Hundreds of HIMARS systems for Poland: Rocket Revolution in the Polish Military
The procurement plan envisaging the acquisition of 500 HIMARS launchers is a symptom of a completely changed approach towards rocket artillery and is a beginning of a plan to gradually increase the capabilities in this department. It is worth considering the premise behind a declaration as such, as well as the ramifications, also extending to the price of the whole system.
It's been years since the long-range rocket artillery system has been first mentioned as one of the potential procurement plans pursued by the Polish military. The Homar programme assumes that the Armed Forces would obtain the capability to strike targets deep in the enemy territory. The system may be used to paralyze any offensive action planned or executed against Poland, and this may be done in multiple ways. The first would involve attacking the attacker's assets and support means, such as logistics or IADS, deep beyond the frontline, long before the enemy even makes contact. This may make it possible to partially eliminate the quantitative advantage the potential adversary may have.
The second purpose of such a system would be to act against the enemy's long-range artillery assets. As we all know, rocket artillery and tactical ballistic missiles always used to be employed broadly by Russia. This is exemplified by BM-27 Uragan, and BM-30 Smerch systems, as well as Tochka-U missiles, all dating back to the Cold War, as well as the latest Tornado-S, Tornado-U, Uragan-1M, or Iskander systems. All systems listed above have been used against Ukraine, whose countermeasures, such as the Vilkha system, remain limited. And this is why "stand-off" engagements are still the case. Kyiv requested the US-made MLRS systems to be delivered, to fill in the gap. Such a system could also act as an air defence asset, acting against the enemy missiles pre-emptively, long before they are launched. In that way, expensive interceptors may be kept unused. A single PAC-3 MSE missile expected to be the cornerstone of the Wisła MRAD system comes at USD 4 million - as the Pentagon's FY2023 budgetary bill notes. And this price is mentioned in the context of procurement alone.
The third dimension involves acting against HVAs, deep behind the enemy lines. Tactical missiles or rockets launched from multiple rocket launch systems to some extent make it possible to destroy enemy command posts, helicopters, or even aircraft on the ground. All of the three elements above may have a relevant impact on the success of the defensive effort, and thus diminish any loss of territory during the first phase of an operation as such. At the moment when the potential aggression begins, the adversary may expect strikes within his territory, not to mention they would be large-scale ones.
Homar: What HIMARS is, what rockets does it shoot?
First, one should note that the Homar system, as a whole, steps far beyond launchers and rockets alone. Every artillery system, convoluted like Homar, also requires a logistics support chain, C2 suite, reconnaissance assets, and so on. It is also worth describing rocket artillery assets in general, to understand the meaning and role this system has in the US Army.
Initially, the WR-300 Homar solution was to use two types of effector - light MLRS launchers, with a range exceeding 60 kilometers, along with tactical ballistic missiles, with a range of 300 kilometers or more. HIMARS system, selected for the Homar project, does meet the aforesaid requirements. It also undergoes modernization.
Today, the system is armed with two types of projectiles, both utilizing INS/GPS guidance units. The first one, GMLRS, offers a maximum range of 70 to 85 kilometers. Every HIMARS launcher can launch up to 6 rockets as such - in 1 launch container. The M270A1 MLRS can launch up to 12. The latter system is heavier and uses a continuous track base platform. The very same launch container can also accommodate a single ATACMS missile, with a range exceeding 300 kilometers.
The US industry is currently working on launching GMLRS-ER rockets production, with these offering a range of 150 to 200 kilometers. Finland would become the first export customer. A relevant decision has been made before the open aggression of Russia, against Ukraine. Meanwhile, ATACMS would be complemented, and ultimately replace the new PrSM effector. The first variant is expected to be capable of destroying targets at a distance of up to 500 kilometers. Another variant would offer a capability against moving targets. It is expected that the range would be extended up to 1,000 kilometers. Furthermore, a single launch container would accommodate two PrSM missiles, not one ATACMS effector.
This would be a major reinforcement of the capabilities of the MLRS and HIMARS systems - operated by the US Army. The Americans, for a few years, have been increasing the quantitative potential of their rocket artillery units. 395 HIMARS launchers remain in service in the US Army, while further examples have been placed in the hands of the USMC. A few years back, deliveries of brand new HIMARS launchers have been restarted. It was thought to store this equipment in Europe. One cannot rule out the fact that more than 400 HIMARS launchers would remain at disposal of the US Army.
The Army Acquisition Objective was brought up from 360 to 415, and the quantity is expected to go up to 521. The Americans also consider this system to be relevant, and cost-effective. Today, a standard US Army HIMARS squadron consists of 2 batteries, 8 launchers each. Two-thirds of those (12) are assigned to the National Guard which owns as many as 192 launchers in artillery brigades. The USMC is willing to introduce more HIMARS systems as well.
The number of M270 MLRS launchers in service is also going to be increased. Some of those belong to the 41st Artillery Brigade stationed in Germany and are stored in Europe. And the number of these is growing, to more than 200. Additional 160 launchers are going to be deployed, created through modification of the withdrawn M270A0 systems upgraded to the M2170A2 standard. The A2 variant, meanwhile, makes it fully possible to utilize the new effectors. The existing M270A1 systems would also soon undergo a similar upgrade. These units would be distributed across 8 squadrons/battalions in the US Army, and the National Guard. It is expected that the structure is expanded, from 2 batteries, 8 launchers each (16), to 3 batteries, 9 launchers each (27). The remaining launchers would become a part of training units, reserves, and Army Prepositioned Stock facilities in the high-risk areas, including but not limited to Europe. Similar to HIMARS systems, the MLRS would be gathered in artillery brigades. It is quite frequent for the National Guard units to actively support the active US Army or allied elements - such as the Polish Armed Forces, during joint exercises.
The operational methodology adopted for HIMARS and MLRS by the US Army plays a key relevance in the comprehension of changes applicable to the use of this system in the Polish military. The first approach towards the Homar programme, launched within the framework of a procurement procedure dating back to 2015, assumed that three squadrons, 18 launchers each would be acquired, along with 1,800 GMLRS rockets. 90% of those were to be license-manufactured in Poland. The Polish MoD also planned to procure more than 50 ATACMS effectors. The domestic industry was to play the role of the key contractor. The consortium was initially led by HSW, then by the PGZ Group, while the system itself was to be delivered in a configuration matching the Polish requirements - with Topaz fire control suite, domestically-manufactured vehicles, and so on. The procurement process failed, for many reasons. Back in 2018, it was ultimately cancelled. To fill in the capability gap, back in 2019 twenty HIMARS launchers were procured, for USD 414 million (net). These are expected to form a single squadron, and two units would act as a training aid. The procurement also entails the acquisition of 270 live GMLRS rockets, 30 tactical ATACMS missiles, the US-Made AFATDS command system and standard FMTV vehicles (for the launcher), and a Humvee, acting as the command vehicle.
However, three squadrons have been considered to be the final number for a long time. According to one of the concepts that have been publicly released, Homar was the system that was to be received by the restored operational fires artillery units (land component level, above the division). And this was the only "destination". These days, the Polish artillery has no strike capabilities above the division level - these are restored as a part of the Homar/HIMARS programme. Deployment of such a system should provide the supervisor with the capacity to act.
The following statement, on operational fires requirement, was made by brig. gen. (res.) Jarosław Wierzcholski, former Head of the Artillery and Missile component of the Polish military: "Usually it's the supervisor that should support the subordinate, not the other way round. This is why the operational level commander, above the division level, shall have a potential of his own, to attack targets at a long distance. This is related to the Homar programme. The capabilities as such, alongside the WR-40 Langusta MLRS system, or the 155 mm Krab howitzers, should be placed at the operational level".
Back in 2017, the first information appeared on the plausible expansion of the scope of the Homar procurement - above the level of three, originally planned squadrons. The Strategic Defence Review implemented at the Polish Ministry of Defence between 2016 and 2017 recommended that around 160 launchers are procured. Public statements aligned with that recommendations were being made by the MoD's representatives at the time. Analysis of an even broader scope of procurement was also unofficially mentioned.
During the exercises taking place at the time, the HIMARS squadron/battalion capacity to support brigade-level elements (specifically the 15th "Giżycka" Mechanized Brigade) was tested. "During the last Saber Strike 18 exercise, as a brigade commander, I was assigned a reinforcement in a form of extra Stryker carrier battalions, HIMARS rocket artillery battalion, and an Apache helicopter battalion as well. I had to learn how to put that into use, as solutions as such are not typical at the brigade level; what's not typical at that level, at the level of division, is a norm", stated Generał Jarosław Gromadziński, the commander of the 18th Mechanized Division quoted by the Polish Press Agency (before that, he had been the commander of the 15th “Giżycka” Mechanized Brigade).
And this is where we hit the nail on the head. That high number of the HIMARS systems (ca. 80 batteries, 20-27 squadrons, depending on the structure) would mean that not only would they be deployed at the operational level, but also at the tactical level: within the squadron-level artillery regiments, and then, later, also in the brigades. A decision was made to introduce the system expected to be available solely to the branch commander, one, or even two levels below the expected positioning. In other words, ultimately, all of the brigade commanders are to be able to act against targets that are located more than 80 kilometers away, assuming that standard GMLRS munitions are used. The range would be extended if the upgraded munitions become available.
These days, the brigades only have tube artillery assets at their disposal (a single squadron). Some voices suggest that this potential should be greatly expanded. "The artillery plays the key role in that system since it is the main player (...). The system adopted at the 18th Division, a quadruple one, where a single brigade owns four combat battalions, gives greater freedom to the commander. But this renders a higher fire support requirement. My vision assumes that we have large, autonomous, 4-battalion brigades, with at least 2 tube artillery squadrons capable of autonomous operations in two areas, that can provide support for the said brigades", said, back in 2020, Div. Gen. Jarosław Gromadziński, during the Defence24 DAY conference.
Gromadzinski noted that systems that make it possible to attack targets deep behind the enemy lines - such as HIMARS - should only be assigned to the division level. These days, solely the Langusta or BM-21 systems are used there. If the Homar system is indeed deployed at the Division, or even the Brigade level, we may speak of a revolution. That revolution would allow the commanders, at the tactical level, to act against targets deep behind the enemy lines with the assets of their own, also providing the higher-level command with an ability to deliver extra reinforcement of capabilities where the threat levels are at their highest. All of the above would make it possible to stop an enemy who has a quantitative advantage. It may be said then that Homar, in a number of 500 launchers (more than twice as big of an inventory than the numbers of Langusta, BM-21, and RM70 systems altogether, if UN data on conventional weapons is accurate) would arrive right at home.
Of course, submission of the request alone is just the first step. Financing, infrastructure, reconnaissance system, and training all need to be taken care of. The same applies to logistics. The latter matter is to be resolved thanks to the new formula of the programme. It assumes that, despite the FMS procurement, the Homar system would include the Polish Jelcz trucks, and the automated Topaz fire control suite. License-manufacturing of the GMLRS rockets is also a potential option that's on the table.
When it comes to the reconnaissance subsystem - here, the first step has already been made. This refers to the Gladius UAV system. 4 battery-level fire modules of this solution are to be assigned to artillery regiments, providing them with strike and reconnaissance capability at a distance of up to 100 kilometers. This depth is sufficient for the current GMLRS munitions. The most beneficial scenario would see the Homar systems being integrated with the Topaz network. Even if AFATDS is used, the intelligence may still be shared, as both systems are undergoing integration within the ASCA initiative.
The UAVs are just one of the means. Radars, such as Liwiec, are another asset. Poland currently has 10 of those - this is not enough. It is also important for modern communication systems to be common among the individual soldiers (the Army, the Territorial Defence Forces) - so that they are capable of handling and disseminating the information. Relevant training would be required here. Here, the matter is easier, as solutions are available readily in the industry, they just need to be commonalized. IMINT gathered by satellites is another matter. However, steps are being made to fill in the gaps in the space domain as well.
It would be far more challenging to prepare the soldiers, and the logistics background, for maintaining and supporting the Homar system itself. If we take the available US data into account - for instance, the information on the establishment of the 41st artillery brigade - it may be assumed that an MLRS battalion is formed by ca. 400 soldiers. This also needs to include the potential of the reconnaissance and logistics - and that potential is also based on a highly qualified cadre, trained for years.
It seems that the only possible way to establish rocket artillery capabilities so broad, basing them on the HIMARS system in Poland, is to deploy, for continuous rotation, US National Guard, or US Army units, along with several launchers, at least temporarily, based on the Lend-Lease scheme. Let us recall: the National Guard operates most of the HIMARS battalions in the US. The delivered launchers would thus be handled by soldiers already knowing that equipment. It is fairly important to train the trainers as well.
In any other case, even with increased manufacturing capacity or a greater degree of industrial cooperation, if more launchers and missiles/rockets are delivered, there is a high risk that no personnel would be available to handle the extra equipment. The manufacturing capacity for the GMLRS alone has been recently boosted, to quite a significant extent. Even in case of a scenario where the deliveries are distributed across a decade, or even a longer period, two to three squadrons of this complicated system would need to be fielded.
Financing is yet another aspect of this issue. Certainly, the Homar procurement, if implemented at the scale announced (or even at the level of 50% of the announced scope) would be among the most costly programmes pursued by the Polish Armed Forces ever. Therefore, it would be threatened by the potential defence cuts. This is the case even when the expenditure levels are brought up to 3% of GDP - even in a scenario as such there may be a situation in which no sufficient funds are available, due to inflation, unexpected economic crisis, or fluctuation of the currency exchange rates. And one needs to remember this when planning other state expenditures (also the spending regarding the social causes), and overall defining the budgetary politics.
One may add that acquisition of a single HIMARS squadron at a price that was valid in 2019, with a minimum number of rockets, and without any ToT, had a price tag of USD 414 million. Romania paid USD 1.25 bn. for 3 squadrons (56 launchers) back in 2017, with the procurement conditions being pretty much similar. It is easy to calculate that 500 launchers, along with several thousand missiles, could cost more than USD 10 bn. (several billion zlotys).
Paradoxically, however, the Romanian example, as well as the structural changes pursued by the US Army (with the quantitative form of rocket artillery elements being expanded), both show the fact that this strike asset is highly cost-effective. Romania is also procuring the Patriot system, in an offset-less setting, with a minor quantity of missiles - for USD 3.8 bn. This refers to seven batteries (two squadrons). The cost of the expanded Homar programme may be similar to that associated with the Wisła system. And this refers to a much greater number of strike assets - rockets and launchers. This is symptomatic - in the case of Homar we are dealing with a 10-fold increase, as opposed to the original estimates. Meanwhile, for Wisła, the placed request was only aimed at making it possible to get the 8 planned batteries.
Anyway, the FY2023 budgetary bill assumes that a single GMLRS rocket comes at a price of only 170 thousand dollars - less than the Javelin ATGM. The tactical PrSM missile costs around 1.8 million dollars - less than PAC-3 MSE. The last comparison is not an unjustified one. It is cheaper to develop a munition that is to hit a target on the ground, than a missile that is designed to intercept another missile, flying at a high, super, or even hypersonic speed. The acquisition cost is one thing, one should, however, also remember the LCC. And this, in particular, is where industrial cooperation becomes very relevant. It is difficult to predict whether a relevant solution would be achievable. Paradoxically, the US Government may become an ally for Poland.
The introduction of so broad capabilities may be beneficial for the US, as this set of capabilities would relevantly diminish the risk of a conflict breaking out on the NATO Eastern Flank, or of armed aggression targeting the Baltic states. Any development as such would become a significant burden for the US forces. And this is what the United States has been wanting to achieve. Even today, when the ammunition-carrying aircraft bringing munitions to Ukraine land here every day, while the number of the US troops in Europe is higher than 100,000, the US still defines China as the greatest challenge - for instance through statements made by the Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken.
The US is also struggling, tackling numerous problems internally. We do not know how long support for Europe would be endorsed to such an extent - this has been shown by the votes in the Congress, concerning the latest support package for Ukraine. Most of the Republicans in the House of the Representatives expressed their rejection. Up until recently, the Republicans have been the ones to play the violin of the politics targeting the former USSR and Russia.
The Polish broad modernization plans may be taking on this problem in advance. That would entail a major cost and numerous risks, at the implementation stage alone. It seems that it has been considered necessary to secure Poland from a risk of a destructive armed conflict, and meet the requirements of the Article 3 of the Washington Treaty:_ "In order more effectively to achieve the objectives of this Treaty, the Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack." _