The Texas Rockets Heard 'Round the World

This is the story of a hometown product that is influencing events — and killing people — across the globe. And you’ve probably never heard of it.

This week Lockheed Martin, our friendly neighborhood defense contractor, sent a celebratory statement declaring that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have used one of its mobile rocket launchers for more than one million operational hours. That statistic equates to a lot of frontline deployment, considering that the Army has only started fielding the system since 2005. And there are more hours coming as the weapon sees new action in Iraq — yes, that non-war is still underway — and in Middle Eastern arsenals.

The system is called the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and it’s a proud program for Lockheed. “This milestone is a testament to the legacy of performance and quality of design of the HIMARS system,” said Ken Musculus, vice president of Tactical Missiles at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, based in Grand Prairie. While the missiles and launchers are assembled in Arkansas, the weapon and its fire control system — the brains that enable a crew sitting in the cab to fire a volley of rockets or single guided missiles in under 16 seconds — are the brain children of North Texas engineers. 

HIMARS is at heart a vehicle with rockets mounted on the chassis of a 5-ton truck. The chassis were built at a plant in Sealy, outside Houston. (European-owned BAE Systems shuttered that facility in 2014.) The vehicle can fire a single guided rocket, equipped with a choice of warheads that can detonate in midair to scatter shrapnel, spread bomblets or lay anti-tank mines. Other warheads have a single 196-pound warhead that can demolish a building. The vehicle can also carry a pod with six tubes, each of which can shoot 227mm rockets in closer-range, less precise attacks. 

In many ways, this is the perfect weapon for the kind of hands-off combat strategy that the United States has adopted in the Middle East. It shoots at a distance, keeping American casualties low by firing from well-protected areas. The vehicle's battlefield mobility is not as useful, because no one is shooting artillery back at them, but the system is compact enough to fit inside military cargo airplanes. HIMARS can hit targets with satellite-guided precision, delivering big firepower with the promise of fewer collateral casualties. And it’s cheaper (and in many circumstances, quicker) than flying a warplane over a target. These abilities made HIMARS a weapon-of-choice in Afghanistan and Iraq, and earned the weapon the prized defense industry monicker of "battle tested." 

That million-hour milestone will soon be in the rearview. Last October, a Pentagon spokesman disclosed that these rocket launchers have been deployed to Iraq and are shooting at Islamic State targets. “We provide this air power based on where the Iraqis need it to support a lot of what they're doing,” said Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Colonel Steve Warren. “Sometimes these fires come from the air and sometimes they come from some of our artillery and our HIMARS systems that we've got on the ground here.” Coalition public information officers subsequently told The Washington Post that HIMARS has fired more than 400 rockets between midsummer, when the rocket artillery arrived in Iraq, and October’s disclosure they had been deployed.

One million operational hours may seem staggering, but HIMARS isn’t exclusive to the United States military so that count is actually higher. Like many weapons systems, this rocket artillery truck is sold internationally. The armies of Jordan, Taiwan and Singapore have them, but the biggest customer has been the United Arab Emirates. They’ve been ordering these things since 2006, and have placed more than $1 billion in orders. In late December, Lockheed signed a $28.6 million contract to provide a dozen High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems to the UAE. These HIMARS are seeing action: The UAE army moved these weapons into war-torn Yemen in August, according to reports and photos from those on the ground. Those reports include dozens of civilian casualties caused by cluster munitions, according to Human Rights Watch. Lockheed engineers in Grand Prairie are currently upgrading its warheads to comply with an international treaty to eliminate cluster munitions by 2018.

The Middle East is arming at a staggering rate, and you can credit the Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia for fueling the arms sales. The UAE is often forgotten about, but they are also worried about Iran’s growing power and are among the best customers for American-made weapons. (The civil war in Yemen is essentially a proxy conflict between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.) In 2014 the UAE accounted for as much as 8 percent of U.S. arms exports, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

As for Lockheed Martin, the company is bucking trends. SIPRI noted late last year that "US companies’ arms sales decreased by 4.1 percent between 2013 and 2014, which is similar to the rate of decline seen in 2012–13.” (In case you were wondering, current US military spending is still 45 percent higher than it was in 2001.) However, the weapons-monitoring group in 2014 cited Lockheed’s arms sales as growing by 3.9 percent to $37.5 billion in 2014. The sales to the UAE have helped buoy those numbers, and will help keep Lockheed in the black. An expected deal to sell a HIMARS variant to Poland will mean even more sales, with the rockets aimed across the border toward Russia. 

So, our hometown rockets are making waves. They just happen to be shock waves of hundreds of pounds of explosives exploding. And with sales increasing, you can expect their frontline use to increase as well.

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Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo

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