The hum of turbine engines fills the air on a chilly December morning at the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. Cresting the horizon, two C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft approach a makeshift runway on the desert floor. The first plane lands and offloads Marines and tactical communications gear. The second aircraft lands downrange of the first and offloads an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and a launch team.
Within minutes, the Marines are ready to send rounds downrange. The fire mission comes over the radio from the Force Artillery Headquarters and the communications team quickly relays it to the launcher.
A countdown begins and observers hold their breath awaiting the launch.
The rocket pierces the air and the HIMARS is enveloped in smoke. Seconds later, a second rocket leaves the launcher and follows the trajectory of the first. Over 30 kilometers away, the target is split in half as impacts from the rockets erase its existence across the white desert sand.
These are the Marines of Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, and they conducted a live-fire HIMARS air raid at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, Dec. 4, 2015.
“We were essentially trying to test the capability of the HIMARS to launch an air raid from any position,” said Sgt. Garrett S. Zurich, HIMARS launcher section chief, 1st platoon, Battery D. “We were able to land, fire a guided munition at an enemy target, re-embark and get out of the firing position.”
In a span of a few hours, the Marines were able to transport two separate HIMARS launcher teams from Biggs Army Airfield in Fort Bliss, Texas, and fire six guided multiple launch rocket system unitary rounds to eliminate a target 31 kilometers away.
To accomplish this mission over a single drill weekend, the Marines required coordination from the 14th Marines regimental headquarters, which served as a Force Artillery Headquarters, 2nd Battalion inspector and instructor staff, the Army’s 1st Armored Division Artillery, White Sands Missile Range personnel, Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 452, Marine Aircraft Group 49, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing and VMGR-234, MAG-41, 4th MAW.
“We originated the mission at the force artillery headquarters in Fort Worth, and transmitted it 800 miles via digital high-frequency transmission to a mobile platoon operations center at White Sands Missile Range that had gotten off a C-130 just five minutes prior, and put rounds on target,” said Col. Joseph Russo, commanding officer, 14th Marine Regiment.
Although many aspects of this mission had been practiced in the past, this event was the first time a Marine Corps unit has employed this tactic using HIMARS and live ammunition.
“We had exercised several of the individual portions of this event in the past, but hadn’t brought them all together,” Russo said. “We’ve conducted long-range digital HF communications over 800 miles before, but hadn’t tied them into a live fire raid event. We’ve loaded HIMARS launchers into aircraft before, but never live-fired them during a raid exercise. We’ve live-fired GMLRS unitary rounds before, but not done so within the constraints of a tactical scenario.”
The end result showcases the ability of the HIMARS launchers to enhance a Marine Air-Ground Task Force.
"We’ve demonstrated to the Marine Corps a unique, relevant and marketable capability to provide precision fires against an objective that may otherwise be too well protected to risk manned aircraft against, or out of range of other surface-to-surface fire capabilities,” Russo said. “This offers MAGTF or a joint commander an additional proven option.”
Given the instability in various regions of the world, this HIMARS tactic keeps Marine Forces Reserve ready to respond to any threat that may arise in the Marine Corps’ current areas of operation.
“It proves that the HIMARS can be highly mobile,” Zurich said. “At any point, at any time, we can get on an airplane, go anywhere in the world, eliminate a target, get out, land again and refocus.”