Friday 28 May 2021

Dragons In The Caucasus: Chinese WM-80 MRLs Of Armenia

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans 

The casual reader may be forgiven for thinking that Armenia's armed forces operate solely Soviet-legacy weaponry inherited from the USSR, or armament received from Russia in recent years. In reality, operating alongside familiar types such as the T-72 MBT, BM-21 MRL and 9K33 Osa SAM are several types of equipment acquired from more surprising sources. This includes Sako TRG-42 sniper rifles bought from Finland, Swathi artillery-locating radars acquired from India and also 273mm WM-80 multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) sourced from China.
Especially the latter system was often touted as an asset that could very well end up playing a major role in a flare-up of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. For a long time constituting the longest-ranged and heaviest weapons system that wasn't a ballistic missile in Armenian service, the WM-80 enabled the country to outrange virtually the entire Azerbaijani Army until Azerbaijani military modernisation ultimately caught up with Armenian capabilities in the mid-2000s.

Years before, in 1999, Armenia was one of the first countries in the world to acquire large-calibre multiple rocket launchers from China. While modern Chinese guided large-calibre MRLs are nowadays plentiful in the inventories of numerous militaries worldwide, the original design of the WM-80 (known as the Type 83) actually dates back to the 1970s. Although it was subsequently upgraded to achievea longer range and increased accuracy in the 1980s (becoming the WM-80), the system lacks any guidance suite and becomes progressively more inaccurate at longer ranges.
This in turn makes the WM-80 broadly similar to the Russian 300mm BM-30 MRL, the rockets of which however have a larger warhead (243kg vs 150kg), slightly shorter range (70km vs 80km) and more warhead options compared to the WM-80. The Chinese system is mostly lacking in the types of warheads available, with a high-explosive (HE) warhead and a cluster warhead designed to burst into 380 high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) bomblets being the only types available. Most of these shortfalls would eventually be remedied with the introduction of the guided WM-120 MRL, which entered service with Jordan in 2010.
An area in which the WM-80 does have a major advantage over the BM-30 is that its eight 273mm rockets are located in two rocket pods, allowing a dedicated reloading truck (which comes equipped with two such pods and a hydraulic crane) to quickly replenish the launcher after it fired a full volley of rockets. By contrast, each of the BM-30's launch tubes has to be individually reloaded, costing valuable time before it can reengage and making it vulnerable to counter-battery fire or enemy drones lurking overhead.
In an era during which Armenia was almost solely reliant on the generosity of Russia to provide it with arms and equipment, the decision to acquire Chinese MRLs is perhaps all the more surprising. While one could argue that the supply of surplus BM-30 MRLs from Russian stocks to Armenia could have challenged the status quo with Azerbaijan and thus be undesirable, Russia had little qualms with providing Armenia with Scud ballistic missile systems during the same decade. Instead, it seems plausible that unlike the Scuds – which had already been retired from Russian service by the late 1990s – the BM-30s had to be purchased with hard currency, which Armenia at the time lacked. 
Eager to secure more export contracts for its MRLs, China likely offered a favourable price for the systems. A lack of funds on the side of Armenia could also explain the small numbers of WM-80s acquired, purchasing just four launchers along with four dedicated reloaders. No additional support vehicles were received, with Armenia simply opting to use Soviet GAZ-66 and ZiL-131 trucks as command and staff vehicles. The minimalistic nature of a WM-80 battery is likely what attracted Armenia to the system in the first place, allowing it to acquire an at that time impressive military capability at greatly reduced costs.
Perhaps for reasons of secrecy, it would take until 2006 before Armenia first publically showcased its WM-80s during the 15th anniversary of independence parade in the capital Yerevan, followed by a participation in every major Armenian military parade since. Notably, this also included a parade in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh in 2012. [2] Although their presence here might led one to believe that at least two of the launchers entered service with the military of Artsakh (which in reality is an inherent part of the Armenian Army) these were actually Armenian systems that were brought to Stepanakert specifically for the parade.
The WM-80s are not believed to have seen action prior to the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, likely to prevent artillery duels and larger skirmishes from escalating into full-out war through the use of such heavy weaponry. But as the Armenian military scrambled to halt the Azerbaijani onslaught brought on by drone warfare and precision guided munitions in September 2020, the WM-80s were soon moved closer to the area of conflict as well. They were not spared the onslaught of Armenian military equipment during the conflict, and two WM-80s (and/or their reloaders) are believed to have been destroyed by a loitering munition on their way to their deployment zone. [3] 
Despite a lack of (public) information regarding the system's further combat use during the 2020 conflict, one source claims that ''Chinese WM-80 MLRS – Armenia's most failed weapon in the battle for Karabakh: Only one fact of using these MLRS is known, but the missiles fell, as they say, in an open field, and the scattered cluster submunitions did not work. Apparently, the expired storage period affected.'' [4] Whether these claims have any basis in reality is unknown, and they should be taken with a grain of salt as there is no corroborating evidence to confirm them.

A WM-80 is being readied to fire. Also note the effect of the camouflage pattern against the rock formation in the rear

With at least two launchers and/or loaders confirmed to have been destroyed, Armenia's WM-80 force is sure to have taken a beating during last year's conflict. While their combat efficacy during the war remains unknown, it is almost certain that experiences gained during the operations of the system in wartime conditions gave rise to additional requirements for 21st century warfare. This might very well include guided MRLs, which when paired with counter-battery radars and long range rockets like those of the WM-80 could be devastating against enemy artillery and positions. Should the WM-80's performance indeed have been unimpressive, it is possible that additional BM-30s will be purchased both to replace their losses (four total) and to replace the remaining WM-80s. Despite their modest contribution to the war effort, Armenia's WM-80s nevertheless present a fascinating chapter of 21st century European warfare as one of the few Chinese weapons systems ever to be used on the continent.

[1] РСЗО WM-80 Армянской Армии/Armenian Army. MLRS WM-80
[2] Военный парад в Карабахе. Զորահանդես ԼՂՀ 09.05.2012 FULL
[3] The Fight For Nagorno-Karabakh: Documenting Losses On The Sides Of Armenia And Azerbaijan
[4] Chinese WM-80 MLRS – Armenia's most failed weapon in the battle for Karabakh

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