A Myth That Won’t Die About a Gulf War Weapon, and Why It Matters


At War

The United States Army First Cavalry’s Multiple Launch Rocket System firing a rocket during the gulf war.
The United States Army First Cavalry’s Multiple Launch Rocket System firing a rocket during the gulf war.Credit...Steve Elfers/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

At the end of Operation Desert Storm in early 1991, the United States Army was extolling the performance of America’s new and technically advanced weapons. Making their combat debuts were the Patriot missile, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Abrams tank and a somewhat curious looking truck that looked like a cross between a tank and a shipping container: the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System, or M.L.R.S., with the chassis and treads of a Bradley and two packs of six rockets on its back.

Each rocket carried 644 dual-purpose improved conventional munitions, or DPICM grenades, which looked like D-cell batteries with a nylon loop streaming from the top. The trucks were designed to fire 12 of these rockets in less than one minute and spread 7,728 small explosive charges over 30 acres. The rockets could be fired deep into enemy territory — dropping millions of explosive charges onto large groups of armored vehicles — without American forces ever having to get near enemy territory.

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Rumors were soon circulating that Iraqi soldiers had been so overwhelmed by the M.L.R.S.’s firepower that they had begged the Americans to stop dropping the “steel rain.” For the Army’s long-range artillery units, this phrase became a rallying cry, and a way to evoke the overwhelming victory that left America’s enemy trembling with fear — even today. The problem, however, is that the documentation behind the steel-rain narrative does not exist.

Though some Iraqi soldiers may have been scared of those rockets and their effects, there seem to be no official interrogation records confirming it. There is also evidence that the steel-rain moniker predates Desert Storm in American artillery circles. But those details got lost in the mythmaking.

Just two years after the war’s end, the Government Accountability Office reported that M.L.R.S. rockets failed at far higher rates in combat than the Army had advertised, and that dud grenades left over from rocket attacks had killed and wounded at least 16 American troops. An Army report in the early 2000s noted that even though the M.L.R.S. was deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, “not one rocket was fired because of the lack of precision and potential for collateral damage as well as the high submunition dud rate.” By the 2000s, the Army seemed to be moving away from the old unguided M.L.R.S. rockets all together, and the steel rain myth seemed to go with it.

But it’s now making a comeback. Advocates in recent years have repeatedly and enthusiastically cited the steel-rain myth as they call on the Pentagon to bring back long-range artillery rockets and missiles in the face of rising tensions with Russia and China — and military planners are listening. As the Army looks to invest in an artillery force that was deliberately gutted for much of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s important to look back at the lionization of M.L.R.S. cluster weapons used during the Persian Gulf war and the misconceptions that surround them.

What is this “steel rain” myth, and where did it come from?

On May 9, 1991, the Army’s chief of staff gave a speech at a gathering of senior artillery leaders at Fort Sill, Okla. — the home of Army and Marine Corps artillery. Gen. Carl Vuono, a career artillery officer, was pumping up the troops with tales of how well the Pentagon’s howitzers and ground-fired rockets had performed in the desert sands of Kuwait and Iraq. “It was training that created the skill in artillery batteries to bring such timely and accurate fires on the Iraqis, which they described as ‘steel rain,’” Vuono said.

What’s inaccurate about this story?

Reporters in the region in February 1991 — during the Desert Storm air and artillery campaign that preceded the ground war — wrote that it was American soldiers themselves who were calling their M.L.R.S. rocket attacks “steel rain.” A now-retired Army colonel named Hampton Hite — who as a captain commanded one of the M.L.R.S. batteries firing at Iraqi targets and was briefly interviewed in a Washington Post report about the rocket system — confirmed to The Times in 2017 that his unit (A Battery, 21st Field Artillery) had used the radio call sign “Steel Rain” since the unit was established in 1986. His soldiers would have been using that name on radio networks heard by many troops in other units, and it is possible that those other soldiers conflated that name with the rockets Hite’s battery fired. “I don’t doubt that these Iraqi P.O.W.s didn’t like being on the receiving end of M.L.R.S.,” Hampton said in 2017. “But I know for a fact that ‘steel rain’ didn’t come from them.”

How did the story spread?

Vuono’s speech injected the story directly into the artillery corps’s bloodstream. He was echoed by Maj. Gen. Raphael J. Hallada, the head of Army field artillery at the time. “As recipients of your firepower and also professional admirers,” Hallada wrote in June 1991 for Field Artillery, an Army journal, “the Iraqi enemy prisoners of war spoke of the terrible, pervasive ‘Steel Rain’ of your cannons and rockets.” The name evolved a bit, with one officer calling it “iron rain” in the same journal a few months later, though he still attributed the coining of the term to Iraqi prisoners.

The Defense Department’s final report to Congress on Desert Storm, published in April 1992, transmitted the narrative to lawmakers, saying that the M.L.R.S. had “a tremendous psychological impact on Iraqi soldiers. Enemy soldiers were terrified of its destructive force, which they sometimes referred to as ‘steel rain.’ ” The myth was then chiseled into stone in the Army’s own history of the war, which was made public in 1993 and sold as a book.

That document also misattributed a mass-fratricide bomblet attack on a unit of the First Armored Division to enemy fire. It correctly states that one American cavalry troop suffered at least 23 wounded when howitzers fired cluster shells at them; however, in a 2017 interview with The Times, the squadron operations officer at the time, Mark Hertling, now a retired lieutenant general, says he believes it was friendly fire that wounded his soldiers. Hertling himself was awarded a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds he suffered in that incident.

So did Iraqis really surrender because of these artillery bomblets?

A lot of Iraqi soldiers surrendered to allied troops in 1991, but without the Pentagon’s producing the records, there are no publicly available documents that point to Iraqis’ surrendering specifically because of these DPICM grenades falling on them. Responding to a query from The Times, the Department of the Army was unable to locate any records from Desert Storm that cited Iraqi prisoners calling M.L.R.S. “steel rain,” and did not respond when asked if the service would continue to stand by its story. The only sources offering the narrative about Iraqis doing so are those written by Army artillery soldiers in the months and years following Desert Storm, citing secondhand accounts.

How did these rocket and artillery bomblets perform in combat?

In many cases, they failed to work as advertised. They were supposed to be able to destroy Soviet armored vehicles, with small armor-piercing warheads. But the attack on the First Armored Unit shows that the DPICMs not only failed to destroy Bradley Fighting Vehicles; they also failed to destroy the troop’s unarmored Chevrolet S.U.V.s — even those that took more than one direct hit.

These weapons had a much more pernicious effect, though, that was barely mentioned in the Army’s 1993 history. American howitzers fired nearly 27,450 cluster shells in the war, and batteries fired more than 17,000 submunition-loaded rockets. In all, those munitions disgorged 13.7 million DPICM grenades on Iraq and Kuwait. Pentagon documents estimate that between 10 and 20 percent or more likely failed to explode on impact, littering the battlefield with highly dangerous duds that would still explode if disturbed.

Why didn’t they work like they were supposed to?

During Desert Storm, the simplest reason is that the bomblets often landed in soft sand, when they were designed to hit the steel plates of armored vehicles. These submunitions relied on a simple fuze that needed to hit its target within a certain angle and provide enough resistance to work. Before his 2018 death, Bill Kincheloe, the inventor of that submunition’s fuze, gave multiple interviews to The Times and explained those parameters. “When that thing hits the ground, it has to hit within 45 degrees to fire,” Kincheloe said. “If it hits at 46 degrees, it won’t fire.” Kincheloe said that the sloped sides of tire tracks and footprints left in the sand could provide enough of an angle to send the submunitions tumbling upon impact, instead of detonating. The problem was even more acute because in early 1991, frequent and unusually intense rainstorms made the sand those bomblets landed in even softer. “If you dropped them on the soft sand, about 60 percent would go off,” Kincheloe said. “You’d have between 3 and 12 percent plain old duds, and the rest would be ground-impact duds.”

Some lessons of Desert Storm went unheeded when the United States went to war with Iraq in 2003. Whether because of the “steel rain” myth or not, the military still considered DPICM weapons desirable. One Army unit fired nearly 800 M.L.R.S. rockets after the invasion, and at least one Marine artillery unit shot cluster artillery shells in combat.

Their use had some unfortunate and completely foreseeable negative effects on civilians and American troops alike. A dud DPICM fired in a strike on a suspected insurgent position in late March 2003 exploded after Lance Cpl. Jesus A. Suarez del Solar accidentally stepped on it near Ad Diwaniyah, killing him. In July 2003, Cpl. Travis Bradach-Nall died near Karbala after a Marine nearby dropped a DPICM grenade he was trying to defuse, causing it to detonate.

Are these same weapons being added to the Army’s artillery arsenal today?

In the mid-1990s, when the Pentagon decided to make a precision-guided version of the M.L.R.S. rocket, the first variant was going to contain 406 DPICM grenades with more reliable fuzes that would also cause any duds to detonate after a set amount of time. Israeli Military Industries, the manufacturer of these grenades, claimed that they had a dud rate of less than 1 percent — an attractive feature for American military officials. However, despite spending millions in live-fire testing at ranges in New Mexico and Arizona, the dud rate was still around 5 percent, and the program was canceled in late 2008.

After several different Army munition-development initiatives failed to create a new kind of DPICM with a lower dud rate, the Pentagon appears to have given up on the idea. The effort to improve their reliability was driven in part by a directive from the secretary of defense in 2008 that would have prohibited the use existing cluster munitions like M26 rockets and DPICM artillery shells after 2018 because of their high dud rates, and mandated that only cluster weapons with a reliability rate over 99 percent could be used from then on. In the interim, new weapons programs designed to meet that standard were failing in tests, and the Army began to destroy its less-reliable weapons. That changed abruptly in late 2017 when the Pentagon reversed course and decided to simply retain the massive stockpile of older munitions that performed so poorly in Desert Storm. Patrick Shanahan, the deputy secretary of defense at the time, indicated that they would be kept in service for use in a potential war with North Korea.

As for how many of them remain, the military does not typically disclose its weapons inventories in real time, but there is relatively recent data available in online briefings. According to one report, the Army still had 360,192 rockets in its inventory in 2008. And a 2012 Army briefing noted that the service still had more than 3.6 million 155-millimeter DPICM artillery shells.

The Pentagon’s interest in long-range artillery rockets and missiles continues, though it is unclear whether new models will incorporate cluster-munition warheads. The maximum range of the Pentagon’s current inventory of ground-launched missiles was limited since the 1980s by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but following the United States’ withdrawal from that treaty last year, the Pentagon can once again field land-based missiles that can fly more than 300 miles before striking their targets — meaning for the first time in more than 30 years the Pentagon is pursuing nonnuclear weapons that can fly as far as modern technology allows. Defense contractors are already offering prototypes for the Army’s consideration, and Congress allocated $160 million for the program in 2019 and $243 million in 2020.