The Amazing Career Of The Type 63 Rocket Launcher
It used to be an indispensable artillery piece for China’s ground forces. Now it’s a clear favorite among armies and rebel militias across three continents. This is the story of the Type 63 rocket launcher–and its clones.
Like a cement mixer’s carriage attached to a rack of sewage pipes, the Type 63 isn’t winning any prizes for looks. Put it this way: if the global arms industry were a high school yearbook this Chinese stunner gets dismissed as “least likely to succeed” in its class.
But in 50 years of modern war the Type 63 achieved the opposite and menaced the world’s battlefields. Its success is proof that simple and effective–even crude–weapons can outlive their shinier next-generation peers.
Rockets have been used in warfare for centuries. But it was during World War Two when their usefulness trebled. On the ground, fiery salvos of rockets saturated the enemy before an assault, wrecking lines and scattering ranks. Of course, the most popular rocket system that emerged from the period was the Soviet Katyusha on a truck bed. Less notorious was the Nazi Nebelwerfer that was towed like a field piece and lobbed six enormous 150mm rounds.
Though the Allies were very enthusiastic about rockets themselves these systems were abandoned after the war. The Soviets, on the other hand, stuck with the concept and introduced new self-propelled multiple rocket systems during the 1950s. One particular model, the BM-14, was a flatbed truck with 16 tubes of 140mm rockets. Until it was replaced by the notorious BM-21 Grad in 1963, the BM-14’s design was altered for different needs. One of them, the RPU-14, had the same 16 tubes arranged in four rows. It was meant to be a towed field piece for airborne units.
At some point in the late 1950s China’s state-owned manufacturers managed to adopt the same rocket technology for the PLA but made some specific changes. In 1963 a similar portable rocket artillery system arrived patterned after the RPU-14. Mounted on a carriage with split trails, it supported 12 tubes for individual 107mm rockets.
This artillery system was passed on to the North Vietnamese during the long confrontation with the US. It wasn’t until 1968, however, that 107mm rockets were first identified when used against the joint American and South Vietnamese artillery base in Quan Loi.
Weighing less and packing a smaller punch than the 140mm and 122mm Soviet rockets, the 107mm’s and their odd 12-round launcher were a nuisance to the US crusade in Vietnam. The rockets themselves didn’t need the complete system to operate; the launchers were man-portable anyway, easy to disassemble and transport by hand or mule. The North Vietnamese and their allies often preferred using the rockets singly or in pairs, with wooden planks, copper wire, and earthen dugouts forming crude launch mechanisms.
With Vietnam unified by force in 1975 the country’s relations with China quickly spiraled out of control. By the time the Sino-Vietnamese War broke out in 1979 the arms Beijing once exported to its proxy were used against its own troops. It’s unclear how the peculiar towed rocket launcher that was so useful for guerilla forces performed in this conflict or even earned its name. But it was eventually recognized as the Type 63.
Hot Sands, Cold Mountains
Since transparency can never be expected from China’s record of arms exports, learning how the Type 63 reached the Middle East is almost a fool’s errand. But, with inexplicable suddenness, it did spread outside the sweltering jungles of Southeast Asia and found new patrons. It was the grueling civil war in Lebanon where the Type 63, always a favorite of militias and irregular forces, further established its niche.
The Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) armed wing deployed the Type 63 and its ubiquitous rockets in the many battles it fought against Israel and rival militias in the early 1980s. How they managed to acquire the rockets is a matter of guesswork. While the PLO were eager clients of Eastern Bloc arms, the middlemen who bought them Chinese-made rockets can never be known. Was it Syria? Iraq? Shady financiers in the Gulf?
Two other conflicts ensured the Type 63’s bestseller status. Burdened by the long attrition against Iraq, a desperate Iran turned to China and North Korea for arms and ordnance. Everything from tanks to field guns were absorbed by the embattled Islamic Republic. Likewise, the overt Western-backed effort to thwart the Soviets in Afghanistan created a bizarre alliance held together by illicit deals. Awash with funds from Saudi Arabia, the CIA and their Pakistani counterparts imported vast quantities of Chinese-made armaments for the Pashtun Mujahideen.
Aside from the usual AK-47’s and machine guns, these deliveries includes recoilless rifles, mortars, and light artillery pieces–like the Type 63.
Weighing less than half a ton when assembled, the Type 63 could launch a complete salvo of 12 rockets or less at ranges up to eight kilometers. If this was too risky, individual fighters may take the rockets and prop them on stones along hillsides, using electrical wires as fuses. This unorthodox tactic remained popular during the long guerilla war against NATO in the 21st century. When CJ Chivers attempted tracing the Type 63’s colorful lineage in 2011, he learned how local militias like the Taliban commissioned workshops to assemble crude launchers for 107mm rockets, which could wreak havoc on stationary bases and parked vehicles.
Being a fixture in third world battlefields didn’t tarnish the Type 63’s reputation. Its original customer the PLA continued improving the system in the 1980s and it’s unclear if Type 63 production has ceased in mainland China or if it’s no longer used. Meanwhile, as the 1990s got underway and superpower rivalry ebbed the Type 63 managed to enjoy continued success.
Not only were various civil wars raging across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia but each theater always saw the Type 63 in use. This is where its innate ruggedness and low-grade sophistication came into play. Assembled from steel and truck tires, all of the Type 63’s parts can be sourced from local machine shops and garages. The only hurdles are its optical sight and a basic control/launch panel for triggering its electric fuze.
During the Soviet-Afghan War the Type 63 allowed its operator to fire from a concealed position using a remote control attached to the launcher via cable. The Type 63 or any of its DIY variants, however, are useless without their 107mm rockets. If these can’t be bought from China, then where?
There was another powerful influence on the Type 63’s success. The copycats. Beginning with North Korea and its obsession with rocket artillery, the Type 63’s parts and munitions have proliferated like wildfire. The best customers were always state-owned ordnance factories and what allowed them to build their own models patterned after the Type 63 was a curious absence of any copyright protection from China. This is important to note since until now finding the Type 63’s original manufacturer on the web produces no results.
Yet when it comes to potential suppliers for Type 63’s and their rockets there is no shortage of options.
Turkey’s Roketsan, for example, has the TR-107 that can be adjusted to launch heftier 122mm rockets. Neighboring Iran refuses to be left behind since its mysterious Defense Industries Organization (DIO) builds a towed and vehicle-mounted “107mm Multi Rocket Launcher” too. There’s reason to believe it’s Turkey and Iran, rather than China, who are now spreading Type 63 clones, launchers and their rockets, in the Middle East and Africa.
It’s a perverse irony how two competing Type 63’s, the Turkish and the Iranian variants, have ended up in the Syrian Civil War alongside the Chinese originals. Between the mid-1990s and early 2000s war-torn Sudan managed to expand its manufacturing sector. This included a domestic arms industry that produced the “Taka”–another Type 63 clone!
Iran remains the Type 63’s most enthusiastic user at present, having applied the system to attack boats, crude stationary mounts, and vehicles. The appeal requires little explanation. It’s small, cheap, and quite effective for armies on a shoestring budget.
When a pickup truck armed with 24 107mm launch tubes was displayed at an arms show in Azerbaijan–no doubt based on the Turkish TR-107–it was undeniable proof the concept of lightweight rocket artillery remains an attractive one. Likewise for Serbia whose state-owned arms exporter is offering a customized 24-tube rocket artillery system designed for 107mm rounds mounted on a flatbed truck.
The same urgency to produce an affordable rocket artillery system appears to have inspired companies like M Adler D Ltd. who are building launchers patterned after the iconic Type 63. Since it’s been used and coveted by at least 30 countries in the last 50 years potential customers for the Type 63’s descendants might keep lining up. Maybe rocket launchers like it provide better insights into what tomorrow’s wars will be like.