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Marines increase rocket strikes in Afghanistan

Jan. 30, 2013 - 07:58PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 30, 2013 - 07:58PM  |  
In 2012, High Mobility Rocket Artillery System batteries deployed to Helmand province delivered 400 rounds in support of coalition ground forces battling insurgents. That's more than the previous four years combined, according to official tallies
In 2012, High Mobility Rocket Artillery System batteries deployed to Helmand province delivered 400 rounds in support of coalition ground forces battling insurgents. That's more than the previous four years combined, according to official tallies (Marines)
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Serious firepower

The Marine Corps’ High Mobility Rocket Artillery System, or HIMARS, is a rocket artillery ensemble designed to provide mobile, quick fire support to ground forces in combat or pick enemy aircraft out of the sky. It consists of a rocket-launching system mounted on a heavy six-wheeled truck that can quickly traverse terrain to prevent enemy forces from fixing their location. Transportable by KC-130 aircraft, it can lay down fire within 15 minutes of being unloaded. Some specs:
Range: At 40 miles, its fire is accurate to within 26 feet.
Payload: Each truck carries six 200-pound rockets. It can fire M270 artillery rockets or anti-aircraft missiles.
Crew: Three
Weight: 24,000 pounds
Source: Marine Corps

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Marine artillerymen are raining down rockets on insurgents in Afghanistan at a record pace.

In 2012, High Mobility Rocket Artillery System batteries deployed to Helmand province delivered 400 rounds in support of coalition ground forces battling insurgents. That's more than the previous four years combined, according to official tallies.

"When we got here, it was pretty much the peak of the fighting season," Capt. Jason Reukema, the commanding officer of Sierra Battery, 5th Battalion, 11th Marines, told Marine Corps Times in January during a telephone interview from Camp Leatherneck.

The unit, which deployed to Afghanistan in July from Camp Pendleton, Calif., is one of three artillery batteries to cycle through the war zone last year. "What we expected was that once the heat broke, that would pretty much be it for us, that it would get quiet."

Not so. The calls for fire kept coming as summer gave way to fall and then winter. By New Year's Day, Sierra Battery had fired 207 rockets, 14 more than the previous two batteries combined.

There are a number of reasons for the uptick. For one, infantry units have become more familiar with HIMARS, first fielded five years ago to units in Iraq, and are learning to appreciate its speed, ease of use and devastating power, Reukema said.

Sierra Battery deployed as a mixed unit, with HIMARS, M777 howitzers and radar. While the M777 fires artillery shells from a cannon much like a bullet leaves a rifle, HIMARS relies on rocket-propelled munitions to strike targets. And they have a much more powerful payload.

It's a resource that's always available for units in harm's way. Reukema's Marines can be ready to put rounds on target within five minutes without warning, he said. They can do it significantly faster if they are on standby.

"Since we're artillery, we are always on call 24 hours a day. … It is kind of the equivalent of having a [tactical] aircraft checked in on station at all times, no matter the weather, no matter the time of the day," he said.

Furthermore, any Marine can call in HIMARS.

"He doesn't have to be an artillery observer. He doesn't have to be a terminal air controller. He can just be a squad leader able to talk someone onto where a target is."

Once a Marine provides the target location, he sits back and watches the rockets drop. When they do, they have a devastating effect on the enemy.

"The effects and volume of fire are so intense, the feedback we are getting is that once rounds impact, any enemy capable of breaking contact leaves," Reukema said. "If they don't leave, it is easy for us to shift targets and hit repeat, and then they are done."

SOF friendly, super accurate

That accuracy and lethality has made HIMARS an attractive option for special operations forces in the region, another reason Sierra Battery has seen such a high operational tempo.

After the summer fighting died down, much of Sierra's focus shifted to small SOF units, Reukema said. Because they operate independently and lack the heavy firepower most conventional infantry units have, they often fall back on HIMARS to get them out of scrapes with numerically superior enemy forces.

HIMARS also is used at long ranges when collateral damage is a concern, Reukema said. Rockets are less likely to cause unintended damage because their sharper angle of descent allows artillerymen to place them precisely, even between tall buildings. From 40 miles away, they can hit within 26 feet of a target. And on the longest shots, up to 190 miles, they can reach heights of about 164,000 feet.

"The rocket is inevitably going to be a little more accurate at certain ranges just due to the fact that it gets up really high in the atmosphere and comes straight down on the target," he said. "So when collateral damage is a concern you can't wiggle one meter left or right the rocket is going to have an advantage at certain ranges."

There is no sign the op tempo will let up for Sierra or 5-11's Romeo Battery, which is slated to take over responsibility for fire support in Helmand in the weeks to come. But in the not-so-distant future, the calls for fire should decrease, Reukema said. As Afghan forces continue to take responsibility for security throughout Helmand province, the Marines' role there will taper off.

"The Afghans are making really great gains in … their own training with their organic artillery systems. If you take that into account, this should inevitably eventually lead to a decrease in Marine artillery firing.

"But as long as coalition is in the battle space and Marines are here, we are going to be on our launchers and our guns just waiting to hear the words ‘fire mission.'"

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