Sunday 3 October 2021

Modern Wartime Designs: The Syrian Shams MRL

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The Syrian Arab Army's Armoured Divisions are well known for operating several types of tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles upgraded with additional armour. Having performed these armour upgrades on a range of armoured fighting and support vehicles, one of the Armoured Divisions (1st AD) expanded its arsenal once more in 2016 by introducing a new type of multiple rocket launcher (MRL), popularly known as 'Shams', meaning Sun in Arabic. It's thought its nickname was derived from that of the aesthetically similar Russian TOS-1A 'Solntsepyok, which has been referred to as 'Sun' during its deployment by the Russian military in Syria.
This vehicle continues the trend of highly professional upgrades performed on armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) throughout the Damascus theatre of operations. The first of such upgraded vehicles appeared in late 2014, when at least two up-armoured T-72M1s equipped with Italian TURMS-T fire-control systems were shown destroyed shortly after their deployment to Jobar. This however did not deter the 4th AD from pressing on with the programme and in the years that followed, several types of up-armoured AFVs would be sighted on the battlefield.
The 'Shams' combines a launching unit for two or five large-calibre rockets with the chassis of a GAZ Sadko truck or BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle. The rockets are of the popular 'Volcano' type, which pairs a standard artillery rocket with a much larger warhead. These rockets became widely known for their capability to destroy complete housing blocks with a direct hit during the battle for al-Qusayr in 2013. Syria's defence industry began mass-producing these Volcanoes around the same time, and were quickly put in use on nearly every front in the Syrian theatre.
Although photographed on a great number of occasions throughout its career, just one BMP-1 based Shams MRL was converted. A more readily available platform was the GAZ Sadko truck, several of which would be converted as a launching platform. Two variants based on the GAZ Sodko exist; one specifically modified example while the other variant saw the launch system fitted to the back of an unmodified truck. No other conversions are believed to have taken place, and the 'Shams' was superseded by the more versatile Golan design soon after. Both the BMP-based systems and those using the GAZ Sadko belong to the 1st Division, which operates several more notable AFVs including T-72 TURMS-Ts up-armoured with slat armour and BTR-70M APCs received from Russia.

In Syria, three iterations of the Volcano are currently believed to be produced, further divided into several sub-variants each. The most widespread types in use are the 107mm and 122mm based variants, although a 220mm based variant also exists. Converting these rockets is a relatively easy process, as 107mm and 122mm (Grad) rockets are extremely common in Syria, and 220mm rockets are known to be in production in Syria itself. The 'Shams' uses two variants of the 122mm based Volcanoes, both equipped with a massive 300mm warhead. The launch of a Volcano by a 'Shams' MRL can be watched here.

Interestingly, one of the two variants used with the 'Shams' is described as having a thermobaric warhead (reportedly weighing a whopping 350 kilograms), which makes use of the air's oxygen to create a more powerful explosion than conventional warheads can achieve and is ideally suited for usage in confined spaces. [1] The other variant uses a 250kg conventional warhead (compared to some 65 kilograms for the original 122mm rocket) and can be discerned from the thermobaric variant by its shorter rocket booster. The range of these Volcanoes is claimed to be 3.4 kilometres for the thermobaric variant and 1.5 kilometres for the conventional variant. [1]

The 'Shams' is a perfect example of wartime adaptation, turning an otherwise mediocre armoured fighting vehicle into a potent platform perfectly adapted to the type of warfare encountered on the battlefield today. It depends on the willingness and resources of the Syrian military to make more of such nifty additions to its arsenal, and if flexibility in such an endeavour is reflected in military planning then that decision could ultimately have a large impact on rebuilding the Syrian military.

[1] Personal conversation with @WithinSyria.
Special thanks to Morant Mathieu.

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