On February 24, 1991, the ground phase of Operation Desert Storm began. Over the next four days, the soldiers of an international coalition, formed to eject the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein from the neighboring nation of Kuwait, carried out a whirlwind offensive that quickly overwhelmed their foe. During this time, tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers were taken prisoner.
Many of them, arms thrust upward in a sign of surrender, said one thing when they were taken into custody: “No more steel rain.” For weeks before the ground attack, these men had been systematically pummeled by the entire range of weaponry available to their opponents—B-52 bombing strikes, air attacks using tons of precision “smart” weapons, plus many more thousands of tons of traditional unguided bombs and rockets. Added to this was the close air support of fighter-bomber aircraft and attack helicopters. Artillery barrages dropped down on them by the dozens and hundreds, adding yet another level to the pounding they received.
The cries of “no more steel rain” applied to none of these, however. Instead, it was the nickname of a deadly new artillery weapon seeing its debut in combat: the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System, or MLRS. Batteries of these weapons had been deployed to the Gulf with U.S. and British forces, who used them to blanket their target areas with hundreds of rockets releasing thousands of explosive submunitions, or bomblets, that devastated armored vehicles, trucks, equipment, and men. Volleys of rockets pounded the hapless Iraqi troops and paved the way for the sweeping infantry and armor assaults that followed. The MLRS proved itself alongside such other late-Cold War weapons as the M1 Abrams tank, M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and AH64 Apache helicopter. Like these weapons, the MLRS had its origins in the 1970s development programs of the post-Vietnam era.
The MLRS Concept Takes Shape
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War drew most of the focus away from the traditional enemies of the time, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. As the United States gradually withdrew from the conflict in Asia, its attention once again returned to Eastern Europe, and the U.S. Army was not happy encountering the Russians’ new claws. The Soviets had taken advantage of America’s distraction to build up its conventional forces to unprecedented levels. The Warsaw Pact now sat across the Iron Curtain with tens of thousands of new tanks, armored vehicles, cannons, and rocket artillery pieces. Artillery had always weighed heavily in Soviet planning, and they now had new, longer-ranged cannons than most comparable American weapons.