Mobile artillery is characterised by substantial firepower, always associated with significant mobility. This article focusses on mobile artillery, including:
- 81 mm and 120 mm mortars
- 105 mm light howitzers
- heavier 155 mm howitzers
During the First World War, the opposing armies engaged in self-propelled artillery trials. In 1924, the technical section of the French Army designed a prototype combining a 75 mm gun on the FT17 tank. Various pieces of equipment were later developed and produced during the Second World War. The Germans became the specialists, using, in many cases, tanks taken from the enemy.
On the Allied side, we can cite the SEXTON self-propelled gun, which consisted of a 25 pound gun mounted on a Canadian RAM tank chassis. In 1942, Sub-Lieutenant Adrien Conus installed the French 75 mm model 1897 on the chassis of a Ford or Chevrolet truck. These guns distinguished themselves during the Bir Hakeim battle. Since then, it has seen numerous improvements in its ammunition, fire control devices and carriers. With French help, Israel has developed very innovative solutions since the 1950s. These include self-propelled artillery and mortar systems.
With the end of the Cold War, the development of peacekeeping and later, counterinsurgency operations, combatant units relied on fixed guns and mortars on bases or developed an over-reliance on air support. This type of artillery is gaining interest in the context of Large-Scale Ground Combat Operations (LSGCO) linked with new target acquisition capabilities and the need for highly mobile forces.
The modern mortar appeared in the trenches in 1915, thanks to Edgar Brandt. It quickly became a best-seller, with the Soviets later adopting the 82 mm instead of the French 81. This article will focus on 81 mm mortar, as well as on 120 mm calibre. This constitutes real artillery for the infantry battalion commander and have established themselves as an international standard.
The 81 mm mortar continues to undergo development because it is lightweight and has an increased range. The Spanish company EXPAL offers its Dual-Eimos system. It consists of two 81 mm mortars on a 4×4 VAMTAC ST5 platform. Thales has installed an 81 mm mortar on a 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser, baptising this weapon system the Max3 4×4. This very compact mortar can also support highly mobile units such as Special Forces.
Specialists highlight the difference between smoothbore and rifled mortars, muzzle, or breech loading. Today, 120 mm mortars represent the preferred support solution, even if 107 mm mortars are still in service worldwide. They can now be installed on 4×4 vehicles in containers, and even on small ships. The most famous is the towed rifled mortar of 120 Rayé Tracté (R.T.) produced by TDA of the THALES Group. This weapon is in service in 25 countries.
In 2007, the company developed an onboard version named Rifled, Recoiled, Mounted Mortar (2R2M), combining automatic aiming and semi-automatic loading, available for armoured vehicles weighing more than 10 tonnes. Thanks to its recoil brake, the onboard mortar is twice as accurate as the conventional 120 RT. This system will be integrated into the French Army’s GRIFFON combat vehicle under the acronym Mortier Embarqué Pour l’Appui au Contact (MEPAC). At least 54 GRIFFON MEPAC vehicles will be delivered between 2024 and 2027. The development of the laser-guided 120 mm mortar munition (range 17 km and sub-metric precision) by Thales is advanced and will make the MEPAC highly effective in operations. French company Arquus now offers the A2M SHERPA, which combines a 120 mm mortar with the NTGS firing platform. The mortar deployment is speedy, with automatic aiming and ballistic calculation.
The US Armed Forces have a long history of using heavy mortars. Mortars are mostly installed on armoured vehicles such as the M1129, a STRYKER fitted with the Israeli M120 mortar. US Marines fielded the RT120 mm towed mortar from 2008 to 2017 as the Expeditionary Fire Support System (EFSS). The US military seems interested in Patria’s NEMO (New Mortar) system. A research and development agreement was signed to study the feasibility of integrating this system on US Army mortar vehicles that could equip the STRYKER brigades with a system capable of providing direct and indirect, mobile, and protected direct and indirect fires.
European Lightweight Artillery Solutions
The Nordic countries use the CV90 MJÖLNER armoured vehicle. This has a turret equipped with two smoothbore 120 mm mortars which can reach a rate of fire of 16 shots per minute and a range up to 9 km. In 2016, Sweden signed contract for 40 artillery systems in 2016 with deliveries in 2019 and 2020. Finnish manufacturer Patria offers its NEMO. This is a remote-controlled 120 mm mortar system capable of firing both direct and indirect fire on the move.
Patria’s NEMO container version offers the advantage of modern turreted mortar systems, combined with an almost unlimited variety of platforms. It has space for a crew of three and 100 mortar rounds. Poland produces the RAK 120 mm, mounted on the 8×8 ROSOMAK vehicle. It is a 120 mm breech-loading mortar with a range of 10 km and a rate of fire of 6-8 rounds. Georgia has developed a 120 mm mobile mortar system, the DIDGORI MEOMARI 120 mm. The system can fire a range of mortar shells, including NATO and Soviet standard 120 mm mortar ammunition.
Israel has extensive experience in the field of onboard mortars with the K6A3 type mortar being the most recent version. It is in service with the US Army as the M120 and M121. We can also mention the CARDOM recoil mortar system 6 light (RMS-6L) acquired in Denmark. Elbit Systems offers an updated version of its 120 mm SPEAR mortar developed based on CARDOM or HATCHET in service with several armies. The mortar can be mounted on the JLTV produced by OSHKOSH Defense. It required installing an anti-recoil system, reducing the effort from 30 to 15 tonnes. This allows the weapon to be mounted on a wide variety of light or heavier tactical vehicles.
The SPEAR has an autonomous navigation and aiming system. As a result it can be implemented without external means and integrated into the various systems, C4I or BMS (Battle Management System). Elbit Systems also produces the SLING, which can deliver massive firepower at a rate of 16 shells per minute, with a sustained speed of 3-4 per minute and a firing range of up to 7 km (with standard ammunition – M933 or equivalent). The mortar system is suitable for all types of qualified 120 mm smoothbore ammunition.
Newer players have entered the market and we can cite a 120 mm mortar fitted on the Emirati HAFEET 640A armoured vehicle. Although the exact characteristics of this weapon are still unknown, it could be equipped with a recoil reduction system like the Israeli SPEAR. A Chinese media outlet broadcast pictures of this equipment on a Chinese 6×6 vehicle manufactured by Mengshi.
Singapore’s S.T. Engineering Land Systems has completed developing and evaluating the latest version of its 120 mm Super Rapid Advanced Mortar System (SRAMS), the Mk II, and new ammunition. The 120 mm SRAMS is the first mortar in the world with a recoil force of fewer than 30 tonnes when firing maximum charge to achieve a range of 10 km. Weighing only 1,200 kg, it can be integrated onto and fired from onboard a wide range of light tracked or wheeled vehicles, bringing incredible firepower to the lowest echelon. In 2019, Taiwan unveiled an updated version of the 81/120 mm Mobile Mortar System (MMS).
Ukraine has developed an automated mobile mortar produced by Ukroboronservice, a subsidiary of UkrOboronProm. The system can be ready from travel to fire in 35 seconds. The Soviet Union developed mobile mortars in different calibres. We can cite the case of the 82 mm 2B9 VASILEK mounted on the MTLB armoured vehicle. The 2B9M VASILEK is currently used in Ukraine on a GAZ-66 truck. There is also the 2S23 NONA which is fitted on an armoured BMD used by airborne troops.
105 mm Light Howitzers
The centrepiece in the field of light artillery remains the 105 mm gun. This calibre has all the qualities of range, lethality, and compact size of ammunition. There are three main towed guns of recent design. We can mention Nexter’s LG1 Mark III, eight of which were sold recently in Senegal. The weapon is in service in six countries. Handy and light, it is transportable by all-terrain vehicles, including 4x4s. It can be brought into battery position in less than 30 seconds by a crew of five gunners, firing 12 rounds per minute.
Nexter Arrowtech’s E.R. G3 extended range ammunition is NATO certified and capable of hitting a target 17 km away. The howitzer is usually equipped with the BACARA ballistic computer and the Advans Lyra inertial navigation system from IxBlue.
The L119 Light Gun is a lightweight gun/howitzer capable of providing direct fire support against armoured vehicles or at buildings or indirect fire in support of the combat arms at ranges more than 10 km. Produced as the M119 in the United States, the M119A3 is the last version currently in service. Turkey has developed the 105 mm BORAN howitzer derived from the L119. It is air transportable by Sikorsky S-70 helicopter, weighing 1,710 kg.
New US Solutions
The most emblematic project is the Humvee 2-CT HAWKEYE 105 mm Mobile Howitzer System (MHS), designed in cooperation between the MANDUS GROUP and AM General. It is the lightest weight, most highly manoeuvrable self-propelled howitzer in the world today. It is built around the 105 mm M20 gun, a digital fire-control system and front and rear hydraulic anchors stabilising the gun when firing. The HAWKEYE can fire and move in about 30 seconds and has a rapid rate of fire up to 10-12 rounds per minute. This artillery system incorporates a soft recoil technology, which reduces carriage loads and allows to mount of the HAWKEYE on light 4×4 vehicles such as the HMMWV. The system consists of two trucks and no trailers and can be loaded inside a CH-47 CHINOOK helicopter. The HAWKEYE can receive different barrel lengths depending on customer range requirements.
The British Army will soon see its COYOTE six-wheeled tactical vehicles equipped with 105 mm howitzer weapon systems. The COYOTE tactical support vehicle (TSV light) is based on the HMT 600 6×6 chassis from Supacat. Although the armoured vehicle already has a powerful weapon, the British Army’s experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria highlighted the need for the COYOTE to have additional firepower.
India is also working on the development of a cannon fitted on a truck. About 10 years ago, it was the GARUDA-105, which consisted of mounting a 105 mm LFG gun on a TATA 4×4 truck. Today the GARUDA-105 V2 is mounted on a simple 4×4 with a 360-degree firing capability, with less than 5.5 tonnes of weight. The company has reduced the gun’s weight to 900 kg by using high-strength aluminium and a hybrid recoil system, which reduced the recoil forces. The system underwent trials in high-altitude areas, a critical requirement for the Indian Army.
China has made little use of the 105 mm calibre but has nevertheless developed the SH5, an evolution of the SH2 that will be mentioned later. This is the mounting of a 105 mm gun on a 6×6 chassis. A fully-loaded SH5 weighs 11 tonnes, carries 40 rounds, and can fire up to eight rounds per minute with a maximum range of 18 km.
122 mm Howitzers
The Soviet 122 mm howitzer has been mounted on vehicles multiple times and continues to be so. The Soviets mounted it on the MTLB chassis in the seventies, giving birth to the 2S1 GVOZDIKA. The trend today is to mount these artillery pieces on even lighter trucks or vehicles. Serbia offers the self-propelled howitzer 122 mm SORA, which integrates the famous 22 mm D-30 on a 6×6 truck.
The Algerian Army has installed a 122D30 gun on a Mercedes 6×6 chassis. Sudan offered its version of the Soviet cannon, the KHALIFA GHY02 on the KamAZ-43118 truck. Peru recently intended to equip itself with 122 mm self-propelled howitzers on the AMX-13 chassis.
China has been producing this system for several years for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and also for export. Norinco produces the PCL-09 or CS/SH1 (Chinese export name), a 122 mm wheeled self-propelled howitzer on a Shaanxi 6×6 truck chassis. It can be ready to fire in less than 90 seconds from transport mode. This gun is in service with the Rwanda Defence Force. There is also the SH2 which is mounted on a lighter 6-wheel vehicle. The SH2 artillery system was first unveiled at the Abu Dhabi International Defense Exhibition in 2007 (IDEX 2007). Nigeria acquired some copies of this equipment, which carries 24 four rounds. It is transportable by tactical aircraft such as the C-130.
The PLA uses equipment such as the artillery truck known as the PLCL-171. Based on Dongfeng Mengshi’s CTL 181A 6×6 chassis, the vehicle appears more mobile and agile than a conventional howitzer and can operate in more challenging terrain. With a calibre of 122 mm, the PCL-171 could, however, pay for its lightness with less precision and range than its heavier counterparts like the PCL-161 (122 mm calibre) and PCL-181 (155 mm calibre). This machine should equip lighter and more mobile brigades capable of fighting and moving quickly over various terrains, including the Himalayan plateaus.
155 mm Howitzers
We are interested here in the lightest guns. NATO countries prefer the 155 calibre because its effects are much more devastating than the 105 mm. This calibre has established itself since the 1960s as the best compromise in terms of logistics and military efficiency. Western countries invested heavily over the last 40 years in armoured self-propelled vehicles, which gave birth to:
- the AUF1 on the French side
- the PZH 2000 in Germany
- the American M-109
This type of equipment is still in production, especially with the Korean K-9 and the Polish AHS KRAB.
The US Army and the Marine Corps used the M198 gun in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It was then replaced in 2005 by the M777, a 155 mm lightweight towed howitzer. It is a much smaller, lighter, and more manoeuvrable towed cannon weapon than its predecessor, resulting in improved transportability and mobility without impacting range or accuracy. The M777 howitzer has been selected by:
- the US
- Saudi Arabia
- Ukraine received 136 systems, of which the US donated 108.
The M777A2 can use the M982 EXCALIBUR GPS-guided munition, which allows accurate fire at a range of up to 40 km (25 miles). The US Army arsenal modified an M777 with an extra-long barrel in the Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) programme framework. The modification added 6 feet to the cannon while limiting the increase in overall system weight to less than 1,000 pounds. The project is designed to extend the range from 30 to 70 km. The programme’s ultimate goal is to reach a maximum range of 70 km while minimising the cost and modifications to the weapon platform. The first production of the ERCA programme will be delivered starting in 2025.
The BRUTUS mobile howitzer incorporates patented soft recoil technology like the HAWKEYE 105 mm Mobile Weapon System. The BRUTUS howitzer is fitted with a 155 mm M776 cannon with a maximum rate of fire of five rounds per minute, while the sustained rate of fire is two rounds per minute. Five to seven crew members operate the howitzer based on mission needs for performing location, firing and displacement. The mobile howitzer can hit targets at a range of 24.7 km with standard ammunition and reach a firing range of 30 km with rocket-assisted projectiles (RAP). It uses all ammunition types which are compatible with the M776 cannon.
Le camion équipé d’un système d’artillerie (CAESAR) has been in service with the French Army since 2008. It exists in two versions:
- the 6×6 version, which is air transportable without preparation on a C-130
- the 8×8, on an A400M
It is a 155 mm/52-calibre with a range of over 40 km and in service in six countries, including Ukraine, which will receive 18 pieces. Four countries (Belgium, Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Morocco) have already ordered it, and other countries are interested in the system. In February 2022, Nexter was awarded a contract by the French Direction Générale de armament (DGA) for developing the CAESAr 6×6 Mark II new generation (N.G.) artillery system. Nexter is currently developing the KATANA shell, which, with GPS and inertial guidance, would increase the range of the CAESAR up to 60 km.
Singapore started to develop an artillery system years ago. The PEGASUS 155 mm 39 Calibre lightweight howitzer is the only 155 mm lightweight howitzer with self-propelled capability, with the French Tr-F1 already phased out. It is air-transportable by a C130 or CH47 and has a unique loading system that lessens the load on the operators and improves firing rates. China offers a lightweight 155 mm howitzer like the towed AH4 howitzer manufactured by Norinco. The AH-4 light howitzer has been developed explicitly for the PLA rapid reaction forces. It can be airlifted by the PLA’s CHANGHE Z-18 medium transport helicopter given its relatively light weight of about 4.5 tonnes and is rapidly deployed even in mountainous terrain. It is a 155 mm 39 calibre with a rate of fire of four rounds per minute.
To conclude, highly mobile artillery platforms generated particular interest during the last Eurosatory exhibition. The first lesson of Ukraine’s conflict emphasises the prevalence of low-cost UAS systems and advanced sensing capabilities. The consequence is that Russian and Ukrainian forces have been particularly vulnerable to counter-battery fire due to their initial reliance on towed howitzers and artillery pieces.
Light artillery provides one of the answers to the question of fire support for melee units. It should not be overlooked that a deep firing capability is also one of the other aspects of modern combat.