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This Portable Chinese Rocket Threatens The US Military

January 4, 2020

Via Wikimedia Commons.

On December 27 the K-1 airbase used by Operation Inherent Resolve forces located northwest of Kirkuk–Iraq’s disputed oil-rich city–came under intense rocket attack. The source of the rockets was later found; the perpetrators modified a small truck to fire 30 rockets without being detected. Unused munitions discovered near the truck had markings that showed they were manufactured in Iran. These ubiquitous 107 mm rockets were favored artillery weapons during the long war against ISIS from 2014 until 2017. As far back as the Saddam-era the Iraqi army kept significant stores of the same munitions except these were imported from China. The same rockets are found in the Syrian Civil War albeit sourced from different suppliers.

The Kirkuk attack left one US citizen dead and wounded four others, a toll confirmed by the State Department and other government agencies. The bombardment triggered a dire escalation bringing Tehran and Washington, DC to the verge of war. On December 29 airstrikes were carried out by F-15E’s against an Iraqi militia backed by Iran, leaving scores of its members dead. On New Year’s eve the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone was almost overrun by members of Kataib Hezbollah, the same group that bore the brunt of the earlier airstrikes, whose members vandalized the entrance and threw rocks at the security guards. While the embassy was locked down by January 2, with the violent demonstrators nowhere in sight, on the early morning of January 3 another airstrike killed the leader of Kataib Hezbollah and Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani as they left Baghdad International Airport by car.

Whatever the outcome of the present crisis its timeline shows how effective battlefield rockets are. The ones that shook K-1 and led to a sudden US retaliation are mass-produced with ease by Iran’s DIO and are known to wreak havoc in combat. Their range is impressive, being able to strike targets anywhere from a few hundred meters distant to eight kilometers away. The Chinese models of the same rockets are notorious for their sturdiness and have menaced US troops in Afghanistan for two decades now. (Type 63 rockets were supplied to the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s.) To think not a single effective countermeasure is in use for protecting US bases and outposts from these rockets six decades since US soldiers first encountered them during the Vietnam War. Perhaps a deeper historical perspective is needed to understand why 107 mm rockets are so successful today.

Portable rocket artillery flourished in the early years of the Cold War. The US military had their 110 mm M16 rockets and the Soviets developed 140 mm rockets for their airborne forces. But these munitions were soon abandoned while the Chinese, who joined the trend much later, exploited the demand that arose for the PLA’s Type 63 107 mm rockets by so many small wars in the late 20th century. Exports didn’t hurt too and the technology for making 107 mm rockets was shared with Egypt, Iran, and North Korea. Later on munitions factories in Turkey, Serbia, and Sudan achieved the same. In hindsight, the result of this proliferation isn’t surprising at all–the Middle East and North Africa are now awash with Type 63 rockets and their launchers.

The biggest draw for armies to embrace the Type 63 is how adaptable the rockets and their launchers are. From a logistics standpoint, keeping and transporting 107 mm rounds is no different from howitzer and mortar shells; they’re small enough to be carried anywhere and stored wherever. (As the Taliban have long practiced.) Both China and North Korea developed specialized vehicles mounting 107 mm rocket launchers with multiple tubes. Type 63 launchers are compact enough for installation on a pickup truck’s bed as seen in many African countries. For guerilla warfare, a towed Type 63 rocket launcher can be disassembled and reconfigured for single use, with just a tube positioned for firing and then loaded with a rocket triggered by an electric fuse–or copper wire!

Iran’s 107 mm rocket launchers come in multiple variants. Most recognizable is the Safir jeep, a small 4×4 off-road transport, mounting a 12-tube launcher for the DIO’s 107 mm rockets. Of course, the fiery ignition and back blast requires the operator to launch the rockets from a  distance using a handheld detonator with a cable connection. For insurgents and terrorists alike, having 107 mm rockets is a godsend as they’re powerful enough to destroy the enemy’s infrastructure and cause mass casualties. They don’t need the launchers if a clandestine workshop is ready to assemble improvised stands for holding the rockets in place before firing.

The US Army and Marine Corps are still looking for a suitable short-range anti-missile countermeasure for when they deploy abroad. Israel’s Iron Dome isn’t useful because it’s a static platform better at defending fixed sites. Meanwhile, actual laser weapons developed by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon haven’t entered service even when they’ve been tailored for adaptability. Without proper defenses to protect its soldiers in high risk missions the only available tools at the moment are perimeter security and gathering precise intelligence on enemy movements. This is the best that can de done for now.

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