It was as though lightning leapt from the rocket barrels. Fifteen trucks firing multiple rockets each, nearly 200 all, in a military exercise in Kampong Chhnang province early Thursday morning that officials insisted was not a show of force.
Rows of trucks were parked at the province’s giant, dusty airstrip, launching 122-mm rockets over the rice fields and palm trees and across the plains. The shots came first in a trickle, as single rockets were fired for aim, and then in a roaring flood, as armed crews behind embankments fired for effect.
Formations of soldiers, military police and other forces applauded and distant booms drifted in from impact zones up to 40 kilometers away.
“They hit the target,” a jovial Defense Minister Tea Banh reported after the exercise, addressing a crowd of reporters from the shade of camouflage netting. The rockets all landed within a 1.6 square kilometer area, he said.
The military exercise was the first of its kind since the end of Cambodia’s wars more than a decade ago and came as Cambodian and Thai troops are engaged in a tense standoff along the border near Preah Vihear temple.
Tea Banh said the exercise had nothing to do with Thailand, a statement echoed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was not present at the airport Thursday.
“I have to confirm that this is not to show off military muscle,” Hun Sen told a ceremony in Phnom Penh. “This is a normal military exercise, and this is us preparing ourselves to defend the nation in case of invasion.”
Cambodia has used the BM-21 multi-barreled rocket launchers, also known as Stalin’s Organs, since it began purchasing them from Russia in the 1980s.
Hun Sen said Thursday that military experts would evaluate the rockets’ ability to “hit and destroy” their targets.