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Ukraine Is Pitching Its Newest Rocket Artillery To Asian Countries

May 10, 2021
Via Iraqi media/IQDEX 2021.

The IQDEX 2021 arms show went by with little fanfare even if Iraqi officialdom did their part attending the four-day event that took place from April 10 to 13. A careful perusal of the scant media coverage left behind does provide useful insights on how the Middle East’s demand for military technology is changing. There’s now ample evidence that, when it comes to overall sophistication, Middle Eastern states have the best to choose from. This coincides with a broad regional effort at organizing national armaments industries.

With the US no longer as steadfast as it once was in propping up Iraq as an ally, other countries are trying to fill the gap such as China, Pakistan, and Ukraine.

Ukraine’s official arms exporter Ukroboronprom did participate in IQDEX 2021 with a spacious pavilion and a variety of tabletop models on display. The unexpected surprises were found among the latter when Iraq’s defense ministry shared video clips from the event. The footage revealed a rare rocket artillery system known as the Vilkha-M in a glass case. It turns out this was another successful project of Ukraine’s military-industrial sector, specifically the Luch Design Bureau, that sought to replace large diameter battlefield rockets once supplied by the Russian Federation. The Vilkha-M’s sudden availability for export is a surprise because it isn’t even in service with Ukraine’s ground forces, who remain dependent on their Soviet vintage inventory of Grad and Uragan rocket launchers.

As far as Ukraine’s arms export agency is concerned the Vilkha-M is a best-in-class rocket artillery system whose 300mm munitions are able to strike targets as far as 70 km and when these are upgraded with tandem inertial navigation and GPS guidance, they can reach 110 km. It’s speculated the extreme range munitions under the Vilkha brand rival older ballistic missiles such as the Luna and the Tochka. The tabletop model of the Vilkha-M displayed at IDEX 2021 had an unidentified double cab 8×8 transporter–probably based on a KrAZ-63221 truck–supporting an erector-launcher module holding 12 rockets. According to Ukraine’s arms export agency the Vilkha-M launches a dozen rockets in under a minute with reloading completed in 20 minutes. These eyebrow-raising characteristics might be part of the Vilkha-M’s promotion to set it apart from its estranged sibling, the Russian-made BM-30 Smerch.

The live fire tests for the original Vilkha munitions were conducted using a BM-30 since these rockets are identical to those of the Smerch. The crucial difference between the competitors, however, could be their range. Yet even Russia’s own arms export agency promotes the accurized 300mm munitions of the Smerch whose 120 km maximum range comes with an airburst proximity fuze for releasing bomblets on the target area. Perhaps the competitiveness is found not in the munitions but the price. There’s no price listing for the Vilkha-M but Ukraine’s global reputation as an arms exporter was built on affordability and reliability.

Iraq’s defense ministry had no agreements with Ukraine to boast about during or after IQDEX 2021 but the appearance of the Vilkha-M is significant in its own little way. A best-in-class European rocket artillery system, with no competitors from any NATO member, is now for sale in the Middle East and its characteristics are superior to the familiar Soviet vintage BM-21 Grad and the US-made HIMARS. In fact, when compared to the HIMARS’s own 227mm munitions the Vilkha-M’s unguided 300mm munitions have superior range and explosive power. With the exceptions of Iran, Israel, and Turkey a rocket artillery gap prevails over the Middle East and North Africa. The Vilkha-M is a contender when defense ministries are looking for options that aren’t supplied by China or Russia.

It’s possible for Iraq’s defense ministry to select the Vilkha-M for trials in the near future. There are enough clues about its current and upcoming acquisitions that indicate the army and air force are veering away from just internal security to conventional warfighting and territorial defense. Once feared for its size and strength three decades ago, Iraq’s military at the time possessed the largest missile and rocket artillery arsenal among the Gulf states. Efforts to revive the state-owned military-industrial sector began in 2014 but progress so far is incremental. Acquiring the Vilkha-M, or perhaps a similar Chinese analog, may revive this dormant capability with as few impediments as before.

Readers may wonder about the tabletop model of a tracked APC in the thumbnail image above. It’s Ukraine’s offering for a “tank destroyer”/missile carrier patterned on the Soviet vintage Shturm-S based on the MT-LB that’s still manufactured in Kharkiv. But this variant is armed with the portable Barier anti-tank missile (dimensions are 130mmx1360mm) with a range of 5,000 meters or 5 km–superior to any current ATGM in Europe at the moment, including the Spike-MR/LR and the BGM-71 TOW.

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