October 24, 2010: Although, on paper, Russia and North Korea have larger quantities of artillery, it is China that probably has the largest, combat ready, artillery force on the planet. This force includes towed and self-propelled guns, as well as multiple rocket launchers. Meanwhile, many Russian systems are unmanned, and the North Korean artillery is older and often in poor repair. China's stuff has trained crews available, and is of more recent manufacture. China has over fifty different models, amounting to over 17,000 guns, howitzers, mortars and rocket launchers. Most of these are mortars used by the infantry. Many Chinese artillery weapons are copies of Russian models, although for the last decade China has been developing its own.
For example, China has developed some interesting new systems, including GPS guided 406mm rockets, carried in self-propelled rocket launchers. The WS-2 system consists of an 8x8 truck mounting six canisters, each holding a 1.3 ton, 406mm WS-2 rocket. The WS-2 has a max range of 200 kilometers. Warheads can be as large as 200 kilograms (440 pounds), for the 70 kilometers range version. At 200 kilometers, the warhead is about half that size. The warheads use cluster bomb munitions. The WS-3 version has GPS guidance, a smaller warhead and a longer range (over 300 kilometers). While the original WS-2 rocket was unguided, and could land within 600 meters of the aiming point at maximum range, the WS-3, using GPS or inertial navigation, as well as terminal homing guidance, can take out very small targets. The WS-2 is similar to the U.S. 610mm, 1.8 ton ATACMS rocket, which has GPS guidance and a range of 300 kilometers. Each ATACMS rocket costs about a million dollars. The WS-2 rocket probably goes for less than $100,000 each, although the WS-3 probably costs several times that.
China is one of a handful of nations that still maintains artillery divisions. Russia and North Korea are the other two major users of these units. Artillery divisions were first organized during World War I, as a means of more effectively organizing huge (hundreds of cannon) barrages in support of major attacks. Only the Russians carried over the use of artillery divisions to World War II, and kept using them throughout the Cold War. Other communist countries followed suit. China still has six of them, but has adapted to new technologies.
Chinese artillery divisions exist mainly to keep specialist artillery, often called "non-divisional" in the West (because more common types of artillery are assigned to each combat division) together. The artillery division can supervise training and maintenance of the cannon, rocket and missile units, along with looking after lots of ammunition.
The Chinese 1st Artillery Division, which is stationed near the coast, opposite Taiwan, is one of the best equipped, and ready-for-combat units in the army. Its five regiments contain 152mm howitzers (both towed and self-propelled), 130mm guns, 100mm assault guns, 300mm rockets and ATGMs (anti-tank guided missile). The 152mm howitzers can fire the Chinese copy of the Russian Krasnopol laser guided shell. The division also has units for detecting the location of enemy artillery (using specialized radars and computers) along with other computers for planning elaborate attacks using different types of cannon and rockets. This is similar to the one artillery division (the 7th) the German army did maintain during World War II. Their 7th Artillery Division was a response to the American use of highly coordinated fire from a large number of widely dispersed cannon.
The U.S. had developed techniques for rapid and highly coordinated artillery use during the 1930s, and it changed the way modern artillery was used. The Germans were surprised when they first encountered it, but never had enough artillery, radios and ammunition to make it all work like the Americans did. So they formed an Artillery Division to try and make it work for them.
Smart shells and rockets have once more changed the game. Large scale use of artillery is no longer beneficial if you have the GPS guided weapons. China is building these weapons, and working hard to figure out how to make the most of them. But they are not likely to disband their artillery divisions anytime soon. Their 1st Artillery Division, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, may not last another half century, but for the time being, it will remain a convenient way to administer the large number of non-divisional artillery units the Chinese have.