The European nations are becoming engaged in the modernization of artillery assets to a great extent. Finland, Norway, Denmark, Croatia, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Baltic states have decided to procure 155 mm artillery assets, and/or ammunition recently. Other nations - Germany, or the Czech Republic - are engaged in a process of preparing modernization programmes within that scope, or they are reintroducing the decommissioned equipment back into service.
Even though some of those activities had been planned earlier, their scope was broadened, due to the increasing levels of the threat posed by Russia, following the Ukrainian crisis. The artillery allows one to act against specific targets at a longer distance, and to support own forces, even when no allied air superiority is present. This would be a major challenge in a symmetrical scenario.
52-calibre long barrels are a standard among the European howitzers these days. This translates into a range of around 40 kilometres if base-bleed rounds are employed. This performance figure can be attributed to the Polish Krab sph, German PzH 2000 system (also operated by Croatia, Lithuania, Italy, the Netherlands, and Greece), South Korean K9 (procured by Finland, Estonia, and Norway), French Caesar systems (procured by Denmark, planned to be procured by the Czech Republic), and the Slovak Zuzana 2 platform. Some of the listed nations also procured precision munitions for the howitzers.
The technological developments, and the modernization programs pursued by the potential adversary in the artillery department create a necessity to improve the performance of the artillery assets - especially when it comes to effective range. Work has already been launched, to address the aforesaid requirement. Here, two development paths may be selected. First, new long-range/precision guided munitions can be developed. Second, the performance of the guns themselves may also be enhanced. The latter may take place by lengthening the barrel or increasing the volume of the chamber.
The EU has recognized the necessity to support the R&D efforts pertaining to long-range artillery. Thus, two out of 30 recently approved European Defence Industry Development Fund programmes refer to the artillery domain. Both refer to study projects. Nonetheless, they are a good benchmark for the direction of development of the artillery assets.
The first one is named "FIRES" – Future Indirect fiRes European Solution. Its goal is to launch the development of a European family of precision-guided 155 mm projectiles and rockets.
The study is to last for 24 months. It would be financed by the EU in its entirety (EUR 3.5 million). The French Nexter Systems company took the lead in FIRES. However, the project involves several entities, including the Polish CRW Telesystem-Mesko Sp. z o.o. company, contributing the know-how on the laser guidance for artillery rounds, developed within the scope of the APR 155 precision-guided ammunition project. This is relevant, as the artillery rounds are exposed to loads of specific nature, entirely different from ones that bomb units dropped from air platforms experience. Thereby, the know-how and expertise contributed by the Polish company, as well as the fact that it has been qualified to be a part of FIRES shall not go unnoticed.
Nonetheless, there have been no details disclosed, referring to the aforesaid project - at least so far. We know however that Nexter, the leader of the development group, has been working on the 155 mm KATANA precision munitions for some time now. We may expect then, that the aforesaid rounds could become a springboard for this project - they may also be modified to meet the specific requirements of the EU initiative. KATANA is a precision-guided projectile that is to utilizes inertial, satellite, and laser guidance systems (with the latter one being used in the terminal phase of engagement). This would make it possible to increase accuracy, and also provides the user with the capability to act against mobile targets. The KATANA projectiles were fired for the first time, with the guidance system activated, in December, last year.
The first variant of the projectile is to offer a maximum range of 30 kilometers. The enhanced variant that would be deployed next would offer a range of up to 60 kilometers - and this refers to a standard howitzer, with a 52-calibre long barrel, such as Caesar, Krab, or K9. If the ammunition in question is used with a howitzer of better performance, we may expect even greater ranges. Notably, FIRES, alongside the artillery ammunition, also includes the development of rocket projectiles for artillery assets. However, no specifics have been disclosed here. One should, however, note, that MBDA France is among the entities listed as involved. The German MBDA division has recently demonstrated its concept of light cruise missiles with a range of 300 kilometers. Precision rocket artillery assets are also being developed by Spain for instance.
The second project - “e-COLORSS” - is to create a base of knowledge needed to develop a modernized European artillery system, comprised of a 155 mm self-propelled howitzer, and a rocket launcher based on a “hybrid” truck platform. The new platform is to exhibit a high degree of automation of the loading process, following the global development trends. Another feature would come in a form of a strong, interoperational, and secure comms suite. The project is led by the Spanish Everis Aerospacial Y Defesa company, and it also involves several other entities, such as Airbus, Nexter, Leonardo, Iveco Defense Vehicles, but also Konstrukta (Slovakia), Tatra (Czech Republic) Patria (Finland), as well as other Slovak, Spanish, Greek, or Portuguese entities.
The objective here is to create a European tube/rocket artillery system with a modern FCS solution, based on a truck platform. It cannot be ruled out that a 155 mm artillery system that would surpass the current solutions in the automation and effective range domain will be developed here - if only the programme proceeds beyond the conceptual study. This tendency seems to be valid, given the activities undertaken by other nations.
Germany is a good example here. Rheinmetall is developing extended range munitions (such as V-LAP), but it is also working, in parallel, on a new generation of artillery systems. The Assegai V-LAP munitions are already in use - at least one foreign customer procured the rounds. The munitions have a range exceeding 60 kilometers, when fired from a standard howitzer, with a 52-calibre long barrel. South Africa, back in 2019, experimented with the modified G6 howitzer. The barrel was still 52 calibres long, but the chamber was enlarged up to 25 liters. This made it possible to extend the range up to 76 kilometers.
The German company is working on a new howitzer with a 60-calibres long barrel and a modified chamber. This is to result in a range of up to 83 kilometers, and 75 kilometers for trajectory-adjusted rounds. The latter are, understandably, required by the Bundeswehr, as it is necessary to use such systems at this distance. Recently the Germans have signed a memorandum with Northrop Grumman, on the integration of the US PGK kits on the German ammunition. Europe strives to develop its artillery capabilities through continental, EU-supported cooperation, but transatlantic cooperation is also used for that purpose.
EuroArtillery project pursued within the framework of PESCO is another initiative in the artillery domain. One should note that PESCO programmes are initiated by the member states, not the industry (as in the case of subsided studies). However, tight cooperation with the industry is still the case here. The goal of the project is to create a mobile artillery platform that would enhance the defensive capabilities in operations undertaken by European nations. Slovakia (manufacturer of the Zuzana 2 system) is the leader in this project - Italy and Hungary are also involved. Interestingly, the latter nations already operate the German PzH 2000 howitzer (Hungary recently made a relevant procurement). Still, they have got themselves involved in the programme. One of the first undertakings here would involve the integration of the Italian Vulcano ammunition within the Zuzana 2 system. Vulcano is a PGM system developed by Leonardo and several partners. Vulcano is a family of sub-calibrated rounds for 155 mm howitzers and 76/127 mm naval guns. The rounds are available in two variants: BER (Ballistic Extended Range) and GLR (Guided Long Range).
One can see clearly then: the European states are taking steps towards the reinforcement of their tube (and rocket - to a minor extent) artillery assets, with the use of the EU funding. One can observe a dual nature of the undertaken effort. The first domain refers to the new types of ammunition. It is the most prominent one. The ammunition may gradually enhance the capabilities of the existing artillery assets. The above refers to different types of artillery projectiles: precision-guided, and extended range ones. This is especially relevant, as ammunition as such may be used in any NATO-compliant howitzers. This makes it usable in both K9, Krab, as well as Caesar, or PzH 2000. More and more systems as such are being fielded and introduced into the inventories of the European armies. The second trend - that has only begun - is tied to the development of systems that would extend the range of the artillery platforms, and that would also automate the operation of artillery systems.
Poland - currently - has three 155 mm Krab sph squadrons at its disposal, 24 howitzers each. Deliveries of further systems have been planned, also stepping beyond the contracts already signed. The Polish military is to receive 122 guns in total, with deliveries expected to happen by 2022. This paves the way towards the use of a myriad of modern precision-guided munitions, that would altogether make it possible to utilize the potential of the modern artillery assets listed above. The involvement of the Telesystem-Mesko company in the project pursued within the European Defence Industry Development Programme is a major feat, but it shall also be viewed as an opportunity for Poland to get involved in the "European" artillery development projects. There is a lot at stake, as artillery is one of the modernization domains that remains high among the priorities adopted by the Polish Armed Forces. The actions undertaken also involve the Polish industry, to a great extent.