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The Philippine Army Wants More Rocket Artillery

May 3, 2022
Via Wikimedia Commons.

Large caliber rocket artillery is the next big acquisition of the ground forces now that its self-propelled 155mm howitzer battalion is operational. Although specifics are hazy the ADAS 2022 arms show from April 27 to 29 served as a rare public event for the military. The Philippine Army in particular have medium-term plans for adding to the batch of donated South Korea-made Kooryong rocket artillery systems with a more contemporary launcher. During ADAS 2022 stock images on tarpaulins used by the army and the Government Arsenal, a state-owned munitions factory, showed the US-made HIMARS but there are no credible indicators its purchase is underway.

The South Korean K136 Kooryong is a 6×6 flatbed truck mounting a launcher with 36 tubes for 130mm rockets. It’s the closest analog to the Soviet vintage BM-21 Grad–itself widely imitated–developed by a US ally. Taiwan’s army fielded a similar rocket artillery system in the 1980s called the “Kung Feng,” albeit with smaller munitions. The Philippine Army’s choice of the Kooryong appears strange in hindsight as it’s an outdated weapon system whose munitions aren’t as common as the 122mm Grad. (In Southeast Asia alone, copies of 122m rockets are manufactured by Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.)

It’s important to emphasize the massive role South Korean manufacturers had in fulfilling the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) modernization plans since 2012, the year a law was passed to enable faster procurement timelines. The arrival of South Korean-made frigates restored the Philippine Navy’s fleet and the air force’s KAI FA-50 lead-in fighter/trainers were indispensable during the battle for Marawi in 2017. An immense motor pool supplied by Kia maintains the Philippine Army’s logistical reach. It’s not surprising then how even an aging artillery system like the Kooryong was chosen from a trusted source. But the army understands the threat of territorial loss and having to defend vast coastlines requires what the US military refers to as “long-range precision fires.

Past history makes the Lockheed Martin HIMARS, if just a single battery is acquired, a practical choice for the Philippine Army as the vehicle’s characteristics are suited to the country’s terrain and topography. The 6×6 Oshkosh MTV that supports the launcher is nimble enough for driving across paved roads and dirt paths. It also fits inside a Philippine Air Force (PAF) C-130 medium transport and will have no problems boarding a RORO or roll-on/roll-off vessel or a naval landing ship. Each HIMARS mounts a box launcher for six 227mm M31-series munitions that have extreme ranges depending on their type, from 70 to 150 kilometers. The HIMARS does launch ballistic missiles such as the ATACMS, which are being supplied to Taiwan, and the newer PrSM that has an effective range beyond 500 km.

However, with US foreign military sales being a complicated leveraging of diplomatic clout and strict export controls the Philippine Army’s HIMARS battalion isn’t set in stone. Other choices from Israel and South Korea are just as attractive since these rocket artillery systems have equal, if not greater, firepower. The K239 Chunmoo, for example, is an 8×8 armored truck whose launcher is equipped with two pods designed for either unguided rockets or accurized rockets in three calibers. Both Israel and South Korea are allowed to export short-range ballistic missiles too and these can be adapted for the end user’s transporter of choice. The Elbit Systems Predator Hawk, for example, is a best-in-class munition with a maximum range of 300 km. It doesn’t hurt that Elbit Systems won contracts to equip all branches of the AFP, including air defenses, naval systems, and surveillance drones. If the Philippine Army does cast a wider net it’s spoiled for choices among suppliers less demanding than the US.

Other contenders for the army’s next large caliber rocket artillery weapon system are India with its excellent Pinaka Mark II and then Turkey whose Roketsan offers either the TRG-230 or the TRG-300. Even distant Brazil is in the arena since its emergence as a key partner in the AFP’s modernization–its Guarani 6×6 APCs are now the army’s premium combat vehicle and Embraer Super Tucanos are prized by the air force. This means the Avibras Astros-series, considered among the best in the world, is a top choice especially when the neighboring militaries of Indonesia and Malaysia operate them. Moving deeper into Europe only Serbia emerges as a potential supplier with its new generation of rocket artillery such as the Tamnava whose munitions rival their equivalents in South Korea and the US. For geopolitical reasons, rocket artillery manufactured by China and Russia–regardless of their merits–are unlikely to be considered. Neither are the recent efforts by Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan on the same weapons owing to a lack of diplomatic contacts and familiarity.

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