Ukraine has put US-supplied rocket artillery systems to effective use against Russian forces.
Modern rocket artillery such as the HIMARS in use in Ukraine has a long history on the battlefield.
The “Katyusha” of the Soviets is one of the best known and had a frightening reputation in World War II.
The US-made rocket artillery that Ukraine is using to destroy Russian ammunition depots and command posts has been called “a game changer“, but the weapon is a descendant of the legendary “Katyusha” rocket launcher that Soviet troops used against invading Nazis in WWII.
In fact, Katyusha is more than a WWII-era weapon. It has become an icon conjuring up images of howling, flaming volleys of rockets streaking across the sky. Since World War II, media reports have frequently referred to various rocket launchers as “Katyushas” (perhaps because many were copies or even supplied by the Soviet Union).
Military rockets themselves have a long history. The Chinese used rockets as early as 200 AD The Indians used them against the British in the 1700s, and the British stole the idea to use against the Americans in the War of 1812 – the “red glow of rockets” from the Star-Spangled Banner.
But these early versions inflicted more psychological damage than physical damage, such as large fireworks rather than deadly weapons.
Oddly, while Russia tends to lag behind the West in technology, it has long demonstrated a talent for rocketry. Russia employed rockets in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828 and developed the first rocket-launching submarine in 1834.
However, the rockets were inaccurate and propelled by gunpowder and could be as dangerous to the operator as they were to the target. They remained a military novelty until World War II.
In the 1930s, advances in solid thrusters spurred the development of rail-launched Soviet battlefield rockets mounted on a variety of platforms, including Soviet ZIS-6 trucks, clunky transporters, and even sleds.
The classic 132mm Katyusha rocket was the M-13: derived from the RS-132 aircraft-launched rocket, it was nearly 3 feet long, weighed 93 pounds, had a range of about 5 miles, and carried an 11-pound warhead.
“The fin-stabilized rocket was simple to produce but relatively inaccurate,” noted author James Prenatt in his book “Katyusha.” Katyushas eventually came in various calibers, from lighter 82mm rockets to heavy 300mm truck-launched projectiles that could fire 12 to 48 rockets per minute.
Initially treated as a secret weapon prohibited from falling into enemy hands, the BM-13 multiple rocket launcher made its combat debut at the Battle of Smolensk on July 14, 1941.
Three weeks after the Nazi invasion of Russia, which left a trail of shattered Soviet armies and long columns of prisoners, German troops were confident they could conquer the “primitive” Soviets before the winter snows fell.
Instead, as the ground exploded in waves of explosions, German soldiers fled in terror from a weapon their enemies shouldn’t have been able to invent.
The Soviets nicknamed the weapon Katyusha, or “Little Kate”, after a popular song. The Germans called it “Stalin’s Organ” for the howl of its release. In any case, Moscow’s bloody road to final victory in Berlin was paved by Katyushas.
Cheaper and more mobile than towed howitzers, Katyushas were organized into special rocket brigades and divisions, which focused on key points to blast holes in German trenches, allowing infantry and tanks to advance across a cratered lunar landscape. .
Ironically, the Soviets’ difficult alliance with the US produced a perfect marriage for the Katyusha: the rockets were mounted on top of US-made 2.5-ton Studebaker trucks. The Soviets loved their American trucks for their sturdiness, reliability, and four-wheel drive – all superior to smaller Soviet trucks.
Katyusha had limitations. Rockets were notoriously inaccurate and reloading a full salvo could take up to an hour. But Soviet doctrine called for the pulverizing of German defenses under a deluge of rockets and artillery shells, and accuracy was less important than mass firepower to destroy or stun the defender.
A single Katyusha brigade could launch 1,152 rockets across a square kilometer (0.4 square miles) in five minutes, according to a 1944 Soviet manual.
The Germans soon deployed their own multiple rocket launcher: the Nebelwerfer (“smoke mortar”), nicknamed the “Moaning Minnie” by American soldiers because of the sound it made.
The Nebelwerfer typically consisted of six tubes – firing 150mm, 210mm and 300mm rockets – mounted on a lightweight two-wheeled trailer. Like the Katyusha, it was light, mobile, and quite simple compared to howitzers. However, it also suffered from poor accuracy, as smoke trails revealed firing locations for allied aircraft and artillery.
After World War II, Soviet multiple rocket launchers became popular with militias, warlords, and terrorists across the world, from Vietnam and Lebanon to Angola and Congo. In conflicts where civilian casualties were not usually a concern, the Katyusha’s imprecision counted for less than her devastating firepower.
Perhaps because many rocket launchers tended to be perceived as low-tech and inaccurate, they were slow to be adopted by the Western military.
In 1980, the US adopted the M270 Multiple Rocket Launch System, which is mounted on top of a tracked launcher. In 2010, the smaller truck-mounted M142 high mobility artillery rocket system entered service with the US military. HIMARS is now being shipped to Ukraine.
MRLS and HIMARS — and newer Russian models like the BM-30 Smerch — are the Katyusha’s smarter cousins. Today’s multiple rocket launchers are sophisticated, highly computerized and more accurate. Equally important, the rockets they fire are no longer metal tubes with warheads, but precision munitions with GPS and inertial guidance.
A HIMARS may only have six launch tubes, but a single rocket can hit a precise target – such as a Russian ammunition dump – that dozens of old-fashioned Katyusha rockets can completely miss or hit with massive collateral damage to nearby civilians.
A HIMARS rocket can hit targets up to 40 miles away, farther than the 20-mile range of a US M109A6 Paladin 155mm howitzer firing conventional projectiles. In turn, the US Army has developed rocket-assisted howitzer projectiles for extra range, which effectively turns the howitzer into a sort of rocket launcher.
However, all of these modern weapons trace their lineage to Katyusha in some way. Little Kate’s legacy lives on.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy Magazine and other publications. He holds a master’s degree in political science. follow him on twitter and LinkedIn.
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