Amid renewed India-China border tensions, the Chinese PLA has deployed a new MLRS rocket system — most likely in the Tibet region — which is capable of destroying a large area within a few seconds.
There are speculations that the Indian Army may have similar weapons in its arsenal.
China’s state-owned Global Times reported on May 10 that an unidentified unit attached to PLA’s Xinjiang Military Command has deployed a new MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) in a “high-altitude plateau”.
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The PLA has replaced its outdated artillery with 10 new PHL-03 long-range rocket systems. This new MLRS is stated to be a novel variant whose rockets feature a guidance system, providing highly accurate targeting in complex terrains.
Chinese experts have indicated that these systems are deployed against India, saying that PLA is poised to protect its integrity after India “purposefully tried to change status quo which eventually led to a months-long border standoff including a fatal confrontation”.
According to analysts, this “high-altitude plateau” with “an elevation of more than 5200 meters” could refer to Tibet, which is close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border dividing India and China.
The latest deployment of rockets can be seen as another act of intimidation by the Chinese PLA.
These “highly mobile, fast-reacting, highly accurate, very deadly and jamming-resistant” rocket systems, as stated by the Chinese media, are suitable for varying mission profiles such as seizing control of key regions and supporting assault maneuvers in all weather conditions.
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The artillery systems are particularly valuable in high altitude terrains, something the Indian Army has mastered over the years since their experiences in the 1999 Kargil war.
The Chinese reports also stated that the new Rocket Artillery unit has replaced the older fully manual towed artillery pieces. No additional information was given about this unit except that it is deployed at a high-altitude plateau.
After the delivery of these systems, the operators started training and familiarisation with the PHL-03s.
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The PHL-03 is yet another example of Chinese craftsmanship, derived from the Russian BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers. This is a multiple launch rocket system comprising 12 launch tubes for 300 mm artillery rockets, along with a computerized fire control system (FCS) incorporating GPS/GLONASS/Beidou.
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Analysts at military-today.com have stated that even though the PHL-03 is a Chinese version of the Smerch, it appears that the Chinese overtook Russians in terms of rockets, as PHL-03s have a longer range (of about 70-130 kilometers) than those of the Smerch (90 km).
Manufacturers claim that Chinese 300 mm rockets are not compatible with the Russian Smerch rockets as these use different propellant motors and components.
China has developed several versions of its own ‘Smerch’, namely the AR-1, AR-1A, AR-2, and AR-3. The AR-3 is capable of launching bigger 370mm rockets.
The Indian Army too possesses the BM-30 Smerch rocket systems, operating several launcher variants for the system, including around 62 9K58 Smerch batteries, each of which has six launch vehicles.
Since 2012, India’s state-owned Ordnance Factory Board has produced several rocket variants for the system that have a strike range of 70 or 90 km.
India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has also developed an indigenous MLRS capable of launching precision-guided munitions. This system is called ‘Pinaka Mk-II’, based on the original Pinaka unguided MLRS.
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The new Mk-II has a range of about 60-80 kilometers, and the experience gained on the Pinaka has made the DRDO also work on developing new guided munitions for the Smerch.
Interestingly, in 2018, the Times of India reported that the Indian Army along with Russian scientists tested a new Smerch “guided missile” cum multi-barrel rocket launcher system, having a feature to ‘change direction’ after firing.
The report also said that DRDO was also working on rockets having “more range than Russian-supplied Smerch rockets”. This could mean that the Indian Army has also tested (and most probably inducted) new guided versions of the Smerch, similar to the Chinese PHL-03.