February 13, 2011: South Korea is buying more weapons and military equipment to protect itself against another North Korean attack. The latest purchase is more Swedish ARTHUR artillery-hunting radar systems. South Korea bought six of these four years ago, and has been pleased with their performance. But given the thousands of artillery pieces the North Koreans have, locating them quickly, and firing back accurately to destroy them, is important.
ARTHUR was developed in the 1990s, but was found wanting during its first combat use in Afghanistan three years ago. Canadian forces there reported that, of 3,200 "incoming objects" ARTHUR reported, only two turned out to be real. There were other problems as well, but the large number of false positives was particularly worrisome. These were often caused by friendly aircraft, or distant electric transmission line towers, being mistook for incoming fire. Adjustments were made, and ARTHUR got better, eventually proving itself capable under combat conditions.
ARTHUR is carried in a Bv206 tracked vehicle and costs $20 million per system. The radar can detect shells or rockets fired from up to 40 kilometers away. Within a few seconds, the systems computer can calculate the location of the firing artillery to within two meters (six feet). Given the availability of GPS guided shells (Excalibur) and rockets (GMLRS), you can have return (counterbattery) fire on the enemy artillery within a minute.
South Korea is particularly concerned about the massive numbers of North Korean artillery weapons aimed at their capital, Seoul. ARTHUR, linked electronically with artillery units equipped with Excalibur or GMLRS, could shut down a lot North Korean artillery very quickly. But only if ARTHUR can deliver on its promise to track up to eight shells simultaneously, and handle about a hundred a minute.
In South Korea, ARTHUR is replacing the American AN TPQ-36/37 FireFinder artillery and mortar finding radar. This system also developed a bad reputation early on. That was for often failing to detect incoming mortar fire. FireFinder was developed in the 1970s, based on Vietnam experience with enemy mortar and rocket attacks.
FireFinder is a radar system which, when it spots an incoming shell, calculates where it came from and transmits the location to a nearby artillery unit, which then fires on where the mortar is (or was). This process takes 3-4 minutes (or less, for experienced troops.) FireFinder eventually worked as advertised, but got little use until U.S. troops entered Iraq. Since then, the FireFinder has been very effective, and heavily used. Too heavily used. There were not a lot of spare parts stockpiled for FireFinder, so several hundred million dollars worth were ordered. The manufacturer also introduced new components, that are more reliable, and easier to maintain.
At first, the army was going to halt further upgrades on FireFinder, which, after all was developed thirty years ago, and begin developing a new system, one that can better deal with the kinds of problems encountered in Iraq. But FireFinder has been so useful, that new upgrades were pursued anyway, while work continued on a replacement system. The upgrades have also been made available to other users of FireFinder (including, just in the Middle East, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.)
Last year, the new EQ-36 artillery and mortar finding radar was sent to Afghanistan. Easier to use and repair, as well as more reliable than its predecessor (FireFinder), the EQ-36 will also be able to scan all around (360 degrees), rather than just 90 degrees (as with the current system,) and be faster as well. The army wants to buy at least 180 EQ-36s, for about $9 million each. But so far, the army only has money to buy 33 of them.
Meanwhile, ARTHUR has been selling to many NATO countries, as it is of more recent vintage than FireFinder, and has gotten rave reviews from existing users. But these reviews were initially based on peacetime tests, not actual battlefield use. The Canadian experience has had a chilling effect on ARTHUR sales. But Sweden quickly came up with ARTHUR B, which was optimized to deal with the mortar and rockets (not as predictable as shells) problem. ARTHUR B performed well under combat conditions. Since then, there is an ARTHUR C, with a better radar, able to spot shells fired from 55 kilometers away.
The combat experiences of FireFinder and ARTHUR should inspire developers of this kind of equipment to come up with more realistic testing procedures, which everyone promises is happening.