A ‘game-changing’ weapon the US is now giving Ukraine started life as a battlefield terror in World War II

Soviet Katyusha rockets launched in the Carpathian Mountains in 1944.Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

  • Ukraine has put US-supplied missile artillery systems to effective use against Russian forces.

  • Modern rocket artillery, such as the HIMARS used in Ukraine, has a long history on the battlefield.

  • The Soviet “Katyusha” is one of the most famous and had a terrible reputation in World War II.

The US-made rocket artillery used by Ukraine to destroy Russian ammunition dumps and command posts has been named “a game changer‘, but the weapon is a descendant of the legendary ‘Katyusha’ rocket launcher used by Soviet troops against Nazi invaders in World War II.

In fact, the Katyusha is more than just a WWII-era weapon. It has become an icon that conjures up images of screaming, flaming rockets streaking across the sky. Since World War II, media reports have often referred to multiple rocket launchers as “Katyushas” (perhaps because many were copies of or actually supplied by the Soviet Union).

Military missiles themselves have a long history. The Chinese were using rockets as early as 200 AD. .

But these early versions did more psychological than physical damage, like large firecrackers rather than deadly weapons.

Soviet BM-13 Katyusha rocket launcher

A Soviet BM-13 Katyusha rocket launcher prepares for combat in November 1943.Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Surprisingly, while Russia tends to lag behind the West in technology, it has long demonstrated an appetite for missiles. Russia used rockets in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828 and developed the first rocket-firing submarine in 1834.

However, the rockets were inaccurate and propelled by gunpowder and could be as dangerous to the operator as the target. They remained a military innovation until World War II.

By the 1930s, advances in solid propellants spurred the development of Soviet battlefield rockets launched from rails mounted on a variety of platforms, including Soviet ZIS-6 trucks, clumsy transport vehicles, and even sleds.

The classic 132 mm Katyusha rocket was the M-13: it was derived from the RS-132 aircraft-launched rocket, was nearly 3 feet long, weighed 93 pounds, had a range of about 5 miles, and had an 11-pound warhead.

“The fin-stabilized rocket was simple to produce, but relatively inaccurate,” author James Prenatt noted in his book “Katyusha.” Katyushas eventually came in many calibers, from lighter 82 mm rockets to heavy 300 mm projectiles, fired from trucks capable of firing 12 to 48 rockets per minute.

Initially treated as a secret weapon forbidden to fall into enemy hands, the BM-13 multiple rocket launcher made its combat debut at the Battle of Smolensk on July 14, 1941.

German Nebelwerfer Rocket Launcher World War II

German Nebelwerfer rocket launchers launched on the Eastern Front in July 1943.Berliner Verlag/Archiv/image alliance via Getty Images

Three weeks after the Nazi invasion of Russia, which had left a trail of devastated 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 erupted in waves of explosions, German soldiers fled in terror from a weapon their enemies were supposed to be incapable of inventing.

The Soviets named the weapon Katyusha, or “Little Kate,” after a popular song. The Germans called it “Stalin’s Organ” after the screech of its launch. Either way, the bloody road from Moscow to the final victory in Berlin was opened by Katyusas.

Cheaper and more agile than towed howitzers, Katyushas were organized into special brigades and rocket divisions, which were concentrated at key points to punch holes through German territory, allowing infantry and tanks to advance across a cratered lunar landscape.

Ironically, the Soviets’ uneasy alliance with the US produced a perfect marriage for the Katyusha: The missiles were mounted on US-made 2.5-ton Studebaker trucks. The Soviets loved their American trucks for their ruggedness, reliability, and four-wheel drive — all superior to smaller Soviet trucks.

Ukrainian rocket artillery BM-21 Grad MLRS

Ukrainian troops launch a Soviet-designed BM-21 Grad multiple launch system in the Luhansk region on June 12.REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Katiusha had limitations. The rockets were notoriously inaccurate and reloading a full salvo could take up to an hour. But Soviet doctrine called for pulverizing the German defenses under a barrage of rockets and artillery shells, and accuracy was less important than massive firepower to destroy or stun the defender.

According to a 1944 Soviet manual, a single Katyusha brigade could fire 1,152 rockets over one square kilometer (0.4 sq mi) in five minutes.

The Germans soon developed their own multiple rocket launcher: the Nebelwerfer (“smoke mortar”), nicknamed “Moaning Minnie” by American soldiers because of the sound it made.

The Nebelwerfer usually consisted of six tubes – firing 150 mm, 210 mm and 300 mm rockets – mounted on a light two-wheeled trailer. Like the Katyusha, it was light, mobile and quite simple compared to howitzers. However, it also suffered from poor accuracy, with smoke trails revealing firing positions on Allied aircraft and artillery.

After World War II, Soviet multiple rocket launchers became popular with militias, warlords and terrorists around the world, from Vietnam and Lebanon to Angola and the Congo. In conflicts where civilian casualties were not usually a concern, the Katyusha’s inaccuracy counted for less than its destructive firepower.

Perhaps because multiple rocket launchers tended to be seen as low-tech and imprecise, they were slow to be adopted by Western militaries.

A Ukrainian soldier points the rockets at a HIMARS vehicle between some trees

Ukrainian soldier with a HIMARS vehicle in Eastern Ukraine on July 1.Anastasia Vlasova for The Washington Post via Getty Images

In 1980, the US adopted the M270 multiple launch system, which is mounted on a tracked launcher. In 2010, the smaller truck-mounted M142 High Mobility Artillery Missile System entered service with the US Army. HIMARS is now shipping to Ukraine.

The MRLS and HIMARS — and newer Russian models like the BM-30 Smerch — are Katyusha’s smarter cousins. Today’s multiple missile launchers are sophisticated, highly computerized and more accurate. Equally important, the missiles they fire are no longer metal tubes with warheads, but precision munitions with GPS and inertial guidance.

A HIMARS may have only six launch tubes, but one missile can hit a precise target—like a Russian ammunition dump—that dozens of old-fashioned Katyusha missiles might either miss completely or hit with massive collateral damage to nearby civilians.

A HIMARS missile can hit targets up to 40 miles away, further than the 20-mile range of a 155mm US-type M109A6 Paladin firing conventional shells. In turn, the US military has developed rocket-assisted howitzer rounds for extra range, which effectively turns the weapon into a sort of missile launcher.

Nevertheless, all of these modern weapons trace their origins 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 Twitter and LinkedIn.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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