From ATACMS to PrSM. Prospects for US tactical missile systems








Launching an ATACMS rocket from the M270. US Army Photos

At the moment, the US Army and the US Marine Corps are armed with the ATACMS tactical missile system, based on serial MLRS. Quite a long time ago, it was recognized as unpromising, as a result of which the development of a new OTRK for replacement was started. Upon successful completion of the work, the rearmament will start by the middle of the decade.

Obsolete samples

At the moment, the OTRK class in the American army is represented only by missiles of the ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System – “Army Tactical Missile System”) family of several basic modifications. Products MGM-140, MGM-164 and MGM-168 are single-stage solid-propellant ballistic missiles with a range of up to 300 km and several types of combat load. The missiles are launched by the MLRS M270 MLRS and M142 HIMARS launchers.

OTRK ATACMS was developed in the second half of the eighties, and in 1991 the first MGM-140A missile entered service. In the future, several other ammunition appeared with certain features. Production continued until 2007. By this time, the customer received approx. 3.7 thousand rockets of four modifications. A significant part of them was used during exercises and real operations.

Procurement was discontinued due to the unacceptable balance of cost and effectiveness of the weapon. By 2007, ATACMS missiles were deemed obsolete and not worth purchasing. However, the operation continued – the Pentagon planned to spend the accumulated reserves without replenishing them. In the future, the availability of stocks led to the need for modernization of missiles from warehouses.

Plans for the near future are fully related to the ATACMS SLEP (Service Life Extension Program) project. It provides for the replacement of a number of key components of the rocket in order to extend the service life and somewhat increase the combat performance. The main goal of the SLEP program is to ensure the operation of available missiles until the mid-twenties.

PrSM rocket launch, March 10, 2020 Photo by Lockheed Martin / lockheedmartin.com

In 2023-25. a new OTRK is expected to enter the troops, designed to replace the existing ATACMS. For some time, MGM-140/164/168 missiles will remain in service, but they will be decommissioned as new ones arrive. The whole process can take several years and be completed by 2028-2030.

Promising developments

In 2016, the US Army issued requirements for the promising Long Range Precision Fires program, the goal of which was to create a new OTRK to replace ATACMS. Lockheed Martin and Raytheon soon joined the program. In June 2017, the companies received orders for development work worth $ 116 million. In the future, it was planned to compare the two projects and choose the more successful one.

At the design stage, the LRPF program changed its name to PrSM (Precision Strike Missile). In addition, tactical and technical requirements have changed over time. So, initially, the maximum range of the new OTRK was limited to 499 km – in accordance with the requirements of the existing Treaty on Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles. After the collapse of the agreement, it became known that the actual range could exceed 550 km; according to some estimates, it will reach 700-750 km. Due to these characteristics, PrSM can move from the category of operational-tactical to the class of short-range missiles.

As with ATACMS, the new missile should be used with standard M270 and M142 launchers. At the same time, more stringent requirements are imposed on the dimensions. One standard transport and launch container should fit two missiles. Thus, MLRS should carry four PrMS missiles instead of two ATACMS, HIMARS – two new ones.

Initially, flight tests were planned to begin in mid-2019, but these dates have shifted. The first launch of an experimental rocket developed by Lockheed Martin took place on December 10. On March 10, 2020, the second launch was carried out; the third is scheduled for May. Lockheed Martin PrSM launches are carried out from the M142 facility. The flight range of 240 km was obtained.

From ATACMS to PrSM.  Prospects for US tactical missile systems

General view of the LM PeSM rocket. Lockheed Martin Graphics / lockheedmartin.com

Raytheon’s project, tentatively titled DeepStrike, ran into serious technical problems. The first launch was postponed several times. According to the latest data, it was supposed to take place in the 1st quarter of 2020, but this did not happen.

On March 20, it became known that the Pentagon refused to support the PrSM project from Raytheon. Funding for the work is terminated, which actually means the closure of the project. The reason for this decision was the failure to meet the deadlines for the work and the start of testing. All customer attention will now be focused on the project from Lockheed Martin.

The future of PrSM

According to earlier plans, in 2019-2020. flight tests of two new missiles were to take place, according to the results of which the Pentagon could choose the winner of the program. This would have happened at the end of 2020, and soon a contract was expected for fine-tuning, and then for the serial production of new missiles.

Raytheon and its DeepStrike project have effectively dropped out of the PrSM program, making their results more than predictable. If the army does not dare to close the program for one reason or another, the winner will be the Lockheed Martin company with its missile, which has already been launched for testing.

The project will be completed in the next few years. According to current plans, serial production of the PrSM will start in 2023. The first missile battery will reach its initial operational readiness in 2025. This will be the first step in a fairly long process of transferring rocket artillery to new missile weapons. Time will tell whether all these plans will be fulfilled. So far, the overall situation is not conducive to pessimism.

Possible enemy

Lockheed Martin’s OTRK PrSM project provides for the creation of a ballistic solid-propellant missile, compatible with existing MLRS. In accordance with the requirements of the customer, a two-fold increase in ammunition was provided in comparison with ATACMS.

Features of the Raytheon DeepStrike project. Graphics Raytheon Co. / raytheon.com

The possibility of firing at a distance of 60 to 499 km is declared. The missile is equipped with controls that ensure high accuracy of hitting the target. The modular architecture of the systems should simplify the creation of new modifications and future upgrades. The possibility of carrying different types of warheads is envisaged.

The promising American OTRK compares favorably with its predecessor. In addition, it makes sense to compare it with foreign samples – first of all, Russian ones. From the point of view of the tactical role and tasks, PrSM can be considered an analogue of the Russian OTRK of the Iskander line, and it should be compared with them.

PrSM has some advantages over its foreign counterpart. The first of these is compatibility with existing MLRS launchers, which makes it unnecessary to create new combat vehicles. Transferring parts to new ammunition will be quick and not too difficult.

In the proposed form, the PrSM product and various missiles of the Iskander family have a range of up to 500 km. In the absence of INF restrictions, American weapons can be upgraded with a noticeable increase in range, which will give them advantages over Russian ones. However, it is necessary to recall the accusations from the United States regarding the Russian 9M729 missile. It allegedly has a range of more than 500 km (according to various estimates, up to 2-2.5 thousand km). Accordingly, from the American point of view, even after modernization, the PrSM may be inferior to the Iskander missile.

According to the known data, the company Lockheed Martin offers a “clean” ballistic missile. As part of OTRK “Iskander” is used the so-called. a quasi-ballistic missile capable of changing trajectory and making interception more difficult. In addition, the Russian family includes a cruise missile. This breadth and flexibility of ammunition is an unconditional plus that is absent in the American project.

Russian OTRK “Iskander” is preparing to launch a cruise missile. Photo by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation / mil.ru

The combat qualities of the two complexes as a whole are still extremely difficult to assess. The PrSM system is now at the testing stage and has not yet had time to show all its capabilities. In particular, so far only half of the declared maximum range has been reached. However, new tests are planned, and in the near future the development of “Lockheed Martin” will be able to show its best side.

Better but not the best?

Based on the results of current work, the US armed forces will receive a new operational-tactical missile capable of replacing a number of obsolete models. It will hit further and more accurately, and standard launchers will be able to carry twice as much ammunition. Thus, the work being carried out now will have obvious positive consequences for the combat capability of the army.

However, against the background of advanced foreign systems of its class, the OTRK PrSM looks ambiguous. Over the years, progress in this area has gone ahead, as a result of which the new American complex is at a disadvantage. Will we be able to cope with the existing gap and surpass the competitors – we will find out later.

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