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Upgraded systems, the latest ammunition technologies and bolstering neglected battalions with the ‘newest’ artillery assets they’ve had in years is the order of the day across an Alliance chasing to catch up in the face of an increasingly unpredictable geopolitical status quo – both in Europe and globally.

NATO is facing perhaps the most challenging period in its existence following a protracted period of seeming good will since the first Cold War ended. Distracted by the war on terror – one, it seemed, with which its old adversary to the east was also preoccupied – the Alliance let its guard down, while it appears our ‘friends’ in the east didn’t. Now, with many of its pre-war-on-terror assets, including much artillery, ageing, scrapped or in mothballs and traditional massed battlefield tactics little taught in recent years, the time is well overdue for most NATO members to bolster and upgrade their artillery resources and introduce latest systems and thinking capable of defending Alliance eastern flanks and members, should the need arise.

The following article takes a brief look at some of the developments going on beyond NATO’s borders, along with moves by various Alliance members to bring their artillery assets up to speed.

Threatening Developments

If the Crimean and Ukrainian crises are not enough of an incentive to bolster and update Alliance forces, then the continuing failure of Russia to comply with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty underpins the need without doubt. NATO and its allies stated last December that Russia had developed and fielded the 9M729 cruise missile system, that it violates the INF Treaty and poses “significant risks to Euro-Atlantic security”. Then, at the start of February this year, the Alliance said Russia was continuing “to deny its INF Treaty violation” and refused to provide any credible response, or take any demonstrable steps toward returning to full and verifiable compliance. In a statement, the Alliance added that it would continue to take steps necessary to ensure the credibility and effectiveness of the NATO’s overall deterrence and defence posture. Well, the 9M729 is just the tip of a military industrial complex output that’s been busy bolstering and delivering quantity and quality into the armed forces of NATO’s old adversary.

End 2018 announcements from the Russian MoD that 2019 would see upgrades to several artillery systems in its inventory are just some of the latest moves from the east that need NATO’s attention. Russian airborne forces are reported to be expecting to take delivery of the 2S42 LOTOS 120mm self-propelled (SP) gun and the ZAVET-D artillery fire control vehicle (replacing the 1B119 RHEOSTAT), once final state trials have been completed of these new systems later this year. The ZAVET-D is said to be a comprehensive redesign that will phase out the 1B119 and replace it as the force’s standard fire control vehicle for the foreseeable future. All of this is in line with the Russian airborne forces’ continued expansion of its artillery resources.

The core of the ZAVET-D is based on the BTR-MD RAKUSHA transport vehicle. High-performance, digital technologies and the latest communications and radar systems are said to make the vehicle ideal for detecting camouflaged enemy armour, including counter-battery targets, and directing own artillery assets onto such positions. Onboard systems can also control drones used for forward reconnaissance. The new fire control vehicle and its fullest capabilities are aimed at optimising the punch delivered from Russia’s latest artillery systems, including the LOTOS 120mm. The latter is a spin-off of the ZAURALETS-D 152mm, which, using a latest BMD-4 chassis, was a replacement for the earlier lightweight,SP and air-droppable 2S9 NONA 120mm gun-mortar, which entered service in the former Soviet Union in 1981. The new LOTOS is expected to have greater range than the ZAURALETS-D and use precision-guided ammunition. These two systems are expected to be deployed into both high- and low-intensity scenarios and follow recent Russian artillery developments including the 1B75 PENICILLIN advanced artillery recon system and the 2S41 DROK 82mm self-propelled mortar carrier. The 1B75 uses acoustic waves and thermal imaging to detect active enemy artillery, which it is reported to be able to do in as little as five seconds. Trials of the PENICILLIN system completed late last year and the first units are slated for delivery in 2020.
This is just the tip of a resurgent Russian defence materiel iceberg in which tube and rocket artillery upgrades and new developments lend urgency to the Alliance’s moves to bolster and upgrade its systems and forces.

Overall Strategies

Across the Alliance, interoperability is one of the crucial needs being addressed; with regards to artillery, many legacy artillery systems of differing calibres and technologies still exist, but are unsuited to sharing full logistics and ammunition. Being able to operate together and deploy artillery fire support systems against an enemy in a multinational environment are key to the future security of Europe and are high on the agenda of Alliance members, which are bolstering and upgrading their artillery resources at this time. “NATO-compliant” is terminology now firmly entrenched in any discussions of upgrade, whether in relation to howitzers, munitions, counter-battery radar, or UAS solutions for forward observation/target identification. In terms of munitions, precision fire support is an area of focus – members must be able to continue delivering precision fires even in GPS-denied environments, and the adoption and use of non-GPS-reliant precision-guided smart munitions will enable this to happen. Members considering new systems and system upgrades are also addressing the need to shorten the decision-making circle and kill-chain using networked, software-intensive fire control systems and system upgrades.

Upgrades around the Alliance

The US Army PALADIN SP gun will receive the new M109A7 chassis and an upgraded turret with an increased bore length of 29 feet instead of 20 to be able to fire extended-range ammo. (Photo: US DoD / Gertrud Zach)

The Bulgarian Land Forces are currently looking at planned indirect fires capabilities and how best to achieve full operational interoperability with NATO allies so that Bulgarian artillery can be employed to maximum effect and efficiency as part of ‘Team NATO’. Interoperability is also on the agenda for the Czech Army, which is also currently undertaking an artillery modernisation programme that will include the procurement of 155mm self-propelled howitzers interoperable within the Alliance, as well as 120mm turreted SP mortar systems. The latter is expected to be up for tender in 2021. At Eurosatory 2018, a prototype of the upgraded BM-21 GRAD system was shown as part of the Czech company Excalibur Army; along with its armoured cab that supports a crew of three, the new BM-21 MT multiple rocket launcher (MRL) sits on a 4×4 Tatra chassis that replaces the previous Ural Truck chassis. Volley or single-round missions can be conducted either from the confines of the cab, or from a remote firing position, with the fully operational system able to fire 40 HE 122mm rockets in 20 seconds out to a range of approximately 40 km. With the Czech defence ministry considering an MRL procurement beyond 2025, this is certainly a contender. As for the procurement of 155mm SP guns, this is expected in the 2020–2022 timeframe; this will equip two artillery regiments of potentially six batteries of eight guns each, though an overall total of 52 systems is likely. Contenders are likely to be 8×8 wheeled SP systems that have automatic or semi-automatic loading systems to enable high rates of fire, as well as platforms that are able to carry 30+ round payloads.

Finland is also considering revitalising its SP rocket artillery, with the FDF looking to equip all its truck-mounted BM-21 SP systems with smart munitions. The FDF is currently working with the US exploring a potential 500 km-range, rocket-launched capability. The force sees cost sharing within NATO and its allies as essential in ensuring that MLRS users across the Alliance all have precision munitions such as EXCALIBUR; this would help bolster the effectiveness of the Alliance as a cohesive force.

Made in Germany

The range of the towed 155mm M777 has been doubled using an XM1113 rocket-assisted projectile (RAP). (Photo: US DoD / Staff Sgt. Alexander C Henninger)

Lithuania has had the upgrade and modernisation of its artillery in its sights for some time. Under the Land Combat Vehicles Support Partnership of the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) it joined the 155m 52-calibre SP PzH (Panzerhaubitze) 2000 howitzer user project in October 2016. The Lithuanian Government had already signed a €58.3M contract with the German armament procurement organisation, the Bundesamt für Ausrüstung, Informationstechnik und Nutzung der Bundeswehr (BAAINBw) a year earlier, in September 2015, for the procurement of a total of 21 PzH 2000s. These were previously used by the German Army and as well as having a range of some 40 km and high rates of fire; ammunition is fully compatible with NATO standard 155mm shells and charges.
The first two guns arrived in Lithuania direct from the German Army in mid-2016 to enable training on the howitzers to begin. Then in early 2017, the NSPA awarded a €10.5M contract to Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) on behalf of the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence to upgrade the whole of Lithuania’s latest SP guns. That work has been undertaken under the German Army’s retrofit programme for the PzH 2000, which includes the installation of a Wideband Intercom & Secure Packet Radio (WiSPR) intercommunication system, as well as modernisation of the electronics and ventilation system. In addition, an automatic ammunition loading system will be installed as part of this mid-life update, allowing the high rates of fire mentioned earlier. The newly upgraded 155mm gun will enable the Lithuanian artillery to surpass the previously restricted ranges of the M101 towed 105mm gun, which has a maximum range of 11.25 km. Improvements in armour and sensors, including night vision equipment, are also understood to be part of the upgrade. Delivery of the first two upgraded guns took place in early December last year and were delivered to the General Romualdas Giedraitis Artillery Battalion of Lithuania’s Iron Wolf Mechanised Infantry Brigade, based in Rukla. Eventually, 16 upgraded guns will be used operationally, with two for training and three of the original 21 kept for spares.
Relevant to the upgrade of Lithuania’s artillery capability and also announced in December 2018, Lithuania’s Ministry of National Defence said that Germany’s Flensburger

Fahrzeugbau Gesellschaft (FFG) had won a further tender from the NSPA for 22 upgraded M577 (M113 variant) armoured personnel carriers. These are to be used as command posts in support of the army’s new and upgraded PzH2000s. Part of the upgrade work on the APCs is underway in Lithuania, sub-contracted by FFG to UAB Autokurtas. These are slated to be delivered to the General Romualdas Giedraitis Artillery Battalion in later 2019.
In December 2018, Hungary ordered 24 newly built PzH 2000s from KMW to equip and modernise its artillery forces and deliver a degree of compatibility and interoperability with other NATO nations that will only strengthen the cohesive capabilities of ‘Team NATO’ in the uncertain years ahead.

When the Thunder Comes

Nammo’s ramjet round concept was unveiled at Eurosatory 2018. (Photo: Tim Guest)

Another 155mm SP system being adopted by a number of NATO/allied countries to upgrade their forces’ artillery assets is the South Korean K9 THUNDER. Estonia, Finland, Norway, Poland and Turkey have signed deals to adopt the system that will update their respective artillery battalions and deliver another helping of NATO-compatible consistency to the Alliance. The 155mm/52-calibre SP howitzer is expected to be in production for at least the next few years with maker Hanwha Land Systems (originally eveloped by Samsung Techwin). Of the five NATO and allied nations mentioned, Estonia and Finland will be taking delivery of 12 and 48 upgraded and refurbished systems, respectively, while Norway’s Norwegian Defence Materiel Agency (NDMA), updating the country’s artillery capabilities for the first time in some 50 years, has purchased 24 brand new systems. Poland, on the other hand, has purchased some 120 K9 hulls to support its KRAB 155mm/52-calibre turret, and Turkey has signed an agreement enabling it to build its own K9 version locally, which is named the FIRTINA; 300 systems are expected to be built in Turkey.

While developed originally to increase the range and firepower of the South Korean artillery, which continued to be underpinned by M109A2 SP systems, the adoption of the K9 THUNDER by these European/NATO players is for the exact same reasoning. Not only that, but the system’s 155mm/52 calibre ordnance will update all these allied artilleries with a NATO-compatible 23-litre chamber.

Once delivered, the new and upgraded systems will include onboard fire control (further upgrades to the FCS may form part of a future improvement process) and terrestrial navigation capabilities. These will enable the SP gun to deploy to a firing position, carry out a fire mission and then bug out before enemy target-detection assets have a chance to locate and direct counter-battery fire onto the, already, empty position. Another future upgrade to the system that will enable onboard systems such as the FCS to run even when the main diesel engine is switched off, will be the installation of an auxiliary power unit.
The latest new, upgraded and variant K9s received by these armies will also have the ability to deliver multiple-round, simultaneous-impact fire missions for all these players. The upgraded system’s automated loading mechanism will enable a three-round burst rate of fire in under 15 seconds, with a maximum sustained rate of fire of 6-8 rounds/minute for three minutes. Some Extended-Range Projectiles (ERPs) enable the K9 to reach a maximum range of 50 km; trials of the system with Nammo 155mm High-Explosive Extended Range (HE-ER) base-bleed projectiles fitted with a Northrop Grumman Armament Systems Precision Guidance Kit (PGK), took place in late 2018 at Yuma Proving Ground in the US. The round enables a 40 km range to be achieved. This is part of the US Army’s intention to demonstrate projectiles that use ramjet technology; internal propellant ignites in flight, to deliver additional acceleration, and Nammo’s base-bleed technology and rocket-assist projectiles are seen as the relevant solutions to meet this need.

Nammo’s new 155mm projectiles were tested in late 2018 at Yuma Proving Ground in the US. (Photo: Nammo)

For Norway, upgrading its artillery has long been awaited; its still-in-service M109A3s have been in service since 1969, though upgraded during that time to the A3 variant. The K9 deal for US$380M includes a variety of ammunition and also has a reserved option for a further 24 brand new K9 THUNDER systems. Initial trials are expected to begin this year once the first trial guns have arrived; deliveries of the bulk of the order are expected during 2020.

The first of the Finnish K9 THUNDERs were delivered in early 2018. A total of 48 ex-Republic of Korea Army K9s were ordered by the Finnish Defence Forces (FDF); the deal included an option for further systems. As part of their upgrade and refurbishment, the Finnish K9s will be fitted with a battle management system, GPS, as well as intercoms and radios. One FDF spokesperson said last year that the tracked SP K9 THUNDER is viewed as an ideal solution for the defence of Finland; its mobility will keep pace with manoeuvre units and its ease of use ideally suited to the country’s conscript army. The last of the vehicles destined to complete this stage of the FDF’s 155mm artillery upgrade plans are expected to be delivered by 2024.

A US Footnote

Above are just a few of the moves within the NATO Alliance and its allies to upgrade their current artillery systems, and breathe new life into several artillery forces that have been languishing for too long with old and outdated systems. While this has been mainly a look at European forces, a brief look-see at what NATO’s largest member is up to is worth a mention before closing.

There are a number of major upgrades expected to US artillery and missile capabilities, including intentions to add a range of new missile launchers, and a reported plan to award Lockheed Martin with a production contract for up to 343 new HIMARS – High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems. On the tube artillery side, a small business programme that would see an upgrade found for key 155mm howitzers in the form of a new muzzle brake. This might seem at first glance as quite a modest, even unnewsworthy piece of information, and yet with one of the artillery’s priorities – which is of great significance to NATO – being that of Long-Range Precision Fires, the need exists for innovative muzzle brakes that can support new ERPs of every kind currently in the pipeline. Such new munitions cause added noise and recoil making the design of a new and innovative muzzle brake potentially a simple, though beautiful, upgrade fix for any gun.

The M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) is a light multiple rocket launcher developed in the late 1990s for the US Army, mounted on a standard Army M1140 truck. (Photo: US Army)

In the 2019 Pentagon spending appropriations, US$20M was set aside for exploring extended range cannon artillery, with a further US$67M aimed at improving the lethality of such a system. Meanwhile the range of the towed 155mm M777 has been doubled using a trial XM1113 rocket-assisted projectile (RAP); for this to happen the M777’s chamber was redesigned and a longer barrel added. The round is part of the Insensitive Munition HE RAP programme to extend tube artillery ranges out beyond 40 km. This impacts the M109 upgrade to the PIM programme; so not only will the PALADIN have a new M109A7 chassis, it will also take on an upgraded turret with an increased bore length of 29 feet (instead of 20) to be able to fire extended-range ammo as a result of the Extended-Range Cannon Artillery programme. This effectively delivers a completely new SP gun. All these projects are still trialling, as beyond 40 km to ranges of 70 km and further must be achieved by such artillery systems for effectiveness on any future NATO-involved battlefield.

Tim Guest is a defence and aerospace journalist and a former officer in the Royal Artillery. In the 1980s he was responsible for a major UK MoD track evaluation trial, resulting in the replacement of in-use American tracks with a new and more efficient German Diehl track across the whole Royal Artillery M109 fleet.