"God is Great!" (A Primer on the Libyan Rebels’ BM-21s)

On the road north and east of Brega, Libya, rebels cheer  — “Allahu Akhbar!” — as a jury-rigged, four-tube GRAD rocket launcher fires this afternoon toward suspected positions of military forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Look at the smoke and dust signature the GRADs make. After firing, the rocket crews sped away, toward the man with upraised arms. As they flew past, they urged everyone to move off this slight rise in the ground. A few minutes later two incoming rounds exploded between the rebel firing position and this cheering man. The crowd bolted. This has been one of the patterns along the road near Brega, which is watched over by spotters. Today the firing from the loyalist forces was much lighter, however, perhaps because NATO aircraft were heard now and then in the clouds overhead.

If you don’t know what a GRAD rocket is, look it up. In short, it’s a Soviet-designed 1960s-era multiple rocket launcher system. And like excess Kalashnikov rifles, it is another form of martial refuse from the Cold War, and shows up again and again in conflicts. (GRADs figured prominently in Georgia’s disastrous decision to attack the South Ossetian capital in 2008. And there are many other examples.)

Here is a view of a proper 40-tube launcher, in this case a system formerly owned by Colonel Qaddafi’s military, but now in the possession of the Forces of Free Libya, as the rebels call themselves. Note the crew member asleep under the blanket. Many of the rebels have been in the field for weeks now. Understandably, they are tired.

And here is a view of the ammunition, and of rebel rocket-crew members sheltering behind ammunition crates from a brief, stinging wind this afternoon that blew sand hard along the ground. Look at those munitions. Think: Big bottle rocket. Now think: Big bottle rocket carrying a load of high explosives. Don’t mistake the GRAD system for a precision instrument. It’s not. It’s an area-fire weapon, even in the hands of well-trained and experienced crews.

See that truck in the background? It carries of one the rebels’ jury-rigged systems, which figure in a military analysis we will publish in tomorrow’s New York Times.

Below is a much closer view of one of the jury-rigged systems. In this way, one full 40-tube system has been converted to 10 trucks carrying four tubes each. This has been the Libyan rebels’ primary heavy weapon.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS

I made these, which is why they are not good. Bryan Denton has a much better take. Some of his images will be in The New York Times and on www.nytimes.com soon.


Notes

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