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Iraq Is Making Its Own Small Chinese Rockets

April 23, 2021
Inert heavy weapons were on display outside the venue. Via IQDEX/MoD.

Despite scant media coverage the ninth installment of IQDEX, which is the only genuine arms show in Iraq, had ample surprises for participants and visitors alike. For starters, the organizers–with the full cooperation of the defense ministry–wished to emphasize the progress being made in the military-industrial sector. Refurbished heavy weapons, among them a D30 howitzer, were displayed outside the venue. These belonged to the Iraqi Military Industrialization Corporation, also known as the IMIC, and its actual products included the Chinese Type 63 rocket launcher or “tubular rocket launcher 107.”

The Type 63 is the most prolific lightweight rocket artillery system in the world and remains in service with the PLA. Its original usage in the Middle East goes back to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) but the subsequent Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989) established its reputation as an every man’s artillery weapon. After Egypt began mass-producing copies in its state-owned factories Iran followed suit and then Sudan and Turkey, with the latter transferring it to Azerbaijan. Jordan is also suspected of having a dormant production line for these rockets. The common thread among all of these endeavors is China’s willingness to share its technology.

The site known as the “Martyr Factory” is an enterprise under the IMIC whose origins date to the Saddam Hussein-era when it was called the Military Industrialization Corporation. The import substitution that took place in the 1980s was seen as a necessity to sustain the war against Iran and blunt the effect of sanctions. In keeping with the centralized industrialization that’s common in the Middle East the Saddam-era MIC acted as a vast conglomerate directed by the government with numerous factories under its authority. Iraq did succeed in mass-producing small arms and other light weapons along with an ambitious ballistic missile program. But the economic decline of the 1990s brought these very same industries to a halt. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 wiped every vestige of Iraq’s once impressive military industries.

The sea change turned out to be the dreadful summer of 2014 when ISIS swept through northern Iraq and imposed a seven-year war on Baghdad. Although the US poured arms and equipment to the beleaguered Iraqi security forces, whose numbers were almost depleted, the government was scrambling for some form of self-sufficiency. This came to fruition much later in 2016 when the “Martyr Factory” was revived as a repair and overhaul depot and production of 107mm rockets soon restarted. Unfortunately, the minor achievement never made the news anywhere outside Iraq. Five years hence and the MIC does boast some genuine progress; it’s able to restore aging equipment and churn out munitions.

“Tubular Rocket Launcher 107” conforms to the original appearance of the Type 63 except for the wheeled carriage and its folding trails. Mounting it on a platform with four legs suggests these are meant to be loaded on flatbed trucks for a self-propelled artillery system. Each of the launch tubes are armed with high explosive rockets able to reach targets eight kilometers away. This seems modest but is very effective in the slow paced attrition that characterizes the Iraqi military’s recent experience. During the war against ISIS from 2014 until 2019 it was Iran who reacquainted the Iraqis with 107mm rocket artillery; Safir jeeps mounting 12-tube launchers were the most common heavy weapon in the sieges that broke ISIS’ stranglehold over Iraqi towns and cities. Iran’s local proxies are also employing 107mm rockets against US forces on a regular basis.

A particular trend that’s emerging from Iraq’s defense ministry is a gradual pivot from reliance on the US and a willingness to experiment with local mass-production and new partners. During IQDEX 2021, for example, Chinese and Turkish companies participated even when they had slim chances of winning contracts despite how sophisticated their products are. The Iraqi military is still battered, in a financial and material sense, from the war against ISIS. It’s going to take years before its next great transformation is completed.

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