The ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq are probably the most bloody and violent conflicts on the planet in 2015. While they have no shortage of conventional, mass produced weaponry, almost every side in this interlinked conflict also fields a massive variety of homemade, improvised weapons. Of these, none has seen greater proliferation this year, than the IRAM (Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortar). These improvised rockets are seen all the way from Daraa in the south of Syria, to the Kurdish areas in the north of Iraq. Indeed, just as these weapons are used in a great number of locations, they also come in a variety of shapes and sizes. This being said, almost all conform to a general design philosophy.
In this, a small diameter rocket (often a surplus Katyusha or Grad rocket) is attached to a much larger diameter warhead. This warhead is filled with TNT or other homemade explosives such as ANFO, and sealed within a barrel-like steel casing. In some cases these warheads are fitted with impact trigger fuses, while in other cases, they implement time-delay fuses.
A rough design of a rudimentary IRAM can be seen below:
A quick glance at this design is enough to infer that these rockets are not at all aerodynamic. The large explosive charge they hold significantly amplifies their destructive power, but it comes at a cost – IRAMs are short range, and highly inaccurate. Videos, such as the one below show that these rockets ‘tumble’ through the air making it basically impossible to reliably aim them.
So given that these rockets are so difficult to use, and obviously time consuming to make, why do groups persist in using them? Indeed, even other improvised weapons, such as the Syrian rebel’s infamous ‘Hell Cannon’ are much more effective and reusable than these weapons.
While there is no easy answer to this question, there are a number of reasons that groups are persisting in using these (seemingly) useless weapons. The first of these is the nature of the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. Rather than fighting at long ranges, most of the combat occurs between static positions in urban environments. These kinds of fights favour weapons which have massive destructive power, as opposed to long range or mobility. Furthermore, the random nature of these weapons also has a demoralising effect, giving soldiers on the other side the feeling that they could be hit anywhere, anytime.
Another plausible reason for the construction of IRAMs within this region is a possible surplus of artillery rockets without their normal warheads. In an event that a rebel group (or pro-Government militia) found themselves in possession of a large number of Grad rocket motors, but not their regular warheads, it would be prudent of them to cannibalise their rockets into further IRAM production.
One final reason for the proliferation of these rockets could be that the weapons represent the fingerprints of Iran on these conflicts. Tellingly, the first groups to use IRAMs in the Middle East were the Shia militia backed by Iran during the Iraq War. Then similar weapons, dubbed Volcano (Burkan) Rockets began to be seen used by the Syrian Regime, likely either supplied by Iran or built with Iranian assistance. From there, the Syrian rebel groups may have copied the designs for these weapons from those that they captured. Indeed, many rumours persist that the largest of the IRAMs seen in Syria – the so-called ‘Elephant Rockets’ are not even produced in Syria at all, but rather in Iran.
The exact reason why Iran favours supplying its proxy militias and aligned militaries with these weapons is unknown, however one answer seems likely. As these weapons are so simple and relatively easy to make, they give the country the ability to maintain plausible deniability.
As the conflict grinds on, we are likely to see a continued evolution in the tactics and weaponry used by each group. It may be that as conditions on the battlefield change, or different foreign suppliers get it involved, IRAMs slowly disappear from use. This being said, the current trend in 2015 is towards a further broadening of the use of these weapons into the future.