A Question of Procurement 3: I Say ‘Arty,’ You Say ‘Oi’!

Ah, Artillery. The real killer. The big guns. The terror of Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele, and hundreds of other Great War battlefields. No army would be complete without it.  We’re going to be looking for a self-propelled howitzer of 155mm caliber. Generally speaking, heavier calibers are too unwieldy, and their role can be replaced by accurate fire from smaller guns, or, in the case of hardened point targets, hardened penetrator bombs dropped from medium altitude. 155 mm gives us commonality with our fellow NATO members, plus many options for guided rounds or specialty antitank rounds (e.g. SmART 155).

We can first rule out the current trend of “truck artillery.” These suffer when compared to proper self-propelled pieces in two key areas. First, and most obviously, they lack any protection for the gun crew when operating it, much like a towed gun. We would prefer our artillery crew to have protection from fragmentation, or actually have the lower cost and maintenance benefits of being a towed gun. A similar thing can be said about the on-vehicle ammunition stowage. The on-truck units don’t have very much integral capacity, and are very dependent on resupply. While ordinarily we expect a steady stream of supply trucks bearing ULCs of fresh shells, we really can’t count on this. Proper self propelled howitzers carry two to three times the ammuniton. So the latest ‘it must be air-mobile’ craze has once again brought us the worst of both worlds: the cost of a self-propelled howitzer but the lack of integrated support mechanisms of a towed howitzer.

After the above, you may be forgiven for asking “Wait, Parvusimperator! Why not get only towed guns? Those worked great at the Somme and Verdun. And the USMC can move theirs with helicopters!” Both are true, and, while towed guns are very old school, they’re still darn useful because they’re cheap and easy to move. And no one said we won’t be buying those, just not today. The key advantages of self-propelled howitzers are that they can get in and out of action faster. On-board fire control is also a big plus. Plus, having treads (at least on the proper models) will mean that they can keep up with tanks better. So we’ll still be wanting some self-propelled howitzers for our armored formations. With treads.

We can also rule out any vehicle that doesn’t have a barrel that is 52 calibers long (i.e. 52 times the diameter, or gun caliber). This is actually not that restrictive for modern systems as most recent designs are built to the NATO Joint Ballistic Memorandum of Understanding, which calls for a 155mm gun with a barrel length of 52 calibers (155mm/52 in shorthand) and a chamber volume of 23 L. The chamber volume means that we can use NATO standard propellant charges. Increased barrel length for an artillery piece means better range, but also makes the gun somewhat less wieldy. On a self-propelled howitzer, this is an acceptable trade off.

Next, we’ll ask ourselves, “Do we need a specialist resupply vehicle?” Because if we do, our choice is obvious: only the South Korean K9 comes with one (called the K10). Technically, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann has said they could make one for the Panzerhaubitze 2000, but they haven’t yet. Armored resupply vehicles are pretty cool. They’re usually about as fragmentation resistant as the self propelled howitzer that they accompany. Plus, they’re treaded. Tracks mean they’ll go anywhere. And, of course, there’s that fancy resupply robot arm that means you can resupply in a harsh, NBC-contaminated modern battlefield. Awesome. However, they’re pretty expensive for something that has limited use. Plus, if you actually are using them regularly, you need a lot of them, because they usually only carry a couple extra loads, so they’ll be shuffling back to whereever you stashed more rounds frequently.

The alternative is to use trucks with flatpacks and ULCs, unloaded by all-terrain forklifts and burly artillerymen. This certainly doesn’t work as well in the NBC-contaminated battlefield, but otherwise, it has the distinct advantage of being cheaper and more flexible. We’ll need trucks and all-terrain forklifts to manage other logistic burdens. Also, trucks and forklifts are much cheaper than big reloading vehicles. So, big gain in versatility, losses in time to completely reload a magazine, and operating in NBC wastelands. Thus, we needn’t be overly concerned with the lack of an armored resupply vehicle. ULCs are also a lot more flexible, since you can pick a ULC containing specialized rounds off the back of a truck if you need those more than others, or even reconfigure a truck load without too much difficulty. The same cannot be said for an armored resupply vehicle–the reloading of which is slow.

All that said, the K9 is a good self-propelled howitzer, with good electronic targeting systems and a proper 52-caliber gun barrel, like all of the lastest systems. If we look at rate of fire and range, we find that while the K9 is good, it’s outclassed in both areas by the aforementioned PzH 2000 and the South African G6-52. The G6-52 is the longest ranged howitzer in the world, and posesses a phenominal six-round MRSI capability. In other respects, it’s pretty conventional, with a good rate of fire (burst and sustained), reasonably modern fire control systems, and good integrated ammunition storage. Interestingly, the G6-52 is protected from the front against 20mm gunfire. Which is better than any other self-propelled howitzer on the market, but isn’t actually all that useful–most first-rate vehicles these days are armed with an autocannon of at least 25mm. Interestingly, despite its phenominal range, the G6-52 has not enjoyed much export success.

This brings us to the PzH 2000 (which is in desperate need of a better name). It’s range is second-best behind the G6-52, and it manages a good but not exceptional 5 round MRSI capability. But it’s fire control systems are second to none, and its ammunition storage and loading mechanisms are world-beating. The PzH 2000 holds a whopping 60 rounds with associated propellant charges, so it is better able to deal with supply line disruptions. It also has a very well designed automatic loading system, that gives it excellent burst and sustained rates of fire. What’s more, all 60 rounds are acessible by the autoloader, so the crew never has to wrestle rounds from reserve to ready magazines inside the vehicle. This is one less thing for them to do if they’re also manhandling rounds into the vehicle from ULCs. On the support and spare parts side, the Panzerhaubitze 2000 has won several contracts with other NATO members, making long-term support something to trust. It’s the best overall self-propelled howitzer on the market today, and Borgundy’s choice.

So, Germany has swept the Major Ground Combat Vehicles. It’s a big win to be sure. Next up, inspired by Fishbreath, will be a long investigation of fighters, which will no doubt end in a fat procurement contract (or two). We’re going to need something to drop those hardened penetrator bombs now that nobody’s making really big guns. Will the Germans continue their sweep? Will Parvusimperator join Fishbreath in procuring Viking fighters?

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