Procurement: Long Eyes And Long Reach

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November 10, 2021: Taiwan is undertaking an expensive upgrade of its defenses against the threat of Chinese invasion. The latest example of this upgrade is an order for nearly two billion dollars’ worth of American weapons. This purchase includes 135 SLAM-ER (Standoff Land Attack Missile - Expanded Response) missiles, eleven HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) rocket launchers and six MS-110 reconnaissance pods.

The AGM-84K SLAM-ER entered service in 2000. It is a 675 kg (1,487 pound) cruise missile with a range of 270 kilometers, a speed of 855 kilometers an hour and GPS/shape recognition guidance system that has proved very accurate. The target can be changed or mission aborted remotely by the pilot at any time. SLAM-ER costs nearly a million dollars each and has a 220 kg (500 pound) warhead based on the one used on the Tomahawk cruise missile. SLAM-ER is actually a scaled-up Harpoon anti-ship missile.

HIMARS rocket launcher vehicles fire GPS guided rockets at targets nearly a hundred kilometers distant. Half of the new order HIMARS using heavier trucks with armor added. These heavy trucks are normally used as wreckers for retrieving vehicles that get stuck. HIMARS can also fire larger, longer (300 kilometers) range ATACMS rockets. Each of these takes up an entire pod and each ATACMS carries 300 smaller bombs that can destroy armored vehicles or personnel. Also on order are 65 pods each with six GMLRS rockers and 90 pods with shorter range (and cheaper) practice rockets. The order also includes spares, maintenance equipment and technical support and training.

HIMARS is a cheaper and lighter version of the original MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System). HIMARS is a truck mounted launcher, with each vehicle carrying only one six rocket pod (instead of two in the original MLRS). The 12-ton truck can fit into a C-130 transport (unlike the 22-ton tracked MLRS vehicle). The first of the initial 900 HIMARS vehicles were issued to American combat units in 2004. The U.S. Army is using most of the HIMARS, with the marines getting the rest. A growing number of American allies have become export customers for HIMARS. The key to the combat success of HIMARS is its use of the 227mm diameter 309 kg (680 pound) GMLRS (guided multiple launch rocket system) GPS guided rocket.

GMLRS was first used in 2004. It currently has a range of 85 kilometers and the ability to land within meters of its intended target at any range. This is because of the GPS, plus a less accurate back up inertial guidance system, ability to find its target. Most users buy the rockets equipped with an 82 kg (180 pound) high explosive warhead. The next version of GMLRS will be more accurate and have a range of over a hundred kilometers.

The U.S. Army has bought over 100,000 GMLRS rockets so far, and this weapon has been used with great success in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The guided rocket is, obviously, much more effective than the older, unguided, version and has replaced it.

Perhaps the most useful item ordered are the MS-110 reconnaissance pods. These are digital high-resolution multi-spectral camera pods usually carried by a jet fighter (in this case, F-16s). These pods look like a large, streamlined bomb and use digital cameras to photograph large areas in high resolution and in Multispectral Imaging. This means the high-resolution digital photos are not only in color but also capture data across seven bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. This includes items visible and invisible (to the human eye) and make it difficult to use camouflage to hide things as well as electronic signals. This type of camera is superior to film cameras because no film development is required and digital images are more easily analyzed using software, rather than depending mostly on human photo interpreters. The infrared (heat) sensor of the MS-110 can record everything in the aircraft's flight path, horizon-to-horizon. This means the pod can be carried on an F-16 flying just outside of Chinese territorial waters (that extend 22 kilometers from the coast) and photograph Chinese territory more than 300 kilometers inland, The pod records many gigabytes of data to onboard storage devices and can also transmit less detailed data immediately to a ground station. The pilot can also see what the pod sees, using one of the cockpit displays. Although similar to targeting pods, the recon pods are designed to also take high resolution pictures of large swaths of terrain below, even as the aircraft moves along at 15 kilometers a minute.

 


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