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Meet the BM-30 Smerch: Russia’s Powerful Long-Range Artillery System

The BM-30 Smerch (Tornado) multiple-launch rocket system is believed to be the Russian weapon that is firing rockets with cluster-bomb warheads at Ukrainian civilians in cities.

Russia’s BM-30 artillery system is one of its longest-range multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) in service today. Initially developed by the Soviet Union, the Smerch (as it is dubbed by Russia) has seen service in conflicts across the post-Soviet space, including in Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

What is the BM-30 Smerch? 

The BM-30 ultimately hails from a line of Russian and Soviet MLRS launchers such as the BM-21 Grad and 9A52-4 Tornado dating back to the Second World War’s famous Katyusha launcher, which had the nickname “Stalin’s Organ.” In its basic configuration, the BM-30 Smerch system is made up of 12 launch tubes mounted on a MAZ-543M 8×8 wheeled truck chassis, and is manned by a crew of four. The Smerch is capable of firing a variety of rocket types, including cluster munitions, rockets which can lay mines across a wide area, and thermobaric munitions.

How has the Smerch Been Developed and Used?

Developed and produced by the Splav State Research and Production Enterprise in Tula, Russia, the Smerch was first accepted into Soviet service in 1987. Russia has attempted to modernize its arsenal of BM-30s by modernizing its targeting and navigation systems. Modern examples of the Smerch operate in groups of six which are controlled through the Vivari fire control system. The Vivari system is contained within a separate command vehicle KamAZ-4310, which are equipped with E-715-1 computers in their command vehicle configuration.

In addition to its service with the Russian armed forces, the Smerch is also in the arsenals of the armed forces of countries such as India, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kuwait, and even Ukraine, to name a few. Ukraine has modernized its own BM-30 Smerch examples to allow them to fire guided-munition rockets to improve the range and accuracy of the system. These modernized BM-30s are known as the Vilkha MLRS. The Smerch also saw significant service during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War on both the Azerbaijani and Armenian sides. In particular, Azerbaijani BM-30s using cluster munitions were reportedly used to strike civilian and urban targets.

How does it Measure up to HIMARS?

Today, artillery forms a central part of Russian military strategy in Donbas, where most of the fighting in Ukraine is concentrated. Since the war began to take on the character of a massive war of attrition, Russia has made prominent use of artillery to facilitate its incremental advance in Donbas, firing tens of thousands of shells at Ukrainian targets every day. In addition to making use of its preexisting arsenal of Soviet-made artillery, Ukraine has also made significant use of U.S. and Western arms deliveries of artillery systems.

One of the most notable examples of this is the American-made and designed High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). As a guided artillery system designed for precision strikes on specific targets, the HIMARS is not designed to fill the same role as the Smerch, which is intended to lay withering fire over a much wider area.

In some ways, Ukraine’s new HIMARS are an answer to the Smerch, whose maximum ranges of 90 to even 120 kilometers previously left Ukraine outranged (with the exception of its own Smerch examples), as the HIMARS is capable of hitting targets within a range of 70 kilometers with its basic GMLRS-Unitary precision rockets. Ukraine continues to request the longer-ranged Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) rockets, which the HIMARS is capable of firing.

So far, the Biden administration has refused to send Ukraine ATACMS as its range of around 186 miles (corresponding to the ATACMS updated Block 1A version) Ukraine would strike targets located well within Russia with their existing HIMARS.

With roughly similar ranges, Ukraine’s new HIMARS does provide Kyiv with some recourse against the Smerch. While they have not been used yet to destroy examples of the Smerch (no Russian BM-30s have been destroyed in Ukraine to date), Russian forces in Ukraine no longer have an entirely unmatched advantage in artillery range in their invasion.

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

Written By

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.