Member Article

UK Artillery: Size matters, but so do numbers

Have the French figured out the conundrum for the British? The UK, historically an expeditionary army, has always been caught in a strategic vise: more powerful howitzers generally meant having fewer, and reducing their availability. That’s right: going for more power, leads to less power. This is particularly problematic, when addressing a weapons system which is all about power, precisely. The French may be on to something, with their own artillery.

Why more is less

Artillery systems, throughout the world and its history, have been the object of continuous technological improvement. Every decade, new firepower, mobility and protection layers were systematically plastered onto existing platforms, to the point that modern systems are today built like onions. This leads to two consequences, both of which are problematic for army commanders in general, and British ones in particular.

The first consequence is that, for any given budget, a hugely complex and proprietary system will cost more per unit, and therefore reduce the number of items which can be purchased. The UK military have been hit particularly hard with this fatality, as recent decades saw their defence budgets dramatically melt, year after year. Naturally, howitzers will be expensive, no matter their design. An M109 Paladin howitzer, which can be used as a benchmark, is a US-designed, state-of-the-art self-propelled howitzer, which comes with a price tag of approximately 15 million USD per unit. To replace all of the UK’s current and aging AS-90s, a total budget of nearly 4 billion USD would be needed, totalling nearly 10% of the entire military budget. Given the arithmetic impossibility, the British defence staff would have to greatly reduce the number of units they would purchase. While such a drastic choice would indeed supply them with a few top-notch heavy howitzers, it would necessarily also result in many pockets of terrain which would escape artillery coverage, during deployments. As an illustration, Afghanistan is about 250 000 square miles. The area covered by one gun being around 500 square miles, 500 of these guns would have been necessary to ensure proper coverage, when the UK would not be able to buy 250 without gutting its budget.

To make matters worse, many of the designs, available on the current market, are perfect for the wars of the last century, and almost irrelevant for today’s wars. Many of these were designed to fight hardened and high-powered Russian units on the plains of Central Europe. As fate would have it, we are now confronted with low-powered and nimble enemy units, who use our lack of mobility to their advantage. Indeed, the Western coalition had all the trouble in the world getting its artillery to Afghanistan, as it was too heavy to be airlifted to the landlocked country of Afghanistan. The few guns which did make it to Afghanistan, were regularly stymied on a mountainous terrain it had not been designed for. Their girth protected them against firepower the enemy didn’t have and kept them from catching up with their targets instead. But that was all before the French showed up, with a revolutionary design: the CAESAR cannon.

The French breakthrough

The design is cleverly simple: via a partnership with a Czech all-terrain truck manufacturer, the French have designed a self-propelled howitzer, mounted on a truck chassis. What does this change, and how could it benefit the British?

The first impact is simply the price tag: this design slices the cost per item by two thirds, with an average cost of around 5 million euros per gun. This, simply put, means 3 times the number of available guns, for the same amount. But surely, this would come at an operational cost, such as reduced firepower, would it not? Or would it.

The weapon system mounted onto the Caesar, is identical to those mounted on traditional track-and-armour designs. The Caesar fires the same high-tech, long-range, and high-power shells as the Americans, such as Excalibur or low-hazard rounds. This guarantees both potency on the field, and interoperability in future inter-ally operations.

Additionally, wheel-based structures are simpler to maintain, compared to their tracked counterparts. This is mainly due to increased accessibility, compared to compact and armoured hulls. Therefore, the financial impact on the defence budget will not only be reduced at the time of purchase, but also in the long run. This is essential, given the lack of predictability of defence budgets, combined with the fact that defence programs commit armies of thirty to 50 years.

Then, comes the notion of deployability: a notion which is dear to expeditionary armies such as the Royal Army. An American M109 weighs nearly 30 tons. A British AS-90 weighs nearly 45. Deploying these units via air transport is somewhere between dangerous, difficult, and impossible. A Caesar howitzer, thanks to its design, weighs barely above 15 tons. This means two can be fitted into an A400 transport plane at a time, with the additional benefit of better weight balancing, and therefore increased flight safety. Once on the ground, they can roam the battlefield and reposition with much greater ease than AS-90s, or M109 howitzers, thus maximizing troop coverage and protection.

Do the advantages of this new design come with a catch, insofar as the British are concerned? Not really. The threats which troops are subjected to on modern-day battlefields, such as small arms fire and IEDs, apply equally to both tracked and truck-chassis designs. By opting for this type of howitzer, the British would reduce neither their firepower nor their interoperability but would immensely increase the tactical surface under their command, in future deployments, and the speed at which they would achieve it. The British may have already started to figure this out, as they engaged in the Boxer program to support their infantry. A Caesar cannon is, in essence, a revolutionary design, and not just a big gun, duct-taped to the back of a Boxer infantry fighting vehicle.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Daniel Brooks .

Our Partners