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Trends in Artillery Weapons

Militaries around the world are constantly seeking extension of range of weapons, volume and accuracy of fire

Issue 4 - 2022 By Lt General P.C. Katoch (Retd)Photo(s): By Elbit Systems

There is no denying that emerging and new technological advances are changing the nature and character of warfare. Rapid advances in technology include advanced computing, big data analytics, unmanned systems, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, robotics, networking, directed energy weapons (DEWS), hypersonic, and biotechnology. There is speculation that warfare in 2040 would include tanks controlling air-ground robots, AI-enabled targeting and reconnaissance, attacking in milliseconds, vehicle and aircraft-fired lasers, self-guiding ammunition, morphing swarms of autonomous drones and fast, real-time, multi-domain networking.

The contours of future wars would include increasing use of drones (some getting smaller progressively) and robots on the battlefield, offensive cyber war capabilities, extraordinary surveillance capabilities, lasers and greater reliance on Special Operations Forces. However, to say that the days of conventional wars is over and that the future will only witness non-contact wars, as being professed by some in our government to advance their narrow motives, is outright wrong besides being anti-national. The ongoing conflict between the US and Russia, with Ukraine an America’s scapegoat, is an example of future warfare – part hi-tech which has the conventional warfare signatures as well. This hybrid war would also be the format for future Sino-Indian conflicts, especially with the type of terrain along our borders with China where holding ground will remain an essential element. It is for this very reason that militaries around the world are constantly seeking extension of range of weapons, volume and accuracy of fire, system integration, and concentration of maximum fire power in smaller units plus increasing transparency in the battlefield.

Modern artillery is most obviously distinguished by its long range, firing an explosive shell or rocket and a mobile carriage for firing and transport. However, its most important characteristic is the use of indirect fire, whereby the firing equipment is aimed without seeing the target through its sights. The emergence of the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the early 21st century enabled relatively cheap and accurate guidance for shells and missiles. However, the need arose for very accurate three dimensional target coordinates, which led to the precision guided munitions (PGMs).

The nomenclature “artillery” has traditionally not been used for projectiles with internal guidance systems. However, some modern artillery units employ surface-tosurface missiles. The advancement in terminal guidance systems for small munitions has allowed large-caliber guided projectiles to be developed, which has blurred the distinction between the two. Notably with the advent of powered flight at the start of the 20th century, artillery also included groundbased anti-aircraft batteries. But in the modern era in countries where Air Defence and Artillery are separate arms, such blurring of distinction could lead to turf wars.

Modern Artillery Products

Russia has recently offered its Msta-S Howitzer to foreign countries, particularly in the Middle East. A demonstration was organised in 2020 by Rosoboronexport, Russia’s nodal agency for arms export, for representatives from various Middle Eastern countries. The Msta 2S19 is a 152.4mm self-propelled howitzer weighing 42 tonnes which is based on the T-80 tank hull but is powered by the diesel engine of the T-72. It has a maximum firing range of 24.7 km with standard ammunition and 29 km when using base-bleed rounds. Russia has been using the Msta 2S19 howitzers extensively in Ukraine to destroy Ukrainian artillery batteries and other targets.

In April 2020, China’s vehicle mounted howitzer ‘PCL-181’, termed most advanced in Chinese media, entered service in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The 155mm wheeled vehicle-mounted howitzer weighs only 25 tonnes, making it much lighter and faster with longer endurance than PLA’s earlier howitzer which use crawler tracks and weighs more than 40 tonnes. The PCL-181 howitzer can also hit targets at longer ranges with increased firepower. This means that the PCL-181 not only has higher mobility but also can be transported by large transport aircraft like the Y-20 which has a cargo capacity of more than 60 tonnes. One Y-20 can carry 2 x PCL-181 or combination of one PCL-181 and one 30-tonne class Type 15 lightweight main battle tank (MBT).

Chinese media revealed in January 2015 revealed that China’s Chengdu Aviation Corporation had begun offering smaller drones that could be deployed from a 155mm shell (PLZ-04 howitzer) or 300mm rocket (A-100 rocket launcher). Once enemy tanks/vehicles have been targeted, the parent artillery battery can fire laser guided shells and artillery to accurately destroy the enemy. The drone is lodged inside a specially designed warhead inside a rocket or artillery shell. At the appropriate attitude, the warhead deploys a parachute in order to slow down and release the drone. The drone then uses its four wings to stay aloft, while it scans for enemy vehicles. An operator back at the artillery battery designates the drone to use its laser (as well as any another sensors) to lock onto enemy vehicles by marking their rooftops. The drone has the advantage of speed, is cheaper and harder to detect.

Developments in India

In the case of India, China will remain our number one enemy for reasons that require no elucidation. China wields by far the world’s largest military, with 2.8 million soldiers, sailors and airmen; twice the number of the US military. China is already much advanced in the spheres of cyberspace, robotics, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, hypersonic, anti-ballistic systems, quantum computing, NBC and offensive bio-weapon capabilities.

The Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army has embarked on modernisation to cater for no-war-no-peace and future conflicts, which has been covered elsewhere in this publication. A recent development in this context is the Russian howitzer ‘Msta 2S19’ that has successfully passed the test in India. Alexey Shchipanov, Chief Designer of the SKB (Transmash of Special Technique) JSC Uraltransmash, said that the howitzer was tested in hot climates (2S19 was modernised for use in hot climates), tests conducted in India also using Indian ammunition were successful and that the tests surpasses some of the best world analogues in a number of characteristics.

On August 31, 2021, the Indian Army ordered over 100 tactical ‘SkyStriker’ loitering munitions from Bengaluru-based Alpha Design Technologies Private Limited having joint venture with Israel’s Elbit Systems Limited. Alpha Design Technologies, now part of the Adani Group, is already producing SkyStriker munitions and will meet Indian Army’s requirements within one year. SkyStriker, launched through an automatic pneumatic launch platform, can reach a distance of 20 km in less than 10 minutes. The total range for the system is around 100 km. Designed for long-range precision strike, SkyStriker can pursue a target for up to two hours with a 5-kg warhead or up to one hour with a 10-kg warhead at maximum speed of 100 knots.

Concurrently, the Indian Army had also ordered 100 units of ‘swarm drones’ from the start-up Newspace Research and Technologies Private Limited costing $15 million. The Indian Army intends to use these drones for developing swarming concept of operations and to help design future swarming systems. All this is a good beginning though we awakened to the requirement only after the Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh during May-June 2020.

Future Trends

The artillery will continue to remain vital to armies in future wars because of the four core functions it can fulfill in the modern battle-space:

  • one, suppression of enemy fires or counter-battery fires;
  • two, striking high-value targets;
  • three, breaking up enemy force concentrations, and;
  • four, providing fire support for assaulting troops and in manoeuvre warfare.

The future battle space would be nonlinear with the need for simultaneous engagement in the close, intermediate and depth areas.

Future trends for development of artillery systems will take into account that the battlefield will be non-linear and the entire battle-space would need to be addressed simultaneously through multi-domain operations in the domains of land, sea (surface and sub surface), air, space, cyber, electromagnetic and the cognitive. Speed of engagement or response will be a vital requirement, which may boil down to not seconds but milliseconds. This would require foolproof or quantum communications and a command structure right up to the military-civil hierarchy for emergent decision taking unless a fair degree of decentralisation has already been instituted. This can make all the difference between wins and losses where the initiative has struck first.

Advances in surveillance technologies imply that the defender should not only locate and engage the enemy targets first (when required) but also deny the same to the enemy. Artillery has an important role in this including in the overall deception plan through harassing and deceptive fire plans to deceive the enemy. Also, the artillery has an equally important role in post strike damage assessment through unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other devices. The same devices also help locate terrorists and terrorist hideouts enabling counter terrorist operations, even use of artillery where required.

Finally, the artillery will remain a vital component in future warfare, especially in hybrid wars. Technologies to optimise the use of artillery will continue to be developed, as well as counter technologies to deny such optimisation by the enemy.