Nenonen’s heritage, pt 3: The Heavies

While the light howitzers might be numerous, there’s no denying that it is their larger counterparts that are supposed to do the heavy lifting, especially in the key sectors of the battlefield. Up until some fifteen years ago, the mainstay in the Finnish heavy brigade artillery was something designated 152 H 88. This was in fact the common name for a modernisation program that had been applied to a number of different WWII-era howitzers, that had been refitted with a new 152 mm L32 barrel and generally brought up to speed. Two of these were the Soviet 152 mm obr. 1937 howitzer (ML-20) and the 122 mm obr. 1931/37  field gun (A-19) that shared the same carriage, while the third was based on the German Immergrün, the 15 cm sFH 18. In total, well over 120 were modified, being designated 152 H 88-37, H-31, and H-40 respectively. In the early 90’s they got company from a similar number of 152 mm D-20 howitzers (152 H 55) bought from ex-NVA stocks, solidifying the Soviet 152 mm as the mainstay of Finnish heavy indirect fire.

6-tuumaisilla on kiirettä.
The 152 H/37, as the original 152 mm obr. 1937 was known in Finnish service, firing on its former owners during the Soviet summer offensive of 1944. 63 years later the last guns would finally be withdrawn from Finnish service. Source: SA-Kuva

The impact of the large artillery buys from the recently unified Germany can hardly be overemphasised. The total number of field artillery pieces grew by 25 % (the number of rocket launchers tripled), the first self-propelled guns arrived in the form of the light 2S1 and the heavier 2S5, and crucially the ratio of heavy to light batteries shifted. 42 % of the Finnish batteries were heavy following the introduction of the large number of D-20s, and the number of batteries per brigade grew to six (i.e. a regiment with one heavy and one light artillery battalion, both with 18 guns). The ratio of heavy to light batteries continued to rise as the decade went on. However, and this was a key factor, as the millennium changed, almost a third of the Finnish heavy batteries consisted of brigade artillery equipped with old Soviet 152 mm howitzers with a range of approximately 16 to 18 km. While they still could provide tactical fires, they were largely unable to perform operational fire missions. Their weight also made mobility, never a strong suit of towed artillery, abysmal. What finally broke the camel’s back was the fact that the shelf-life of the rounds were starting to run out. Finland usually bought packages of artillery that included rounds and other necessary equipment, and the NVA rounds were starting to run out of time.

First to go was the 152 H 88, which was retired in 2007, which it has to be said was not a bad run for a number of guns developed seven decades earlier. In recent years the 152 H 55 has also been struck from record, leaving a total gap of approximately 200 to 250 heavy howitzers compared to twenty years ago. As noted, the material was old and sported a short range, and at the same time there has been a drawdown in the number of infantry units that needed support. Still, the loss of firepower was felt.

An even bigger loss was the 130 K 54 (M-46). The gun was one of the stars of the Soviet Cold War arsenal, being known for it’s range and accuracy. The ability to send a 130 mm  HE-shell over 27 km was no mean feat for a gun that entered production in 1951, and it played an important role in Finnish service as a counterbattery and operational fires weapon. The last of the nine battalions delivered to Finland were retired a short while ago, leaving just a single heavy Russian weapon in service.

152K89 täyspanos late 2019 Marko Leppänen
A 152K89 of Kainuu Artillery Regiment during a live-fire exercise late last year. When firing with a full charge such as here, the gun is capable of flinging out the standard OF-29 HE-FRAG round to over 27 km. Picture courtesy of Marko Leppänen

The 152 mm 2A36 Giatsint is probably better known in it’s self-propelled version 2S5 (a battery of which was found in Finnish service, but is since retired), and 24 are found in Finnish service as the 152K89. In Soviet service these replaced the M-46 as a higher-level asset for roles such as counterbattery fire. However, the 152 mm is a “difficult” calibre for Finland as the 152K89 is the sole weapon using it, and these guns are also on their way out once the ammunition reaches the end of their shelf-life.

To understand what this all means we must go back to the first post of the series that discussed the role of the different guns and their fire missions. In short, Finland has lost 13 heavy batteries handling tactical fires, and another 9 heavy batteries (one of which was self-propelled) handling operational fires and counterbattery missions, with a tenth over-strength operational fires battery soon to join these. As noted, the situation is not as bad as it looks, as the capabilities of the majority of outgoing equipment were quite poor and developments in related fields have improved the quality of fires overall. However, somewhere there is bound to be a gap, and the Finnish Defence Forces wants to plug it.

To begin with we have the K9 order, which will bring 48 top-notch self-propelled heavy howitzers into Finnish service. It’s hard to overstate the impact these will have on Finnish indirect fires, especially in the higher end of the spectrum. The K9 (possibly 155PSH17, though I can’t remember seeing that designation in official FDF sources) will be organised into heavy armoured howitzer batteries, which are a completely new unit type. The fact that they are 48 would seem to indicate two battalions of 24, finally giving the Army the elusive eight-gun battery that is able to perform the shoot-and-scoot carousel where one battery is constantly on the move while two fire (or then there is just a few extras to cover for when some vehicles are on maintenance, but twelve spares for 36 regulars sounds a bit much).

Another key part of the significantly increased operational fires relative to when the 130K54 and 152K89 were first brought into Finnish service is the 41 M270 heavy rocket launchers (officially designated 289 RSRAKH 06). The range and varied munitions they can bring to bear is in a class of their own in the Finnish arsenal.

 

The K9 being dressed up according to Finnish doctrine and customs.

Together, the K9 and the M270 quite nicely cover the gap in operational fires left by the 130K54 and the 152K89. At the same time, the 132 Finnish-built towed 155 mm guns (about two-thirds of which are the older 155K83-97 with the L39 barrel and the rest being the newer 155K98 with L52 barrel and APU) are also able to do operational fire missions, so there doesn’t seem to be too much of gap in the higher end of the indirect fire capability (especially once the air-to-ground capability of the Hornet-fleet and the upcoming HX-fleet are added to the equation, though they will probably have no shortage of wartime missions so the ground-pounding will probably be somewhat limited).

Side note: at this point someone might ask if one really should do OSINT on the number of own artillery pieces. The answer is that the FDF report them to the world as part of the OSCE’s Vienna Document undertakings, so this isn’t really OSINT as much as basic googling-skills

The problem then is the tactical fires, which as we have now seen largely rest with the to-be-retired 122H63 light howitzer, the Finnish-built 155K83-97 and 155K98, and a limited number of  122 mm RM-70 rocket-launchers (122RAKH89, also from ex-NVA stocks). The exception is the mechanised and heavy motorised (tracked) battlegroups which have a total of 74 self-propelled light howitzers in the form of the 2S1 Gvozdika (122PSH74) for their tactical fire support. The number nicely matches the reported 2+2 battlegroups all getting a battalion of 18 guns each. There has been speculation that the first K9s would replace the 122PSH74, but that seem unlikely for a number of reasons. To begin with, the role of the 122PSH74 is squarely tactical fires, it is in essence a mobile D-30 that provide some cover to the crew. Granted if the battlegroups have the equipment, their artillery batteries could be allocated operational fire missions, but permanently allocating the most powerful guns available to the Finnish Army to individual reinforced battalions does not seem to guarantee the greatest use of them, and fits poorly with the concept of modularity found in the Finnish artillery doctrine. It should also be noted that the unit type is described as “completely new”, and that then-MoD Jussi Niinistö in his official blog clearly mentioned that they are to replace towed equipment.

These are replacing towed artillery that is becoming obsolete and retired during the next decade [the 2020’s]

In addition, it rhymes poorly with the relatively recent modifications to bring up at least part of the 122PSH74 fleet to the new 122PSH74M-standard, which is described in Panssari 2/2014 as including a serious overhaul of the communications equipment as well as various C2-systems, all meant to increase the speed of operations (the upgrade also feature a light-machine gun on the roof of the vehicle, as the importance of being able to fend of enemy infantry has grown with the increased fragmentation of the battlefield).

122PSH74M Pohjoinen 18 Maavoimet FB
122PSH74M firing during exercise Pohjoinen 18. Source: Maavoimat FB

It is important to note exactly how different the two self-propelled guns are. The 122PSH74 tips the scale at 15.4 tons and has a footprint of 7.3 x 2.9 meters, while the K9 weighs in at 46.3 tons with a footprint of 12.0 x 3.4 meters (hull length being 7.4 m). While the 122PSH74 isn’t exactly an off-road jeep, the light gun vs. heavy gun comparisons certainly are at play here as well as for their towed counterparts, with the operational mobility being quite a bit simpler to handle when you need a trailer rated for 16 tons compared to one rated for 45+ tons.

So then we are back to a situation where there are a number of modern 155 mm guns (and some heavy rocket launchers) handling the operational fires and a large number of light guns being responsible for tactical fires. With the light ones being on their way out, bringing us back to the questions asked in last post.

The light guns, including both 122H63 and 122PSH74, currently make up something between 75 to 80 % of the total force (depending on how many K9 have arrived and whether you count the 152K89 or not). Using current equipment, as discussed in the last post the towed 155K83-97 could trickle down to cover up the 122H63-gap, and the 155K98 could continue to provide firepower for the operational brigades. However, there is still a few places were things are looking thin:

  • The four battalions of 122PSH74 that support the mechanised and motorised battlegroups,
  • The reduction by perhaps 85 % in the number of guns supporting regional and local troops following the withdrawal of the 122H63,
  • Whether the towed 155K98 really is the weapon of choice for the operational brigades.

The answer to the first is probably more K9s, at least partly. Finland has an option for more vehicles, which would simply continue deliveries after the current batch of 48 vehicles have been shipped. How many is an open question, as another four battalions (especially if they are 24-gun strong) seem prohibitively expensive. Getting two battalions (i.e. another 48 guns) for the two mechanised battlegroups might be doable.

Conscript driver training oct 19 PSPR FB
The first conscripts started training on the K9 Moukari last year, replacing the 122PSH74 as the training platform at the peacetime Jääkäritykistörykmentti (Jaeger artillery regiment). Note the sheer size of the vehicle compared to the crew. Source: Panssariprikati FB

And that leaves two motorised battlegroups and either the operational brigades or the regional units needing more firepower. Looking at the requirements, getting a new towed piece (or transferring the 155K98) to the motorised battlegroups likely doesn’t cut it. The same can probably in all honesty be said for the operational brigades. At least once it is clear something new has to enter the organisation at some level, one can do worse than insert the new stuff at the top and let the old cascade down.

 

Which brings us back to everyone’s favourite emperor-acronym, Nexter’s CAESAR (CAmion Equipé d’un Système d’ARtillerie). The idea is rather simple, and there is something very Finnish about of marrying what is in essence a tested gun (the towed TRF1) to a truck chassis to give the gun shoot-and-scoot capability. I discussed the system at length in an earlier artillery post, so without rehashing everything again:

  • It is a proven design, including having seen combat in harsh conditions,
  • It offers the firepower expected from modern 155 mm L52 systems,
  • The ability to relocate on it’s own wheels adds significantly to both strategic and operational mobility,
  • The French decision to over time let the CAESAR replace all 155 mm systems in service (i.e. the tracked AUF-1TA and the towed TRF1) means that there is a long-term commitment from France to keep the production line (as well as modernisation programs) up and going.

This combination, including the last part, is important, as surely someone will point out the benefits of the Israeli ATMOS, the Mandus Group BRUTUS, and the Swedish Archer. The ATMOS is most closely related to the CAESAR when it comes to the basic concept, while the Archer is a more high-end system with it’s 21 pre-loaded rounds in the magasin. The BRUTUS is the bigger brother to the 105 mm Hawkeye we discussed last time around, and sport a low-recoil 155 mm howitzer which allows the carrier platform to be smaller (and the company to make the obvious #IdesofMarch-jokes). All systems, including the Archer as was shown at DSEI last year, are modular and to a certain extent carrier agnostic. While the differences between the systems are small enough that it will come down to how their respective strengths and weaknesses are evaluated rather than to one of them being objectively better than the rest, for some there isn’t the kind of long-term commitment to the projects by the host countries as is enjoyed by the CAESAR, while others are just now entering service/being tested.

The general drive towards wheeled platforms for artillery is interesting, and something that Watling spent quite a bit of time on in theRUSI report:

However, for every eight [tracked] AS90 howitzers, there are a further six command and support tracked vehicles in the battery, a tactical group of at least five vehicles and the necessary CSS [combat service support] to maintain the guns, repair them when they throw tracks, or recover them when damaged. An Armoured Infantry Brigade meanwhile includes 56 Challenger 2 MBTs, while the brigade also needs to move bridging equipment, its infantry fighting vehicles and CSS assets. The British Army has between 71 and 92 HETs [M1070F tank transporters] available.

[…]

There is a trade-off between wheeled systems, which can self-deploy and have significant strategic mobility, versus tracked platforms, which retain much greater tactical mobility, especially in wet and uneven terrain. It is important to note that the differences between these platforms are declining […] This has led the IDF – despite fighting in a small area – to conclude that the operational reach of wheeled artillery is disproportionately valuable to the tactical mobility of tracked guns. It must be noted that they face a much less significant counter-battery threat, and therefore can have less protection. Wheeled platforms, however, require fewer specialised CSS elements and can therefore move with a smaller logistical tail. As a result, they reduce the overall number of chassis needed to deliver an effect.

What Watling doesn’t mention in the quote above is that this translate directly into money. The difference between the new-built Danish CASESARs coming in at 2.7 million Euro per piece compared to the Finnish ex-ROK K9s at 3.0 million Euro a piece isn’t huge, usual caveats about these not being apples-to-apples comparisons apply (though this is also a good time to point out what a good price PVLOGL got). However, the difference in operational costs most likely are very different (no-one’s going to release anything resembling comparable figures for those, so this is an educated guess based on training requirements, maintenance needs, weight, supporting vehicles/heavy loaders, …). The decision to use a truck-based resupply solution for the K9s also make the argument of the superior tactical mobility of tracks compared to wheels somewhat less persuasive.

One interesting aspect of the CAESAR is the difference between the baseline French (and earlier export) versions, and the latest Danish vehicle that is mounted on the significantly larger classic Tatra T815 8×8 compared to earlier 6×6 carriers. This gives the vehicle not only significantly better off-road mobility, but also a larger number of rounds being carried on the gun (30 being the new standard as opposed to 18 on the French 6×6 version. This can be further increased if a lower number of charges are carried), a new protected cabin (STANAG 4569 Level 2a/2b), and the munitions handling system seen in action in the video above. A new muzzle velocity radar and a thermal imaging sight for direct fire are also fitted.

Sisu E15 TP-L Leguan bridge Saber Strike 18 - Maavoimat FB
You don’t always need tracked platforms, as the Sisu E15 TP-L Leguan bridge layer shows here at the Saber Strike 18. Source: Maavoimat FB

The CAESAR is in many ways the epitome of the kind of good-enough system that the Finnish Defence Forces likes. Especially in cases where the rest of the unit also runs largely on wheels, the tracks and size of the K9 is making things somewhat complicated. An interesting comparison is the Leguan-bridge, which the Finnish Army uses on the Leopard 2-chassis for heavier units and mounted on a Sisu all-terrain truck for lighter ones. There’s no doubt that a CAESAR, or another wheeled self-propelled gun, would feel right at home in the Satakunta Artillery Regiment of the Pori Brigade.

To sum it up, in such a scenario the Army would eventually post-122 mm howitzers (~2030) sport a tube artillery consisting of 48 K9 dedicated to higher-level operational fires, 36 K9 for supporting two mechanised battlegroups, 72 to 108 wheeled SPGs (four to six batteries) for supporting the other operational battlegroups and brigades, and 130-ish Finnish-built towed 155 mm guns to provide the heavy hitting power of the regional troops. The bottom end would then need further 120 mm mortars or a new light gun, as per the last post.

charlie_battery2c_1st_battalion2c_12th_marine_regiment2c_fire_an_m982_excalibur_round_from_an_m777_howitzer
Marines with Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, fire an M982 Excalibur round from an M777 howitzer during a fire support mission in Afghanistan in 2011. Source: USMC via Wikimedia Commons

And just when things started to look quite straightforward – wholesale K9-introduction is too expensive while no-one builds a basic towed gun anymore, let’s go wheeled – there suddenly just might appear the possibility for another cheap surplus buy, as the USMC proposes that they get rid of the majority of their tube artillery. Provided that the suggestion passes through the political hurdles (something that is far from certain) and that the equipment isn’t just mothballed for future use, it might suddenly mean that there is 96 surplus M777A2 towed howitzers up for sale. And there aren’t necessarily too many interested buyers.

The M777 is one of those modern towed howitzers that are built to be as light as possible, which is reflected in the price. 2009 the USMC bought a batch of guns (together with the Canadian Army the total order was 63 M777A2) for 1.9 million USD per gun. If, and this is quite a big “if”, the whole or better part of the 96 gun batch eventually are sold as surplus, they would nicely make up the replacement for the heavy brigade firepower lost with the short-ranged 152 mm howitzers. Buying more towed artillery at this point certainly does sound like something of a step back. However, swapping out the 152H55 for the M777 would certainly still be an improvement when it comes to mobility, based on the simple fact that the M777 weighs in at 4,100 kg, well below the 5,700 kg of the 152H55 (and just above a quarter of the 16,000 kg of the longer-ranged 155K98). The M777 with it’s L39 can also throw unassisted HE projectiles out to 24,700 meters compared to the 17,400 meters of the 152H55, which though still short of the 27,000 meter range of the 155K98 would provide a serious boost in brigade-level firepower. Swapping towed howitzers to (lighter) towed howitzers would also be a relatively simple change in the OOB.

MVH1 2015 Maavoimat FB
Even when it comes to towed heavy artillery, not all are created equal in terms of mobility and ease of handling, something that is often forgotten in the towed vs. self-propelled debate. Source: Maavoimat FB

In this scenario, the domestic 155K98 and 155K83-97 would be used by the operational brigades, with the M777 replacing the outgoing regional brigade artillery and possibly a handful of the most important of the 122H63 batteries. This still leaves the question of a 122PSH74 replacement open (self-propelled heavy mortars, anyone?), and is dependent on the highly speculative possibility of a cheap buy of the better part of the USMC guns that might be retired in the near future. However, the underlying conclusion is that there is bound to be a gap in firepower somewhere, and I would be highly surprised if there are no new 155 mm systems that enter Finnish service within this decade.

10 thoughts on “Nenonen’s heritage, pt 3: The Heavies

  1. MikeKiloPapa

    Great article…..in fact all your posts about the Finnish army are very interesting. The sheer numbers involved in terms of both men and material always surprises me……honestly they wouldn’t be out of place for a country ten times the size of Finland… As sad and humbling as it is , if one were to write a similar article about the Danish army’s artillery, you could fit it on a post-it note!

    Though operating so many disparate weapon systems and platforms, especially in the quantities you have them, must be a hell of a challenge in terms of both logistics and maintenance. And costly too? ….Its also interesting how you support and source parts for all the Russian equipment you still operate……do you trade directly with Russia ? …..which would be a bit ironic 😉

    As to the Danish Caesar’s, there are a few changes to it compared to the initial prototypes shown at DSEI and other defence shows. For reasons unknown, we have chosen to forgo the automated ammunition magazine and thus fully automatic shell loading. Instead, by keeping the human loader, we have been able to fit another 6 rounds for a total of 36. The cab which is STANAG 4569 level 2a as standard will be fitted with Danish add-on armor to reach level 3.

    Wrt to the cost delta between CAESAR 8×8 and K9, a more honest and accurate comparison would be with the Norwegians and their recent acquisition of 24 K9+6 K10s for roughly $380M …..or a unit price well in excess of €10M . So at less than 1/3 the price and with much lower operating costs, the CAESAR does look like excellent value for money, despite its capability shortcomings .

    1. Wouldn’t be surprised if Millog produced their own spare parts. After all in the name of communism soviet weapons were for the most part open intellectual property. Towed weapons are pretty easy and cheap to maintain, they iron for the most part god’s sake!

    2. Shrapnel follower

      I agree with Mike Kilo Papa, this is a great article. Plus I am a great fan of Caesar. I agree with your analysis regarding the affordability of Caesar and the fact that it has proven very effective. It is the only 52 Cal with war experience after all…i mean in near high intensity in Iraq, and high temperatures. I would prefer the Danish version as well, 36 rounds gives you more freedom of action. Tatra chassis is very mobile and much more affordable than MAN chassis.
      M777 seems a very affordable option although the US Marines couldn’t export the M120 mm mortars once they decided not to use them any more. M777 however requires a 9-10 men crew, and doesn’t seem to be the easiest system to operate by conscripts. The rate of fire is very slow too because they have to swab the breech to prevent unburnt. Plus it takes a long time to get into position, even with an expert crew (from what I read)…probably more suited to counter-insurgency.

    3. IED

      @KMP Agree with you regarding finnish artillery. Truly impressive in terms of quantity. And I am a believer in quantity.

      Curious though about the Caesar system. You say that Denmark has chosen not to have have the version with automated ammunition magazine. I have been trying to find out if indeed there was an automatic option but as far as I could see there is only a sort of semi automatic loading system where someone manually has to put the grenade and the charges in a loading tray and the system will then load on an individual basis.

  2. IED

    OK, thanks. I would argue that if soldiers don’t have to leave the protected vehicle for your fire mission it is automatic, otherwise not.

  3. Kristian Larsson

    How many charges does the feed tray hold? Can you e.g. do a 6 round fire mission without reloading and then drive away?

  4. Pingback: Nenonen’s heritage, pt 4: Rockets for Multiple Purposes – Corporal Frisk

  5. Pingback: Sobre artillería y cohetes – Guerras Posmodernas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.