By Debalina Ghoshal
The recent stand-off between India and China saw greater display of military power between the two nations on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the border region. Both the states have displayed their artillery weapons on the border as a display of their firepower. Amid this, this article analyses China’s indigenously developed 155mm howitzer that was delivered to the Eastern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with the Artillery Brigade under the 74th Army Group in April 2020. The need to analyse the artillery system, that has attracted attention, is to keep readers aware of Chinese systems. As artillery is regarded as ‘God of warfare’, it is crucial to analyse not just one’s own artillery systems, but also enemy’s artillery weapon systems.
In April 2020, China replaced its PL-66 152mm towed howitzer with more advanced PCL-181 155mm self-propelled howitzer. The system would also replace Type-59-1 130mm towed field guns. It is a known fact that 155mm howitzers are best suited for mountain warfare. The weapon system is reported to have greater response time, greater reaction time and its ability to be operated automatically as opposed to the PL-66 make it best suited for mountain warfare and enhance China’s combat capability by strengthening their firepower.
The mobility of the weapon system only adds to its combat prowess. Also, being light weighed, it can be easily transported across several bridges and highways that can only take limited weight. The weapon system can be easily transported by air because of its light weight as well as road and rail mobile. The system is highly fast and has a long endurance than the previous self-propelled howitzers that China has had. This is probably possible because the weapon system does not use crawler tracks as opposed to its other counterparts.
The weapon system is highly flexible and manoeuvrable-best suited for plateaus and mountains. The export version of the artillery system is SH-15 that Pakistan has reportedly acquired from China. Amid the stand-off between India and China, what is more interesting as well as concerning is that in June 2020, the howitzers joined People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for military exercises in Nanjiang Haojiao, horn of southern border and hence, can soon be deployed in the eastern Ladakh region considering that such weapon systems can become game changer in conventional mountain warfare.
However, the move on China’s part to commission the PCL-181 howitzers is also in response to India’s M777 howitzers that is 155mm towed howitzers and are with advanced capability. As India deploys the world’s lightest howitzer, the M777 as the gun incorporates titanium and aluminium to add to the light weight of the gun, China too had to maintain its conventional arms parity by deploying a similar light weighed howitzer that is easier to locate and highly manoeuvrable in a changing manoeuvre warfare environment.
Success in manoeuvre warfare coupled with mountain warfare is very much dependent on lethal firepower and this firepower needs to be easily transported to rugged terrain. Light weighed howitzers make mobility even in rugged terrain easy, thereby increasing the credibility of the weapon system. According to reports, the PCL-181 is so light that one Chinese Y-20 transport aircraft can carry two of such vehicles.
Six artillery squad members can be accommodated in the vehicle on which the howitzer is mounted and the vehicle is bullet proof, thereby improving survivability options of the command chain of the howitzer. One of the characteristics of self-propelled howitzers is its shoot and scoot tactics that require shorter preparation time to shoot. This is possible due to digitalised control panels that can be found in the cab and this highly digitalised system allows artillery gun deployment with the press of a button, automatic gun calibration and half-automatic ammo reload.
Integrated wheeled chassis and highly automated electro-mechanical hydraulic servo system gives it better edge during combat by allowing the system to park and then involve in combat, followed by launching projectiles and then withdrawing and transferring.
Even though India has M777 howitzers, India would need to chalk out a plan to nullify the effects of these self-propelled Chinese systems. Offensive strategies that could destroy the weapon system with help of credible weapons locating radar to track the weapons and use of air power or missile system or even artillery to neutralise the Chinese artillery systems should be deployed.
-The writer is a non resident fellow, Council on International Policy, Canada and Asia Pacific fellow, EastWest Institute, US. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda