Why Did China Put Its New Howitzer on Wheels Instead of Tracks?

Artillery pieces were once towed by horses – until the truck was invented. Then the big guns were pulled by trucks – but the guns needed time to set up, and the trucks couldn’t keep up with the tanks in rough terrain.

Then in World War II, howitzers were put on a tank chassis to create tracked self-propelled howitzers, which had the mobility and armor protection to keep pace with tanks. The problem is that a tank-like howitzer comes with all the problems of tanks, such as a heftier price tag and more maintenance, as well as extra weight that chew up roads and precludes crossing many bridges.

But in recent years, wheeled howitzers have become an option. Placing a big gun on what is essentially  a heavy truck aims to create an artillery piece that combines affordability and mobility.

That’s why China has mounted its new howitzer on wheels. The PCL-181 is a 155-mm howitzer mounted on a 6-wheel off-road truck chassis. It is aimed at replacing the People’s Liberation Army’s  towed PL-66 152-mm and Type 59-1 130-mm howitzers.

“The PCL-181 features ‘fastness’ as its most prominent technical advantage — to be specific, its ‘fastness’ in response, marching, and aiming,” declared the official China Military Online site. “Within three minutes, the PL-66 152-mm towed gun-howitzer can only complete the transition from marching state to combat state; while thanks to its integrated wheeled chassis and highly automated electromechanical hydraulic servo system, the PCL-181 can realize the whole process from parking to combat state, then to launching six projectiles, and finally to withdrawing and transferring.”

“This means a qualitative leap for the tactics of the PLA Army artillery troops,” Chinamil.com said.

The PCL-181 also features a computerized fire control system rather than the manual controls of the older towed howitzers. Interestingly, the Chinamil announcement suggested the self-propelled weapon is less prone to traffic accidents than the towed models, “with no need to worry about the rollover accident caused by overspeed, which is hardly possible for the PL-66 152-mm towed gun-howitzer.”

Interestingly, Chinese military media made a point of noting that the Chinese army already has a self-propelled howitzer, the PZL-05 155-mm weapon. So why opt for a wheeled howitzer?

The biggest reason seems to be mobility. At 25 tons, the PCL-181 is half the weight of the tank-like PZL-05. It can use roads, bridges and railway cars that can’t support the PZL-05, and it can fit inside a Y-9 cargo plane.

Indeed, the PLA seems very concerned about building mobile artillery that can operate across the vast geographical size and diversity of China, which encompasses deserts, jungles and mountains. “The total mileage of China’s expressway network has exceeded 100,000 kilometers [62,000 miles] at present,” according to China.mil. “Therefore, the PCL-181 can quickly reach designated areas by using its wheeled chassis of long-distance rapid maneuverability in North China, East China, and South China where the expressway network is relatively dense. In addition, the PCL-181 is also superior to the PLZ-05 in terms of maneuverability and operational flexibility in mountainous areas, deserts, Gobi deserts, and plateaus.”

China isn’t the only nation embracing wheeled howitzers. For example, France has its CAESAR 155-millimeter gun, Israel has the 155-mm ATMOS and Russia is developing a truck-mounted 152-mm weapon. Even the U.S., concerned that its artillery is outgunned by Russia’s big guns, is exploring truck-mounted howitzers to meet its future artillery requirements.

But are wheeled howitzers really better than tracked guns? There are pros and cons to either approach, according to a 2017 study by U.S. think tank RAND Corp. Wheeled vehicles are cheaper, easier to maintain, and have better mobility when operating on roads. Tracked vehicles are superior in maneuvering off-road, and a tracked chassis can bear more weight and more armor protection than a wheeled chassis.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: China Military Online

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