Friday 30 July 2021

Shoot-And-Scoot: Armenia Designs New Lightweight MRL

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Certainly no branch of Armenia's military suffered as severe materiel losses during the 2020 Nagorno-Karbakh War as its artillery and rocket forces. With the air defence umbrella that was supposed to protect them proving incapable of neutralising the drone threat overhead, howitzers and multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) situated in open revetments were left to the mercy of Bayraktar TB2s flying overhead, resulting in the visually confirmed destruction of 152 artillery pieces and 71 MRLs. [1] Combined with the loss of a further 105 artillery pieces that were left behind by Armenian forces and subsequently captured by Azerbaijan, Armenia lost most of its artillery assets during the conflict, amounting to roughly two-thirds of its inventory of MRLs alone. [1]

Although there is reason to suggest that Russia has at least partially replenished Armenia's badly-depleted inventory of MRLs through the delivery of replacement systems, any future conflict would undoubtedly see a repetition of the events that took place during the 2020 War, and thus entirely new tactics are required to mitigate at least some of the effects of unmitigated drone-powered warfare. Potentially one of the first signs of such a shift in tactics was sighted on a road in Armenia in late June 2021. [2] Consisting of an 8-round 122mm MRL fitted to a Toyota Hilux pickup truck, this new MRL exchanges firepower for increased mobility and a smaller footprint, potentially decreasing its vulnerability to armed drones.
Although the design of such an MRL is hardly a novel feat, with several countries around the globe opting for similar systems to give their forces the ability to strike distant targets while keeping the MRL small and mobile, it seems that Armenian interest in such a system only came after witnessing the vulnerability of larger MRLs first-hand. Many of Armenia's MRLs were targeted while conducting firing missions out of their revetments situated behind the front lines. While these revetments provided plentiful protection against counter-battery fire, they provided no defence whatsoever against armed drones. And even as Armenian soldiers began camouflaging some of their BM-21s with branches, these stuck out like a sore thumb once they drove out of their hiding spots to commence firing.

An Armenian BM-21 is pictured seconds before it gets taken out by a MAM-L munition fired by a Bayraktar TB2

A camouflaged Armenian BM-21 and the bush it operated from to the right. Even when parked under a tree or bush, the heat signature of the MRL's heavy engine could still reveal the location of the system to any Bayraktar TB2 flying overhead

Although equipped with a significantly smaller number of 122mm rocket tubes compared to the BM-21 (8 vs 40), the new Toyota Hilux-based MRL has the benefit of being able to conduct shoot-and-scoot tactics. Rather than statically deployed in revetments like the BM-21s during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Toyota Hilux-based MRLs would fire off their rockets and swifly relocate to a new firing position, a reloading location or to a hiding spot in a garage or small structure away from the lurking eyes of drones flying overhead. Even when caught out in the open, its more modest size and heat signature might allow it to evade immediate detection, especially when efforts are taken to conceal the launcher. The Toyota Hilux's speed, impressive off-road capabilities and small size make it an ideal candidate for such tactics.

Measures like these do much to complicate the enemy's efforts to neutralise your inventory of artillery and MRLs, and while the amount of rockets each system can bear on the enemy is much smaller than with a regular BM-21, each Toyota Hilux-based MRL can potentially remain in action longer as more of them manage to survive the onslaught brought on by drone warfare. This type of tactic de-emphasises the costly massed artillery tactics that, though potentially having a large effect on target, are highly vulnerable to aerial threats and arguably become ineffective in highly assymmetric combat scenarios.
The popularity of MRL designs like this one has already been proven by the extensive use in locations like Libya, Syria, Yemen and Sudan. Their arrival to the Armenian theatre could perhaps have been predicted, given previous Armenian efforts to make the best of the limited military resources currently at their disposal. Yet it remains to be seen if the design will also find its way to active service – as with so many other promising Armenian indigenous defence products the new MRL might fall victim to a lack of funds, limiting production to just the prototype. Nevertheless, the production of such weaponry is sensible given Armenian requirements, and it might well play a significant role in a future conflict, potentially forcing Azerbaijan to increase its investment in UAV technology to ensure it maintains an edge in detecting and neutralising the MRLs.