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Automated Howitzers – Pros and Cons

It has been reported that Ukrainian artillery units will receive two fully automated self-propelled howitzers – the RCH made by KMW (Germany), and the Archer system from BAE (Sweden). Automated artillery systems have been a logical next step from the semi-automated systems built during or in the immediate aftermath, of the Cold War. They should be every Gunner’s dream, but are they the optimal solution for today’s strike and close support needs?

Let’s methodically examine the issue:

  1. Analyse the systems’ capabilities.
  2. Analyse the operational needs these systems must meet.
  3. Describe the challenges when using automatic howitzers.
  4. Reach conclusions in light of the previous three stages.

I hope that this article will serve as a basis for discussion about the systems’ technical and operational requirements.

Before we jump into the analysis, it is worth adding some context to these two systems. There is limited real world experience of fully automated artillery systems deployed on operations. Panzerhaubitze 2000 – which uses a similar gun system to the RCH version – deployed in a limited role in Afghanistan but has been gifted to Ukraine, where it has recieved some negative criticism, most notably around the complexity of the turret and that it is very susceptible to water and dirt interfering with the turret – we might assume that the more complex RCH fully automatic turret will be even more prone to these issues.

It is also worth noting that RCH 155mm doesn’t yet exist outside of a concept demonstrator. While its ability to fire on the move is a nice selling point – this is a party trick and shouldn’t be taken seriously. Additionally, in an attempt to generate commonality between a platform, the Boxer systems – a 8×8 wheeled general chassis with a module systems – seeks to add specialists modules. While this is great in principle, it generates some substantial ‘so-whats’ for a 155mm gun. Anyone who has seen it fire will have noted the post firing wobble as the suspension is placed under significant strain and struggles to regain stability. This wobble, unless addressed, will preclude rapid firing and currently, the Boxer RCH is the only wheeled 155mm gun in the world that doesn’t try to support the platform, with a spade or legs, to control the significant firing forces applied to the chassis. Finally, Archer has not been deployed operational and, with 48 6×6 wheeled variants produced, production is now moving to a 8×8 version.

Automated Howitzers – Capabilities

Both systems comprise automated handling and loading mechanisms built around existing tube systems. The Archer system’s core is the Bofors FH77 (with a bigger chamber) and the RCH is built around the PzH 2000 turret gun system with an automatic loading system, mounted on a Boxer chassis, both have 52 caliber barrels able to fire to a range of approximately 40 km (arty caliber is indicated by the bore diameter, divided by the length of the barrel).

The Archer’s magazine holds 21 rounds and to resupply the gun, a trained crew will need 10 minutes using a designated ARV (Ammunition Resupply Vehicle) fitted with a specialized loading crane. It can fire 8 rounds per minute or 4 rounds in 5 minutes as a sustained rate of fire. The RCH has a 30 rounds magazine and can fire 9 rounds per minute continuous rate and resupply time (after watching the available films) seems to be about 10 minutes for a well-trained crew.

It must be noted that neither system has ground level loading height. The Archer crew must use an elevated platform on the back of their ARV, to gain access to the loading hatches. The RCH crew loads charges in what looks like the back corridor of the AGM and the shells from a side hatch (which, in the Boxer configuration is not accessible from ground level). Both the RCH and the Archer use modular charges and inductive fuse setters – both of these are standard mechanisms for western armies.

Automatic Howitzers – Operational Needs

As we can see in the ongoing war in Ukraine, the principal objectives of artillery use continues to be:

  1. General support – deep fires and counterbattery.
  2. Direct support – close support for manoeuvring forces in the attack or defence.

So, there is nothing new on the demand side. We are looking at short bursts of 8 to 12 HE rounds; mass HE missions to suppress a defending or advancing enemy; smoke / illumination missions when required and massed fire onto in-depth targets (40+ rounds to destroy an enemy HQ or logistics site).

Artillery fire is, in many aspects, a regular supply and demand problem, only it has nothing to do with price level but with the lives of soldiers. Looking on the supply level, if you are not available on the right time with the right mixture of ammunition, you are not relevant and, in many cases, you jeopardize the ability of the manoeuvring forces to perform their mission.

So, a fire system that cannot answer the demand “on time” will become irrelevant at pace.

Automatic Howitzers – The Challenge

Considering all that mentioned above, the problems begin to come to light. An automatic gun is pre-loaded with a relatively small number of rounds and a pre-defined mixture of projectiles. After exhausting those rounds, resupply is a relatively time-consuming process. Given their complexity and high price, the total amount of these guns is, relatively, low. The overall result is a firing platform that can provides “burst like” fire but is then unavailable for the duration of the resupply time.

As an example, we can imagine a scenario in which 8 guns are covering a sector with a maneuvering BCT, these 8 guns can fire 240 rounds very fast but then the BCT will remain with no fire support for the duration of the resupply that can take 30 minutes and more. Or, the rate of fire is reduced, and you work with 4 guns but half the weight of fire.

The bottom line: Artillery dictates a “just on time” logistics approach, which means that the gun must be ready at the right time with the right ammunition. This approach can’t be realized with automatic howitzers given the extended resupply times and the battlefield uncertainties- not mentioning the need to shoot and scoot for survivability which is becoming more difficult to implement given the smaller number of guns.

Critically, even with a flexible approach to doctrine and the ability to allocate guns per mission, we will still be facing the same problem only in a bigger scale – the only way to compensate the fire-resupply cycle is with a much higher number of guns, which is limited noting the high cost of these systems.

Automatic Howitzers – Additional Considerations

The threat of counter battery fires has increased substantially. Whilst we have focused historically on the period post firing, to ensure that we ‘shoot and scoot’ before the enemy is able to fire back, artillery systems, as a result of persistence UAS and other sensors are hunted on the battlefield. The time period applied to post firing, in which a gun would ‘scoot’ now needs to be applied to a host of other scenarios, such as sight of a UAS. This requires us to think differently about how fires are delivered on the modern battlefield.

Arty 155mm usage has been prolific in the war in Ukraine.  In a high demand and high threat environment we need to be imaginative about how we do this. Hides, ground dumped ammo and a system that allows any gun using any ARV must be employed. Speed in all areas has to be prioritized.

The automated systems above have reduced the workforce demand at the gun end, but it is not yet clear if it has reduced the work force load overall. Arguably, with the ARV being required to be manually loaded, there is not a in-significant workforce requirement further down the load chain. In addition, crews of 2-3 will become ineffective after 24 hours due to lack of sleep, therefore doubling up these crews are likely to be required for 24 hour capability. In days of old, guns would have a war time crew of 12+ to mitigate this very problem.

Precision guided 155mm arty ammunition has demonstrated, in certain scenarios, to be highly effective. While the system listed above could fire them theoretically, it is less clear from a doctrinal perspective how we manage this. The automated systems above increase speed, but reduce flexibility and the inclusion of precision munition within this approach complicates matters further.

A lot has been made of the Multiple Rounds – Simultaneously Impact (MRSI) capability that these guns offer. In simple terms a burst of 5 rounds could be fired at different elevations and potentially different charges, but the rounds land on the target at the same time. This doesn’t change the target and weight of fires equation that needs to be applied, but does allot different options – in theory 1 gun can ‘mass’ fire, albeit very briefly.

Conclusion

Automated artillery systems are a logical next steps for modern guns. They have clear links with the past, but have some important so whats for the future, critically they offer different ways of doing what has gone before, and also allow us to explore new options. They have, however, not solved science – the fundamentals of the gunnery problem have not changed.

The war in Ukraine has reminded us of how devastating artillery of all types can be. Additionally, we have seen a rapid increase in our ability to overview a battlefield and thus our ability to find and target things has increased dramatically. This has changed the threat for artillery systems. It is not just post firing that they are at risk – as soon as they move from a protective or hidden area then they will be targeted. As a result, artillery tactics techniques and procedures – from how many rounds the observer orders, all the way through to taking rounds off a plane, train or ship – must change.

Tzvi Koretzki
Lt Col (Res) Tzvi Koretzki grew-up in tubed artillery in the US Army, including commanding an M109 battalion. An expert in field artillery doctrine and training he also served as an artillery regiment deputy commander. Now days, Enjoys he is always happy to hold a discussion with military and industry on the right way to build and use artillery systems.

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