Tuesday, 22 December 2020

The Forgotten Deterrent: Kuwait’s Luna-M ’FROG-7’ Artillery Rockets

By Stijn Mitzer
What do you acquire when you want a weapon system to deter your neighbours without plunging the region into an unnecessary arms race at the same time? That is the question the leadership of Kuwait must have asked itself somewhere in the 1970s. In 1977 Kuwait eventually found an answer to this query in the form of the Soviet 2K92 Luna-M 'FROG-7' artillery rocket system, the acquisition of which for Kuwait marked the start of a number of major arms deals concluded with Eastern Bloc countries.
In doing so, the State of Kuwait became the first Gulf country to acquire Soviet weaponry, in a deal entailing $51 million worth of FROG-7s and 9K32 Strela-2 (NATO designation: SA-7) MANPADS in 1977. [1] Unable to source similar equipment from its traditional Western suppliers at the time, Kuwait from then on turned to the Soviet Union whenever its traditional suppliers proved unwilling to provide it the weapon systems it needed. For Moscow, selling arms to Kuwait served the purpose of making welcome inroads for further arms deals with other Gulf states, which apart from the sale of MANPADS to the UAE in the mid-to-late 1980s however failed to materialise. [2]
Most of the Gulf states have traditionally followed a pattern of diversification when it comes to the acquisition of armament, although with important differences in choice of suppliers. Traditionally a customer of Western arms from Great Britain and the United States, the US' refusal to sell Kuwait FIM-92 Stinger man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) in 1984 provided the Soviet Union the perfect opportunity to widen their limited military relationship once again, leading to the purchase of 9K33 Osa SAM systems, additional MANPADS and over 200 BMP-2 IFVs (as well as some 200 M-84 tanks from Yugoslavia) in the late 1980s. [3]
When Kuwait lost some of this equipment as a result of the 1990 invasion by Iraq, it again turned to its Cold War partner (now Russia) to replace the materiel it had just lost. And soon, huge orders for BMP-3 IFVs to replace the BMP-2s and BM-30 'Smerch' MRLs as a replacement for the Luna-Ms were made. Even today Kuwait remains a major client of Russian weaponry, although its acquisition of 155mm PLZ-45 SPGs from China in the early 2000s and more recently, both European and U.S. combat aircraft, clearly shows its continued push for armament diversification.

The 9K52 Luna-M (NATO designation: FROG-7) is a short-range artillery rocket system that fires unguided 9M21B nuclear-armed rockets or 9M21G rockets with a conventional warhead. Both variants are spin-stabilised, meaning that small rockets are used to spin up the rocket and stabilise it in flight, which improves its aerodynamic stability and thus accuracy. That said, with a Circular Error Probable (CEP) of just under a kilometre and an equally unimpressive range of some 45 kilometres, it could be argued that system's relatively heavy 390kg warhead (for the 9M21G) and intimidating looks are its sole redeeming factors.

Phased out by its Eastern Bloc operators in the 1990s, with most other countries following shortly after, the Luna-M's remaining operators today include Syria, Libya and (of course) North Korea, while Yemen's stocks were converted to Samood and Zelzal-3 rockets by Houthi rebels and subsequently exhausted in battle. The concept of giant artillery rockets has nowadays largely been abandoned in favour of more accurate guided rockets and short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), with only Iran continuing to make extensive use of them.

The number of Luna-M systems received by Kuwait remains somewhat of a mystery. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1984 reported that twelve systems were in service, but it is unknown if this number also included the associated 9T29 transporters, which carry three reloads each. [3] In the same year, Kuwaiti Minister of Defence Salem Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah announced he would sign a deal for a second batch of Luna-Ms during his visit to Moscow, but it is unclear if this ever actually occurred. [2]

Although the Luna-M was never fired in anger in Kuwaiti service, this certainly wasn't for the lack of combat involving the Gulf state. Kuwait saw itself at the receiving end of Iranian airstrikes and bombardments throughout the 1980s as punishment for their financial support to Iraq, which had just invaded Iran. Then in 1990, Kuwait was invaded by Iraq as a result of (amongst others) disputes over the money Kuwait had loaned to Saddam Hussein to finance the Iran-Iraq War. Financially crippled as a result of the war and unwilling to remain indebted to Kuwait, Saddam opted to simply take out its lender.

Prior to the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait's 10.000-strong army was organized into two combat brigades (one armored and one mechanised), a combat support brigade and support units. [3] On the 2nd of August 1990 these forces scrambled out of their bases to halt the Iraqi advance, although it is possible (and even likely) that the Luna-Ms couldn't be mobilised in time and were lost to the Iraqis. Be sure to check out Desert Storm Volume 1: The Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait & Operation Desert Shield 1990-1991 from Helion & Company for more on Kuwait's heroic efforts to stop the Iraqi onslaught.

The fate of the Luna-M systems after the invasion of Kuwait is unknown, but it can be assumed that they were captured by Iraq and taken there along with other Kuwaiti military equipment, including Chieftain MBTs and M113 APCs. Already an operator of the Luna-M, the Iraqis would likely have incorporated them into their own military, possibly even seeing use against Coalition forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

A Kuwaiti Luna-M battery on the move. It appears that Kuwait opted to use U.S. M35 trucks and British Land Rovers rather than the original vehicles that made up a regular Soviet Luna-M battery, wich would complicate maintenance and spare parts logistics for Kuwait's otherwise Western inventory of vehicles. The UAZ-452 van leading the convoy is of Soviet origin however, and would normally be used to tow the RMS-1 'End Tray' trailer-mounted meteorological radar associated with the Luna-M system.
The steering mechanism of the 8x8 ZiL-135 can be clearly appreciated in the image below, with only the front and rear axles used to steer the vehicle. Curiously, each of the vehicle's two engines powers one side of the vehicle for a top speed of 65 kilometers per hour. Also note the huge stabiliser pads on the rear of the TEL and in between the first and second wheels, which are of course meant to keep the launcher braced against the huge forces that are set free when launching the heavy 9M21 rocket.
Purchased in 1977, six 9P113 TELs and six 9T29 transporters were first showcased during the massive 20th anniversary of national day of the State of Kuwait parade in 1981, and again in a 1984 parade.


Having lost a significant part of its military inventory as a result of the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait spent much of the 1990s rebuilding its military. Interestingly, rather than acquiring U.S. M270 MRLS with MGM-140 ATACMS like Bahrain, Kuwait again turned to Russia and acquired the Russian 300mm BM-30 Smerch MRL instead. Of course, with a larger range, twelve times the number of rockets and much increased accuracy at the cost of a slightly smaller warhead compared to the Luna-M, the BM-30 offers a considerable increase in firepower to the Kuwaiti Land Forces, who will undoubtedly appreciate it for these properties. While it once had its place and a role to play in the Middle Eastern military balance, the Luna-M, striking beast though she was, is now relegated to the annals of history.

[1] ARMS TRANSFERS TO THE PERSIAN GULF: TRENDS AND IMPLICATIONS https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp83b00851r000100090003-4
[3] MILITARY CAPABILITIES OF THE SMALLER PERSIAN GULF STATES https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp85t00314r000200090002-0
Recommended Articles:

1 comment:

  1. >> "That said, with a Circular Error Probable (CEP) of just under a kilometre and an equally unimpressive range of some 45 kilometres, it could be argued that system's relatively heavy 390kg warhead (for the 9M21G) and intimidating looks are its sole redeeming factors."

    Maximum range is reported as 70 km in a many sources, not 45 km. Some sources also refer to a tighter CEP, on the order of ~400-700m.

    Considering that the Luna, much like the contemporaneous (and similarly inaccurate) MGR-1 'Honest John', seems to have been built with the nuclear / chemical payloads in mind, the very poor CEP might be excused. With a 20 kt warhead, even a 900 m CEP is acceptable; export customers, of course, are clearly out of luck.

    There are also sporadic references to cluster munitions being developed for the Luna-M, which would have at least mitigated the otherwise mediocre accuracy of the system.

    It might be noted that it is only fifty kilometers from the Kuwaiti border to Basra city – a target large enough to make the Luna's enormous CEP irrelevant, if used for attacks against civilian infrastructure. Presumably this is the 'deterrent' effect referred to in your title?

    >> "Interestingly, rather than acquiring U.S. M270 MRLS with MGM-140 ATACMS like Bahrain, Kuwait again turned to Russia and acquired the Russian 300mm BM-30 Smerch MRL instead."

    Was the ATACMS export-cleared for Kuwait in the 90's? Washington has shown reservations in the past when it comes to supplying top-tier hardware to Arab allies. It is possible that the US was not ready to supply ballistic missiles to Kuwait at the time.

    Furthermore, with the Iraqi threat having been mostly neutralized after 1991, there was little need for a continuing SRBM 'deterrent'. The BM-30 could hypothetically be used for attacks against the Basra urban area, but compared with the Luna-M, it has vastly improved capability against military personnel and equipment. While the Luna-M was more of a 'strategic' weapon, insofar is it served as a deterrent, the BM-30 is much more of a tactical, battlefield weapon system.