Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System is a weapon with more than twice the range of the existing Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System used by the US and other countries. Should the rocket continue to perform well in tests, it could lead to a massive expansion of range and firepower for rocket artillery, especially the HIMARS system used by Ukraine. (The HIMARS in use by Ukraine have a range of 43 miles.)
Lockheed Martin announced the successful test on September 1. Its test took place at White Sands Missile Range, which is most famous for hosting the world’s first detonation of an atomic bomb, and also regularly hosts regular tests of weapons in its vast and open space. At 3,200 square miles, White Sands Missile Range is vast enough to be larger than Rhode Island. It’s a good place to see if weapons fly as expected in the open and unencumbered skies of a test range.
To add realism to the test, “the rocket pod underwent Stockpile to Target Sequence (STS) testing. This effort simulates cumulative effects ER GMLRS will meet in the field between factory and launch for the life of the system and demonstrates durability of the missile and launch pod container,” Lockheed Martin stated in a release.
This kind of testing, which dates back at least to the 1960s, is designed to reflect real-world conditions. That can mean changes in temperature, jostling in transit along roads, rail, or air, humidity (or the lack thereof), and other such conditions encountered in the course of operations. A rocket that can perform in laboratory settings is a good start, but a rocket that will be mass produced and used in battle needs to work in the conditions it will actually encounter.
Lockheed Martin boasts it has already produced 60,000 rounds of the existing Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, with ongoing contracts to continue production. A second test of the new Extended Range GLMRS is expected in September, after which the Army may make the call to start including these longer-range rockets into its regular production of GMLRS.
In traditional artillery, explosive charges are loaded before the artillery round, allowing the crew to calibrate range on the fly. The blast from the charges propels the round. In rocket artillery, the explosive round comes with a rocket engine and guidance fins included, as one big unit. This allows for quick launch and long-range accuracy. The Extended-Range Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System that Lockheed Martin just tested is an example of rocket artillery—a self-propelled rocket that launches from a tube.
A range of options
The HIMARS, or High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, is the expected launch platform for these extended range rockets, with testing of the integrated systems taking place at White Sands. With its existing regular guided rockets, HIMARS can hit targets up to 43 miles away. That’s well beyond the range of non-rocket artillery, which can be around 18 miles for towed howitzers. HIMARS proved especially crucial to the surprising success of Ukraine’s fall offensives in 2022.
The arrival of HIMARS, and their judicious use against Russian leadership and ammunition depots, changed the contours of the war, and affected where the front lines settled. Now, as Ukraine’s spring offensive grinds through a long summer and dense Russian defenses over occupied Ukrainian territory, HIMARS still plays a role, but a less drastic one.
There is another missile that Ukraine has sought to aid in its attempt to strike Russian forces far beyond their defensive lines. That’s the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, which has a maximum range of up to 186 miles. On August 7, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba again requested that the United States include ATACMS in its aid to the country. Larger than rockets, the ATACMS is a ballistic missile, and could be used to reach Russian targets not just in occupied Ukraine but deeper into Russia.
Russian forces have long since bombed the interior of Ukraine, and Ukraine has already launched attacks into Russia, like using local operatives and drones to destroy a parked bomber used for such bombings.
Whether or not the United States ultimately sends ATACMS to Ukraine, the existence of a longer-range rocket for the HIMARS—the ER GMLRS that just traveled 93 miles in the test—could still prove useful as a middle-range option between the two.
If the war continues into 2024 or longer, which it shows all signs of doing, an artillery weapon that can outmatch and outrange other artillery could give new options to Ukraine, if the US were to provide it. In US use, too, having the extended range on HIMARS rockets would allow this type of ground-based artillery to play a more meaningful role in fights on islands, as might happen in any Pacific war.