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The Dubious Rocket Artillery Of The Taliban

May 1, 2023
BM-21 Grad launchers at Bagram in 2022.

There’s no question Afghanistan is awash in weaponry. It’s an ugly predicament that has caused the downfall of successive regimes over the last five decades. With the Taliban now on the cusp of their second year in power since they overran Kabul in August 2021 their leadership have shown no inclination for a lasting peace. In fact, judging by Taliban propaganda, advertising their hard won victory and martial strength is an essential task. To their credit they have swept up a lot of weapons including the same Soviet vintage rockets and ballistic missiles they used to own in the late 1990s. It’s begging to be asked: Is this ordnance even functional?

During a military parade in late August 2022–meant to commemorate their triumph over the US-backed government the previous year–the Taliban organized a serious display of its manpower and equipment. The unexpected part was a collection of artillery and rocket launchers that have been absent in the vanquished Afghan National Army (ANA) for a long while. The Taliban are once again in possession of Soviet vintage BM-21 Grad rocket artillery systems and they showed six of these at the parade. The BM-21 was still ubiquitous in the 1990s when the crumbling Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) fielded a sizable ground force patterned after its departed Soviet patrons. After the fall of Kabul in 1991 to the Mujahideen BM-21’s were collected by the different ethnic armies who later coalesced into the “Northern Alliance” that was backed by several countries, including India and Iran.

When the Taliban overran Kabul in 1996 they gathered up enough leftover conventional weapons including the BM-27 Uragan and the 9K52 Luna-M or FROG-7, both of which use the same wheeled transporter. The BM-27 is a rocket artillery system with 16 tubes for its 220mm munitions and has a combat record that extends until today. The Luna-M is a true relic of the Cold War and was outdated by the 1980s although a lot of communist armies and Soviet clients fielded it like Iraq and North Korea. Although the Luna-M is described as nuclear-capable its range is limited by today’s standards–between 60 and 70 kilometers at its farthest–and this is a drawback when smaller solid fuel rocket munitions can now achieve ranges exceeding 120 km and even 200 km. But the Taliban dusted off the Luna-M relics they have once again acquired and had them driven on trailers for their victory parade.

An M1100-series Humvee mounting a Type 63 rocket launcher.

The same was done for at least three R-17E short-range ballistic missiles and their transporters. These familiar Soviet missiles were in high demand from the 1970s onward but are now antiquated considering their elaborate liquid propulsion that require minutes of preparation and a guidance system inferior to contemporary navigation tools. Just like the Luna-M each R-17E or “Scud B” missile is inadequate when ranked against today’s generation of SRBMs. There’s little evidence to suggest the Taliban’s R-17E’s are functional aside from static units that can no longer be operated. Their likeliest problems at this point are each missile’s unusable engines and the absence of liquid propellants and the technicians who can prepare these before each launch. Several countries have maintained R-17E’s for their “rocket forces’ and the common denominator among them are specialists who are dedicated to operating the system and its infrastructure.

The same problem clouds the Taliban’s inventory of rockets for the Type 63–a throwback to the 1980s when these were supplied by China and the US–and BM-21 and BM-27 rocket launchers. There are no local munitions plants to replenish the existing stock along with the important subsystems like optics and even basic guidance systems. At least with the portable Type 63 launcher and its 107mm rockets a functioning workshop is complete with lathes and mills are all that’s needed for assembling the rockets and their fuzes. This is how China’s state-owned factories mass-produced them for decades. The Taliban’s fighters have a long familiarity with the Chinese rockets and many improvised launchers were made for these during the difficult years battling the US and NATO.

There are enough clues indicating the Taliban have plans to stand up a large conventional army but their isolation, along with serious financial constraints, makes this goal problematic. When it comes to their myriad artillery systems, almost all being outdated, the real challenge is organizing and then building a military-industrial sector for maintaining the arsenal. To focus on rocket artillery, the metal forming and refining of propellants for small rockets are within reach, but a significant investment in tooling and engineering expertise is what sets the stage for further production of this ordnance. If the Taliban’s commanders suddenly have a fondness for long-range fires and precision guided ordnance their rocket artillery is the shortest way to achieve both. Yet the absence of a credible state-owned manufacturing sector involved with metal forming, composite materials, industrial chemicals, and microelectronics puts these lofty goals to bed.

At least on paper the Taliban have a sizable collection of rocket artillery: Type 63’s, Grads, Uragans, and Luna-M’s. But without genuine production the Taliban’s biggest rockets are museum pieces.

The former Soviet Union left an arsenal of Luna-M rockets and R-17E missiles for its doomed ally the DRA. Now the Taliban are in possession of a few remaining launchers.

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