Much Ado About Nothing
Military weapons inflict damage on the enemy and by their effects deprive him of assets and drive him into disadvantageous positions. Political weapons induce the enemy to voluntarily cede tactical and even strategic advantages, often through fear of unflattering media coverage. Today, the political effects of weapons attacks receive far greater coverage than their military significance would suggest is reasonable.
A reader can go the Internet, for example, and learn that three -- count 'em, three -- Katyusha rockets were fired clandestinely from a warehouse in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba (of Lawrence of Arabia fame). Regrettably, one Jordanian soldier was killed by one of the rockets that apparently was targeted at -- and missed -- US navy warships docked at the time. A second rocket landed apparently harmlessly elsewhere in the city. A third Katyusha was fired into the Israeli port city of Eliat damaging a taxi, lightly wounding its driver, and producing a modest crater that looks like road construction. Yet it is a top story at the BBC and many other media outlets. Three rockets = Top Story = propaganda victory.
The "one-off, two-off" employment of Katyusha rockets typical of terrorist and militia forces in the Middle East must be weighed against the fact that such weapons were designed to be employed in their thousands in a compressed timeframe to achieve a military effect on the battlefield. Here is an excerpt of an eDefense Online article by Michal Fiszer on Soviet battlefield rockets that describes how such rockets were intended to be used:
By coordinating fires from dispersed batteries in range, it was possible to time the fires so that the rounds from different guns landed more or less simultaneously. This was desirable for instilling the shock required to achieve a breakthrough at a desired point on the battlefield. Not possessing such coordination, the Soviets found a solution in the multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS), where many tubes fired in a short period of time. The famous "Katyusha" and "Stalin's Organ" 82mm through 300mm rocket systems were produced in huge numbers and could drop thousands of rounds on the point of decision at a dizzying rate.
Conventional artillery and unguided MLRS batteries showered the breakthrough area, leaving many holes in the ground, but only a small portion of the tens of thousands of shells fired found any targets. This was sufficient if an enormous mass of firepower was employed, as it was during WWII, but after the war, it was understood that alternatives needed be found.
These alternatives included chemical and nuclear weapons for purely ballistic weapons, and guidance and improved fire control for rockets armed with conventional warheads. Larger battlefield rockets, such as the Scud and its kin, were developed to carry tactical nuclear warheads over useful distances. Nevertheless, these weapons were sold throughout the Midde East with conventional high-explosive warheads. Saddam Hussein used Scud missiles during the first Iraq War as Katyusha rockets on a larger scale. He shot them singly and in small groups to achieve a political result: eye-catching vignettes of falling stars smiting Zionist cities demonstrated Iraqi defiance, even if these weapons had no appreciable military effect. That two dozen US service people were killed by a lucky shot late in the conflict merely underscores the fact that the Scud, like the Katyusha, is first and foremost a political weapon.
Political weapons have their uses, however. The US and other coalition air forces poured significant resources into the "Scud hunts" in Iraq's western deserts that failed to destroy a single missile launcher during the course of the conflict. Not one. It would have made military sense to ignore the Scuds completely and focus on eliminating Iraqi military force elsewhere in the theater that posed a direct threat to coalition forces. But, there were concerns that Israel, the target of the majority of these weapons, would feel compelled to act in its defense, thereby undermining Arab participation in the anti-Saddam coalition.
The even more insignificant Katyusha rocket is receiving the high-tech treatment. The US and Israel have been cooperating on the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL), a ground-based system designed to shoot down airborne targets such as artillery shells, mortars, and unmanned aerial vehicles. During tests in 2000 and 2001, it shot down a total of 25 Katyusha rockets. The US and Israel jointly funded development of the technology, and a compact, more transportable version is also being developed. Granted, ground-based lasers for protecting against ballistic weapons has militarily useful applications. But Israeli involvement in the program, along with the selection Katyusha test targets, suggests that rocket attacks on Israeli towns and settlements by terrorists and militias are a main concern.
There is little if any prospect that terrorists will use rockets the way they were intended to achieve military effects. The North Koreans, by contrast, have amassed a tremendous number of howitzers and artillery rockets within range of Seoul, South Korea. These weapons are concealed in hardened positions, caves, and shelters. With very little warning, the artillery systems could be deployed and fired en mass with a devastating effect on the South Korean capital, probably before an effective counter-battery effort could be mounted by US and South Korean forces, although I'm told that there are effective methods for neutralizing this threat available in theater. Regardless, the North Korean tubes and rockets pose a direct military threat to South Korea and they weigh on all calculations involving dealings with that country. They are, in effect, a deterrent.
Unguided, ballistic rockets have little direct military value, unless launched in vast numbers or armed with unconventional warheads. Katyusha rockets as employed by terrorists and militias manage to have far greater impact than their relatively modest high-explosive warheads would suggest because we allow them to. They are political weapons, and apparently quite effective ones.