Friday 3 September 2021

From Friend To Foe: Ethiopia’s Chinese AR2 MRLs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The 2010s were a time of significant upheaval for the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF). Within less than a decade, ageing weaponry dating from the Cold War period was progressively retired (or in some cases upgraded) and replaced by more modern equipment. While in some cases this merely replaced legacy systems, the ENDF also sought to introduce entirely new capabilities through the acquisition of large-calibre multiple rocket launchers, guided rockets and short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs).
While some of the acquired weapons systems were to receive plenty of coverage in news reports and at arms exhibitions to show off the ENDF's modernisation effort, other weaponry was intentionally kept out of the spotlight under strong operational security (OPSEC) rules, perhaps held back as a surprise until they could one day unleash their firepower on an unsuspecting foe. One such system is the 300mm AR2 multiple rocket launcher (MRL), a number of which were acquired by Ethiopia from China in the late 2010s.

The acquisition of AR2s along with M20 SRBMs and A200 guided rockets gave the ENDF a distinct edge over what any of its neighbouring countries could muster. The only other nations in Sub-Saharan Africa confirmed to have acquired large-calibre MRLs are Angola, which operates a number of North Korean 240mm M-1989 MRLs, Sudan, that presently operates Iranian systems and Chinese WS-1B and WS-2 MRLs, and Tanzania, which purchased the A100 MRL – a competitor of the AR2 which also uses 300mm rockets.
After their arrival to Ethiopia in the 2010s, the AR2s were assigned to the ENDF's Northern Command near the volatile border with Eritrea. Although still unforseeable at that time, this was a decision the Ethiopian High Command would soon regret. Upon outbreak of hostilities in the Tigray region in November 2020, the AR2s were quickly captured by separatist forces as they began to overrun ENDF bases located throughout the Tigray. It is also possible that the commanders of the units (likely to have been Tigrayans themselves) directly joined the seperatists' side, bringing with them the AR2s and the soldiers to operate them. 
Whatever the mechanic, the outcome was that Tigray forces were suddenly in control of large-calibre MRLs, guided rockets and ballistic missiles with a range of at least 280km. Quickly put into use against their former owners, the Ethiopian Army was now to feel the destructive power of the systems it had just purchased. After overcoming this initial shock, it then had to devote precious resources into locating and destroying the captured systems. At least one AR2 and the associated transporter with reloads was subsequently recaptured and then destroyed in the Tekeze area of Central Tigray. [1] The fate of the other systems is currently unknown.

The AR2 is an export variant of the PHL-03 MRL, which itself entered service with the People's Liberation Army Ground Force in large numbers. Based on the design of the Soviet BM-30 Smerch, the PHL-03 and AR2 maintain the same configuration as their Russian counterpart with twelve tubes for 300mm rockets now mounted on a Wanshan WS2400 8x8 heavy duy truck. The Chinese rockets have a greatly increased range over their Soviet predecessors however (130km vs 70km), and the AR2 also incorporates a digital fire control system incorporating GPS/BeiDou/GLONASS. In the absence of jamming, such guidance can vastly increase accuracy of MRLs, essentially opening up a new paradigma of pontential uses in counter-battery operations and the striking of high value targets. To date, Ethiopia and Morocco are the only known customers of the AR2 MRL.

To ensure that each launcher is never long without rockets, the AR2s are accompanied by dedicated 8x8 WS2400-based and 10x8 (or 10x10) WS2500 transporters carrying twelve reloads each. A major disadvantage of the AR2 over most contemporary modern systems is that each tube has to be loaded individually as opposed to simply replacing an entire rocket pod at once, which is much faster and thus cuts down on the time before the system can unleash another volley upon its enemy.

Stark irony rules that much of the advanced weaponry the ENDF had stockpiled in the past decade is now turned upon its former master, so that even if it manages to gain the upper hand in the conflict it will be forced to once more look for replacements. In the meantime, the country suffers, with combat casualties piling up and much of its northern regions in turmoil.

Ethiopian personnel along with their Chinese instructors in front of an AR2 MRL in Ethiopia