The Long and the Short of Finnish Guns

The Finnish Army learned to love artillery during the Second World War. There never seemed to be enough of it to cover all needs, and the Red Army always seemed to have plenty enough. At the same time, air support was even scarcer, meaning that if you wanted to produce any kind of effect on the other side of the hill, you either had to send in someone on foot or bring the artillery to bear. Like conscription, massed artillery was one of those ideas the Finnish Defence Forces clinged to even when it seemed obsolete to most western observers.

Artillery is also wonderful in that working artillery pieces have an extremely long lifespan. Sure there are developments, but getting hit by 130 mm shrapnel hurts as much today as it did in Golan 1973. Still, everything comes to an end, and unfortunately for the Finnish Army quite a lot of things are coming to an end at roughly the same time.

The Heavy-hitters

For much of the Cold War the stalwart of the Finnish Defence Forces was made up of Soviet artillery systems, with a number of wartime British and German pieces thrown in for good measure. After the German reunification Finland also bought large number of 152 mm field guns and howitzers from ex-DDR stocks. However, dwindling and aging ammunition stocks have meant that all howitzers are withdrawn, with two battalions of 152 mm 2A36 guns and six battalions of 130 mm M-46 being left in service (note that the figures of wartime strengths should be taken with a grain of salt, as the Finnish Army rarely acknowledges the number of individual systems. These figures are the ones found in a trusted open source for 2018).

130 K 54, as the 130 mm M-46 field gun is known locally, during live firings in Northern Finland 2015. Source: Maavoimat FB

Both of these are expected to be phased out within the next few years, effectively reducing the number of Finnish towed heavy artillery by 45%. Left in service will be the 155 K 83-97 and 155 K 98, two domestic field guns firing NATO-standard 155 mm rounds. The K 83-97 is an 80’s design featuring an L/39 barrel, while the K 98 is a more modern piece with a L/52 barrel and an APU, a small engine allowing the gun to drive short distances under own power and thereby significantly aiding in the handling of the gun.

Amongst the self-propelled pieces 48 modern K9 Thunder 155 mm SPGs are being introduced. These highly efficient weapons will replace the already retired 2S5 Giatsint-S 152 mm SPGs and the still serving 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm SPHs. However, the number is low enough that non-mechanised units are unlikely to see any self-propelled artillery. As such there is a gap evident amongst the mid-tier (regional) units of the wartime Finnish Army, where the retirement of the Soviet guns will be felt most keenly at the brigade level and above.

155 K 98 during the celebrations marking the 100 year anniversary of the return of the Jaegers, held in Vaasa in February 2018. Source: E. Häggblom

The obvious solution is to buy more guns. However, this is not necessarily as simple as it sounds, as heavy towed guns have rapidly fallen out of fashion. The few guns found in production, such as the US M777 and the Pegasus of Singapore, are often tailored toward expeditionary roles requiring them being airmobile. This leads to extremely low weight, but while lightweight guns generally are more fun and easy for the crews to operate, manufacturing gun parts from titanium comes at a price. A hefty price. The Australian DCSA request from 2008 comes in at 4.35 million USD a piece for 57 howitzers of the newest M777A2 version, though that included a SINCGARS radio for each set as well. The following year BAE bagged an order for 63 more M777A2 for USMC and Canada at a unit cost of a more decent 1.9 million USD. Still, that’s a far cry from the 500,000 Euro that the Finnish Defence Forces paid for its 155 K 98 ten years earlier.

The big factor as noted is the weight. The K 98 comes in at 14.6 tonnes, over 10 tonnes more than the 4.2 tonnes of the M777. However, the comparison isn’t a direct one, as the K 98 is a hybrid gun-howitzer while the M777 is a ‘pure’ howitzer sporting the somewhat shorter L/39 barrel length. However, thanks to developments in ammunition the M777 can also push out its rounds to the coveted 40 km range, making the difference in performance smaller (at least on paper, you won’t see accuracy figures of the two systems in open sources anytime soon).

At close to two millions a piece and requiring a towing vehicle (in theory the M777 can be towed by a HMMWV though in practice this is often handled by a 6×6 truck), a single gun system with gun and tower likely comes in at close to 2.5 million euros. And at that price-point something else appears. 

Enter the Nexter Camion équipé d’un système d’artillerie, or CAESAR 8X8 for short, a 155 mm L/52 gun on a Tatra chassis. The 16 systems bought by the launch customer Denmark, including initial spares and a 10 year service agreement, comes in below 2.7 million euros a piece. While critics have decried the baseline CAESAR 6×6 as not offering any protection for the gun crew I feel the comparison is unfair. After all, at the price point the system is found the real competition is not the K9 or PzH 2000, but rather towed systems. And being mounted on an all-terrain truck it offers superior mobility without the need for a dedicated towing vehicle, while the lack of crew protection is the same. Replacing the Soviet designs with more 155 mm systems would simplify logistics, as all heavy systems would employ the same 155 mm NATO standard munitions. As such the question is raised if we shouldn’t just place an order for 100 CAESARs to replace the retired guns starting in 2020?

The original French CAESAR 6×6 during a live firing exercise in Afghanistan in 2009. Source: Teddy Wade, U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the first issue is money. Even considering economics of scale the order would like come in at 200 million Euros, money which is hard though not necessarily impossible to come by. The other question is – perhaps somewhat unexpectedly – whether a self-propelled system is objectively “better” than a towed one? Not necessarily, especially not in the tight confines of Finnish terrain (i.e. forests). Handling the gun when you can’t get rid of the truck quickly can be more difficult, while the difference in height is evident from the pictures above. Protection of the system (as opposed to the crew) does become something of an issue. While the better part of a towed weapon can be hidden by a berm the height of a standing person, the truck needs, well, a truck-height of cover. These obstacles aren’t impossible to overcome, but for a traditional role towed systems might actually offer some benefits.

But what about avoiding counter-battery fire, I hear you say? Well, up until now the answer has been that when the guns in an individual battery are spread out so that there’s 400 to 800 metres between each gun counter-battery fire becomes ‘difficult enough’, with no need for shoot-and-scoot tactics. Also, even if there’s no need for a towing vehicle, the amount of rounds carried by a CAESAR is limited, and there would quickly appear a need for a ammunition truck. Towing trucks are also nice in that they are versatile, and you can replace lost towing trucks from general stocks (or use trucks who lost their guns as general cargo carriers) as the need arises.

Everything in the reasoning above is obviously also relevant for other wheeled SPGs of the same class, such as the Israeli ATMOS. 

The suggested marriage of a 155 K 98 to a Sisu 8×8 chassis. Source: Patria briefing to the Parliamentary Defence Committee 

Could a new domestic gun come into the picture? Possibly, Patria has been pushing for a ‘Finnish CAESAR‘ as a way of maintaining artillery know-how in-country. However, while it is certainly true that the proud Finnish tradition of manufacturing high-end artillery is threatened, the question is if it is too late already? The last newly developed weapon was twenty years ago, and even if one wanted to avoid developing something new and instead simply restarted the 155 K 98-line it is seldom a simple and straightforward process to restart production lines which have laid dormant for 15+ years. At least if we want a competitive price, going abroad might be the only option, at which point license production can then be discussed to maintain domestic know-how.

So are there no options left that would offer Finland 100 guns for less than 200 millions? 

Well, Nexter has noticed that there is a gap in the market, not the least because the Indian Army has a requirement for 1,400 towed 155 mm L/52 guns. To answer this they have launched the Trajan, based heavily on the gun used by the CAESAR. Little information is available, but the gun pushes the range out even further with 52 km range being given for specialised shells, it has an APU, and the weight comes in at 13.0 tonnes. Not a lightweight by any standard, but no worse than the 155 K 98. The rough price for the Indian order would be 714,000 Euros per gun. The main issue is that the Trajan is still just a prototype, and the Indian connection unfortunately makes it somewhat suspicious. It is unclear whether non-Indian exports would be ‘pure’ Nexter systems.

In the same competition Elbit is also offering a corresponding system, called ATHOS. Few hard details are known about the system, which is closely related to the wheeled SPG ATMOS that beat CAESAR in the original Danish competition (more than one commentator has questioned whether the rerun which lead to the CAESAR being ordered was based on facts or politics). The weapon does feature an automatic laying capability and an automated ammunition handling system (i.e. a hydraulic crane/lift). From a Finnish viewpoint, there’s the added twist of the Tampella-ancestry.

The D-30

But the headaches of the Finnish Defence Forces doesn’t end there. There are quite literally hundreds of 122 mm D-30 light howitzers that are still filling the role as battalion level assets throughout most Army units. They will stay on longer than the heavier Soviet stuff, but they are also heading out as 2030 approaches.

But if the market for 155 mm howitzers is small, the market for light howitzers is next to non-existent. Certain light guns and mountain howitzers are still found, but the answer to what should replace the 122 mm howitzer is not necessarily another light howitzer.

The flatter trajectory of the howitzers and guns compared to mortars makes it easier to hide the firing positions at the edge of forests. Here the venerable 122 mm D-30 in action. Source: Maavoimat FB

The D-30 provides basic indirect fire with high-explosive shells, smoke, and illumination. They also provide an anti-tank capability, though it is questionable to what extent an 122 mm howitzer shell, even an armour-piercing one, actually can damage anything heavier than an APC. At the same time the introduction of hard-kill systems on tanks means that indirect and direct fire artillery is becoming more interesting again in the AT-role.

The obvious answer is getting more 120 mm heavy mortars. Lots of mortars. The range is not quite the same as the D-30, but on the other hand the lower muzzle velocity allows for thinner walls in the round, which leads to a 120 mm round packing almost the same explosive power as some 155 mm rounds. And while direct fire isn’t possible, the AT-role can be handled with Pansarsprängvinggranat m/94, or STRIX as everyone except the Swedish calls Saab’s endphase-guided anti-tank mortar round. Mortars, due to their steeper trajectory, require more open space to fire to make sure they don’t hit any trees overhead, but are also lighter and more easily moved compared to howitzers. As such they just might provide the answer to the loss of light howitzers, even if that would be a step back capability-wise in some aspects.

The Headache

Artillery remains a priority amongst the Finnish Defence Forces, but there are some serious gaps coming up within the next decade. Besides the Soviet guns and howitzers on their way out, the RM-70 light rocket launchers are also about to be retired. In addition, modern rounds aren’t cheap, with guided once such as the Excalibur costing tens of thousands a piece (60,480 Euro a piece for the Excalibur to be exact). To be able to maintain a modern and large artillery arm, the Finnish Defence Forces will have to invest considerable sums during the 2020’s.

After the strategic acquisitions for the Navy and Air Force, I will argue that the Army should initiate a study for the best complete package of indirect fires to replace outgoing systems, followed by a strategic acquisition program along the lines of HX and Squadron 2020 to try and secure extra-budgetary funds to implement the program. This certainly won’t come easy, but even 1/20th-part of what HX is getting could prove to be the difference between massed enemy casualties and a repeat of the Winter War situation if we would face a war in 2030. As such, this would thoroughly be a strategic acquisition, though with artillery being less sexy than jet fighters, it might require more communication to get through the parliament.

Big thanks to Luke O’Brien who provided useful insights into the world of artillery and patiently answered my questions regarding the general state of modern artillery. All mistakes and groundless speculations are all my own making.