Tuesday, 14 December 2021

The Mystery MRLs That Fuelled Both Sides Of The Libyan Conflict

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
In early June 2020, forces loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) captured the strategically important city of Tarhuna, marking the official end of the Libyan National Army's (LNA) 14-month long offensive that aimed to capture Tripoli. [1] In the process of sifting through the spoils of war littered about the city, the GNA encountered a number of MRLs that were at the time completely unknown. Tarhuna had acted as a giant supply depot for LNA forces in Western Libya, and since the LNA received significant military support from the UAE, a link was easily established. [2]
The rocket pods themselves were identified easily enough; they were of the same type delivered by Turkey's Roketsan to be installed on the UAE's massive Jobaria Defense Systems Multiple Cradle Launcher. The truck and erection mechanism were more of an enigma however, unless one has prior knowledge of North Korea's arms deliveries to the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, the erection mechanism is then easily identified (at least for us) as the one used on M-1989 North Korean 240mm multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) acquired by the UAE in 1989. [3]
The truck is also of note, being an uparmoured variant of the Italian Iveco 260/330.35 (also known as the ACP90). This type isn't operated by North Korea, but the fact that the country for a long time lacked a proper heavy truck industry to support its military needs meant that it often improvised by adapting foreign imported designs. In this case, it would appear that the North Koreans simply did not deliver the trucks at all, possibly assisting the Emiratis with modifying suitable platforms to carry the MRLs in the UAE itself.
Since it's unknown how many MRLs the DPRK delivered to the UAE, and the UAE subsequently to the LNA, it is certainly possible that a number still serve in the UAE's armed forces. However, the fact that their unique 240mm munition can no longer be delivered without the risk of incurring multiple sanctions from the United States means that likely all were at some point modified to fire Turkish 122mm munitions and subsequently shipped to Libya for use with the LNA. At least two of them along with several rocket pods were then abandoned by their new owners in Tarhuna.

122mm Roketsan rocket pods left behind by the LNA in Tarhuna.

The 240mm multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) entered service in large numbers in the DPRK, later also seeing commercial success in Iran, Myanmar and Angola. At the time of their introduction they were some of the longest ranged and heaviest MRLs in existence, capable of firing a warhead of 90 kilogrammes at targets up to 43 kilometres away. The variant received by the UAE carries twelve tubes each, meaning a typical barrage from four vehicles can saturate a target with 48 rockets, enough to destroy almost any target.

North Korean 240mm MRLs firing during a UAE armed forces exercise.

Despite their impressive capabilities, the career of this unique MRL in the UAE would prove to be an exceptionally short one. Much like the 170mm Chuch'ep'o "M-1989" Koksan self-propelled gun (SPG) also acquired by the UAE during the same timeframe, the 240mm MRLs were retired to long-time storage already in the late 1990s or early 2000s, possibly still surviving in a warehouse somewhere in the UAE to this day. [3] Their retirement from active service would mean the end of large-calibre MRL operations in the UAE for some time. 
Nonetheless, the concept of completely saturating a target with rocket fire must have resonated with the UAE's military leadership, as the country's next attempt at introducing a MRL capacity would entail the joint design of world's largest MRL system with Turkey's Roketsan company. Known as the Jobaria Multiple Cradle Launcher, this system boasts twelve 122mm rocket pods with twenty rockets each for an impressive total of 240 122mm rocket tubes (or 16 300mm rocket tubes) making it the world's largest rocket artillery by tube count. The number of rocket pods purchased must have far surpassed the needs for the Jobaria, with the other pods ultimately used to rearm the North Korean MRLs. [4]

It is unknown how many of the Emirati-delivered MRLs remain present in Libya. After the capture of at least two systems in Tarhuna, it would take another 1.5 years before one of the MRLs was sighted again, this time near Tripoli. [5] Here the systems continue to see service alongside Turkish-delivered T-122 Sakarya MRLs, which ironically make use of the same 122mm rocket pods by Roketsan that arm the Emirati MRLs. [6] The fact that these same rocket pods ended up being used by both sides in the conflict, and through such diverse paths is a testament to the capriciousness of the modern geopolitical arena.

So concludes the strange tale of Turkish rockets being installed on North Korean MRLs before being shipped off to Libya to to be used against Turkish-supported troops. The future use of Turkish weaponry against their designers seems unlikely, with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates seeking to normalise relations and restore ties, continuing their decades old cultural, military and economic cooperation.

In late November Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE's de facto ruler, met in Ankara. During the meeting both countries signed accords for billions of dollars of investments, including in technology and energy. [7] Perhaps soon the Turkish weapon industry will once again become an important supplier of the UAE, providing it with advanced armament like it did in the case of the UAE's North Korean-borne MRLs.

[1] Disaster at Tarhuna: When Haftar Lost Another Stronghold In Crushing Defeat To The GNA https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2020/09/disaster-at-tarhuna-how-haftar-blew-yet.html
[2] Tracking Arms Transfers By The UAE, Russia, Jordan And Egypt To The Libyan National Army Since 2014 https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2020/06/types-of-arms-and-equipment-supplied-to.html
[3] Inconvenient arms: North Korean weapons in the Middle East https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2020/11/inconvenient-arms-north-korean-weapons.html