Hell on tip-toe: gone are the days when steamrolling heavy artillery was primarily intended to indiscriminately pour fire and steel over the enemy lines before one's own mechanized cavalry and infantry could roll in--at least in the Western World. A new trend has since developed.

Author:Biass, Eric H.
Position:Howitzers
 
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For quite a while the KMW-Rheinmetall PzH2000 is likely to remain the only Western post-Cold War heavy self-propelled howitzer to have been fielded and exported. Even the American revolutionary Crusader leviathan fell victim to the changing East-West picture and armies now have to be content with upgraded systems like the M109 or the AUF. Yet current conflicts show that the 'Queen of the Battlefield' is still needed, but probably more in the form of a Princess.

Recent years have seen the proliferation of lighter designs that, schematically, consist of existing barrels mounted on trucks. The advent was essentially made possible by the considerable technical advances achieved in truck design over the past ten to fifteen years. Inter-cooled turbo-charged diesels, new tyre designs, composite armouring, long-stroke suspensions and a high degree of commonality with commercial lorries (and even buses) all have combined to provide the military with speed, excellent off-road performance and sensible acquisition and running costs.

However, the market still appears to be hesitant. This is most likely caused by the fact that such truck-mounted howitzers imply quite a change in deployment and utilisation philosophy to which the military have not quite yet adapted. Not only do new doctrines need to be written and adopted, but also because of the growing range, flexibility and accuracy of new mortar and tactical missile systems (not to mention the development of high-technology howitzer rounds), the line between the 'job descriptions' of the various army units is also increasingly blurring--particularly if one throws urban warfare, collateral damage and 'CNN effect' into the equation.

What is the ultimate aim of those new systems? Basically, what Bofors (United Technologies soon-to-be BAE Systems), Denel, Giat, RDM, Singapore Technologies, Soltam and their likes offer is high mobility. Not only in terms of deployment. but perhaps and above all in terms of the ability of their systems to be laid within seconds, to enable the crews to fire between three and six rounds and to get out of a thence uncomfortable position as quickly as possible. These systems typically offer the possibility to complete the task in about three minutes (take or leave 30 seconds) from locking the brakes.

Common Ideas

Most systems described in this article not only offer high off-road performance, but also just as important they are all roadworthy on blacktop. This may sound of childish importance when considering a defence system as usually little gets in the way of the military, but it takes its significance in peace-time operations if one considers that no special convoy escorts are required, that virtually all bridges can be used and that, should need be, motorways can be accessed without tearing down toll stations (granted, the transportation of live rounds and propellant charges is a different matter in terms of security). Speed of deployment, flexibility and low cost are the common points of these designs. They of course all deploy some manner of hydraulically powered stabilisation, mainly a large spade at the rear of the vehicle, as well as an automated laying system fed by navigation systems.

Divergences

As far as the description of the individual systems on offer is concerned, this is a point where we meet substantial diverging philosophies: armouring and automation levels versus size and weight. One can't have one's cake and eat it too. It is as simple as that.

Some manufacturers, Giat and Singapore Technologies for example, quite rightly claim that if the system is light and fast, there is little need for heavy...

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