Arab Republic of Egypt (2016 at the latest – present)
Multiple Rocket Launcher System (MRLS) – at least 24 converted
The Egyptian Ground Forces are one of the largest armies both in the Middle Eastern region and on the African continent. During the first three decades following the end of the Second World War, Egypt was implicated in several conflicts against pro-Western Israel. As such, it is not surprising that the Egyptian Army relied mainly on Soviet equipment during this era. However, changes in diplomatic relations led to Egypt pushing towards closer ties to the West in the 1980s. While Egypt has still bought military equipment from countries like the USSR, a large amount of its state-of-the-art weaponry comes from NATO countries.
Nonetheless, Egypt has far from entirely re-equipped its Army with Western equipment. The Soviet technology acquired in the 1950s to the 1970s has largely been retained in service, and over the years attempts have been made to upgrade or repurpose it. Some of the more famous attempts include the Ramses II main battle tank, a substantially upgraded T-55 from the 2000s. A likely more recent, and lesser-known example is a multiple rocket launcher system which has been created by combining locally-manufactured rocket launchers from BM-21 Grads and ATS-59G tracked artillery tractors and prime movers.
The Grad and the ATS-59G in Egypt
The Egyptian Army bought large quantities of Soviet equipment as early as the 1950s to outfit itself for a potential conflict against Israel after the USA refused to sell them equipment. The BM-21 Grad and ATS-59G artillery tractor were two systems that were introduced in the 1960s in the USSR. Egypt, at the time, was able to access modern Soviet weaponry fairly quickly after its introduction.
Egypt placed an order for 100 of the new BM-21 Grad 122 mm truck-mounted rocket launchers in 1967 and received the systems in the following years, the last being delivered to the Egyptian Army in 1972, just before the Yom Kippur War. In the early 1980s, a number of BM-11s were also acquired. While it may appear similar to Soviet systems, the BM-11 is North Korean. It fires the same rockets as the BM-21 with similar performances, but uses two 3×5 blocks of rocket launchers featuring a total of 30 rockets per salvo in comparison to the Grad’s 40. The North Korean have widely exported it in the Middle East, with BM-11s also being purchased by Syria and Iran in the 1980s. As for the ATS-59G, the date of its introduction in the Egyptian Army is not known but was likely around the same timeline.
The Grad and even BM-11 were, at the time, a fairly new rocket artillery system, with the first mounting a 40-barrel multiple rocket launcher on the Zil-131 truck. It weighed around 13 tonnes, had a crew of three, and a maximum speed of around 75 km/h on a good road. The most widely used rocket in the early years of the BM-21 Grad’s service was the M-21OF or 9M22U, a 66.6 kg rocket that could deliver an 18.4 kg warhead at a range of approximately 20 kilometers. The system had several distinct advantages: being able to fire all of its 40 rockets in 20 seconds, the BM-21 Grad could be a formidable weapon of saturation, with a battery of a dozen vehicles or more being able to deliver hundreds of rockets over a designated area. Though not the most accurate, the firepower of a Grad battery was very impressive. The system could also reposition fairly quickly and, at last, it was generally cheap and affordable. This granted the BM-21 Grad exceptional popularity and longevity, in Egypt and around the world. In Egypt’s case, the Grad would spur a series of locally-developed 122 mm rocket launchers and rockets which have improved upon the original vehicle and are still widely used and produced to this day by the Egyptian ground forces. The designation of the local BM-21 copy is RC-21. A copy of the 122 mm BM-11, exists and is designated RL-21.
In comparison, the ATS-59G is a generally less common artillery tractor. A derivative from the previous ATS-59, it differs from the original model by replacing the original 300 hp engine with a new one called A650, a V12 diesel. It was a close derivative of the V-55 used by tanks such as the T-55 and T-62, but used a limiter so the horsepower output would only reach 300 hp. The vehicle had a good power-to-weight ratio, which was likely well-appreciated in the role of towing artillery pieces. For a weight of 13,750 kg, the ATS-59G sported about 22 hp/tonne. The ATS-59G also used a larger, more spacious cabin seating up to seven people and was NBC-protected, while the ATS-59 would only house two with no such protection. The running gear of the ATS-59 series had generally been based on the T-54, using a similar suspension but reversed, with a front sprocket and a rear idler. It used road wheels with a generally similar architecture, though they are not identical.
The vehicle would typically be used in conjunction with more classic tube artillery, such as the 122 mm D-30. The vehicle has also become somewhat of a popular platform to create self-propelled artillery conversions around the world. The North Korean Tokchon series of self-propelled guns finds its origins in ATS-59 tractors modified as self-propelled artillery pieces. Closer to Egypt, Yemen has mounted the 122 mm on ATS-59Gs, while Ethiopia has used ATS-59 self-propelled guns armed with 130 mm M-46 artillery pieces during the Ethiopian-Eritrean War. The Soviet Union itself had made use of artillery tractors converted as MLRS, using the earlier AT-S tractor with the BM-24 240 mm MLRS. The resulting system was designated BM-24T.
The Egyptian ATS-59G 122 mm multiple rocket launcher system conversion was first spotted at the Raad-31 Exercise. This was a large military maneuver, including an armored component with M1 Abrams tanks as well as a wide variety of artillery pieces, which was held in southern Egypt in 2016.
Exactly when the conversion was made is unclear. Some photos (of which the context is unknown) that appear distinctly older than 2016 exist, and indicate the conversions may very well have been older. Overall, all the components were likely present in Egypt as early as the early 1980s. What is known, however, is that it has been done on a relatively large scale, and is not a one-off conversion or prototype. On the largest shot available of the artillery component of the exercise, 24 of such vehicles can be seen, arranged in two groups of three rows containing four vehicles each.
The conversion removed much of the rear superstructure of the ATS-59G to make space for the launchers, on what appears to be a fully rotatable mount similar to the one found on Soviet systems. The vehicle uses two blocks of 15 launchers, with a total of 30. This indicates it likely uses the RL-21 launching bloc, a license-built BM-11, rather than the RC-21, a license-built BM-21. The tubes themselves and the rockets they fire remain identical. The only difference is how many are present and how they are arranged.
Seeing the launcher, it likely has the ability to elevate and depress to an extent. It has been shown to have some considerable lateral rotation and is likely able to rotate fully. It is likely similar firing mechanisms were installed as in the BM-21. This means the rockets would be remotely triggered from the cabin or using an extension cord (the length of which is 64 m on the original BM-21 vehicle).
The large cabin of the ATS-59G would theoretically allow for a crew as large as seven. It is unlikely such a large complement would be necessary to operate the MLRS, with a crew of three to four likely being sufficient to operate it efficiently. However, a more numerous crew would quicken the reloading process, as the rockets are reloaded into the tubes manually. In some exercises, the vehicles appear to be operated by a crew of four. With the rocket launchers pushed all the way to the rear, there remains some considerable space between the cabin and mount. Much of this is occupied by the engine block, which extends behind the cabin. However, there is likely some space available for tools, spare parts or perhaps even spare rockets.
The launcher itself is not a particularly heavy weapon system, likely weighing around 500 kg empty (each 122 mm rocket barrel weighs around 23 kg). However, fully loaded, it can take on some significant weight, as each 122 mm rocket can weigh as much as 66 kg – so 1,980 kg when accounting for all thirty. Still, an added weight of about 2.5 tonnes remains very manageable for a vehicle such as the ATS-59G, which, in its original form, has both a very high power-to-weight ratio and sturdy suspension for its weight. The vehicle had been designed to, within other tasks, tow a 14 tonnes trailer. Even when accounting for the fully loaded rocket battery, the strongpoints of the vehicle’s mobility are not likely to be deeply impacted or compromised.
ATS-59- Based Auxiliary Vehicles
In operations, the MLRS vehicles have been seen alongside another ATS-59-based vehicle which appears to be used in conjunction with them. This vehicle appears to be based on the ATS-59, rather than the ATS-59G, and as such features a different, smaller cabin. On this model, the rear of the vehicle saw a large box-shaped superstructure added. Some sources appear to refer to it as a personnel carrier, which would carry additional crew members to help with the operation of the vehicle. Considering the large cabin space of the ATS-59G, this does appear somewhat dubious though. It is also possible the vehicle may serve as an ammunition carrier, or as a command vehicle that would direct the fire of a battery of MLRS vehicles. In whatever footage we have where both vehicles are present, it appears there is one of these ATS-59-based auxiliary vehicles for three MLRS vehicles, which would support the theory of a command vehicle directing a battery’s fire.
Over the years, Egypt has not only manufactured its own BM-11 and BM-21 launchers locally, but has also developed a variety of indigenous rockets which improve on the early Soviet types which were delivered along with the BM-21s in the late 1960s. These Egyptian rockets are developed and manufactured by the Sakr Factory for Development Industries, itself a subsidiary of the larger Egyptian Arab Organization for Industrialization.
Four different general types of 122 mm rockets are manufactured by Sakr. They differ by their length and effective range, the latter approximately stated in their name. They are the Sakr-10, Sakr-18, Sakr-36, and Sakr-45 (the three latter type’s effective range is actually around 17, 31, and 42 kilometers, respectively). The Sakr 10 weighs 26.5 kg, the Sakr-18 47.20 kg, the ‘Sakr-30’ (this may just be confusion with Sakr-36) is reported to weigh 39.25 kg, while the Sakr-45 weighs 63.5 kg. The Sakr-10 and Sakr-18 feature ‘S’-shaped fins, which are folding fins, while the 36 and 45 use more classic straight fins.
A variety of different payloads for this rocket exist. There are obviously simple explosive payloads. The high-explosive version of the Sakr-45 is believed to carry a 20.5 kg explosive warhead, and the same are likely found on other rockets of the Sakr family. The rockets can also be loaded with leaflets, and it appears probable some more specialized variants, such as mine-dispensing or illuminating payloads have also been produced.
By far the most controversial payload, as well as one Egypt is known to produce widely, consists of cluster munitions. The Sakr-18, 36, and 45 can all be fitted with submunitions payloads. The submunitions used appear to be local copies of the American M77 submunition, though Chinese and Soviet types are believed to have been used early in the production of the rockets. The cluster versions of the Sakr-18 and Sakr-45 contain 72 of these ammunition types, while the Sakr-36 one carries 98. These rockets function using a time fuze, which ejects the submunition into the air after a certain time has passed. The standard ejection height is 700 m. This guarantees a wide spread of the submunitions over a fairly large area. This is the main criticism behind the use of cluster ammunition. Even more than with a classic high-explosive barrage, it is a widely inaccurate and destructive type of ordnance that will cause massive damage to light vehicles and individuals, not differentiating between civilians and soldiers or rebels. Despite these concerns, the Egyptian Army is known to use vast amounts of these cluster rockets.
The Sakr 122 mm family of rockets has also been exported, and the type has been widely used by the Syrian Arab Army during the Syrian Civil War, including with cluster payloads.
Egyptian Army Camouflage and Operations
On what is believed to be the oldest known photo of the type, the MLRS vehicle has appeared with a pretty orange-sand camouflage color, with a large amount of darker spots, and no form of national or unit markings visible from the angle the photo was taken. At times, some other forms of camouflage have appeared, such as a combination of sand color and green.
During the 2016 exercises, the vehicles had been given a much more standard camouflage, being entirely painted in sand color, with the exception of the start and end of the 122 mm barrels being painted in gray. The vehicles received the flag of the Egyptian Arab Republic, painted at the center of the cab’s front end.
Since the Raad-31 exercise, the Egyptian ATS-59G MLRS has continued to appear in other maneuvers. The vehicle was seen operating in Egyptian-Russian exercises held in 2018. During these, the MLRS has been seen using what appears to be a number of signal flags. The gray-painted parts of the barrels also appear to have generally disappeared after 2016.
The Egyptian Army has been engaged in operations against Islamic militants in the Sinai Desert since 2011. In recent years, Islamist groups operating in the area have become closely associated to ISIS. The vehicles may have been used operationally in this low-intensity but still not concluded conflict Egypt is engaged in.
The Advantages of Such a Conversion
From a quick glance, one may wonder why the Egyptian Army has converted these former artillery tractors into MLRS vehicles. Indeed, the trucks on which BM-11 and BM-21 type rockets are traditionally mounted would typically give a higher maximum speed, as well as a lower fuel consumption.
Egypt widely operates this type of vehicle, and it is undeniable it has some distinct advantages. However, the ATS-59G platform, while fairly dated and rustic, is not without its advantages. It is certainly not as fast as a truck, but with a very high power-to-weight ratio and a suspension very similar to that of a medium tank, it offers much better mobility off-road and cross-country, notably in sandy areas without good roads. It offers vastly reduced risks of becoming silted up and requiring assistance from other vehicles to be recovered. Also, the same solid, tracked suspension is likely to be more stable and suffer less from wear caused by the recoil of the rocket launchers. The larger cab in comparison to the Zil-131 truck also allows for a larger crew. On Zil-131 based Grads, two crewmen often have to tag along in the ammunition supply vehicle due to space only being provided for three. With the seven potential crew and passengers of the ATS-59G, this is largely avoidable.
At last, this conversion may simply be a way of using ATS-59G chassis that would otherwise not find much use. Though still used, field artillery pieces have typically gone out of fashion in comparison to self-propelled ones. The Egyptian Army, for example, operates a large number of M109 155 mm self-propelled artillery pieces. However, the ATS-59G ultimately still offers a sturdy chassis. While old, its engine and suspension both have high parts commonality with other Soviet vehicles the Egyptian Army maintains into service in large numbers, and the advantages of its high power-to-weight ratio and cross-country mobility have generally not been made outdated or without use. Turning such a hull into a self-propelled rocket launcher is as such a very justifiable and quite reasonable conversion.
Conclusion – A Solid Way of Maintaining Old but Still Useful Equipment in Service
The Egyptian ATS-59G 122 mm MLRS is one of many self-propelled artillery conversions which have emerged from old Soviet chassis in very varied parts of the world. From Cuban 122 mm guns placed on T-34 or BMP-1 hulls, to Yemeni or Ethiopian artillery pieces on the same ATS-59 and ATS-59G chassis, or various conversions that have been created in the chaos of the Levant, such as the Syrian BMP-1 Shams, there are many potential systems one may be tempted to compare it with.
Out of all these various conversions, the Egyptian one does stand out to an extent. All seems to indicate this is a fairly professional conversion, done in a standardized manner on a potentially fairly large number of vehicles. Instead of a weapon of desperation that sports dubious capacities, it actually appears to be a very workable combination of two systems that go well together: a proven, highly mobile hull with a very popular, reliable if inaccurate rocket-launching system. The end result appears to be a system that is highly mobile cross-country and can likely deliver considerable amounts of firepower where similarly-armed wheeled systems may struggle to get. Considering these qualities, and the widespread amount of spares likely available for both the launchers and the vehicle, there is reason to believe this conversion may remain in service for years to come.
Egyptian ATS-59G 122 mm MRLS specifications
|Engine||A650 V12 diesel engine producing 300 hp|
|Suspension||Torsion bars (T-54/T-55 based)|
|Weight||Likely around 15-16 tonnes|
|Crew||Likely 3 to 7|
|Armament||122 mm RL-21 30-barrel multiple rocket launcher|
|Maximum range||42 km|
|Warheads explosive charge||20.5 kg|
|Warhead types||High-explosive, submunitions, leaflets (known), mine-dispensing, illuminating (theorized)|
|Numbers converted||At least 24|
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