Artillery: Lighter, Smarter, Cheaper


February 2, 2021: Thailand has ordered a third batch of twelve Israeli Spear 120mm mortar systems. Like the first two batches; 10 in 2019 and twelve in 2020, all 34 of these Spear systems will be in an Indian Tata 4x4 truck to create the Thai M361 ATMM (Autonomous Truck Mounted Mortar). This type of truck-mounted 120mm mortars was made possible by the Israeli development of the Spear system, which enables mortars to be mounted in trucks rather, than heavier tracked vehicles.

Israel introduced its soft-recoil Spear system in 2014. Spear came with the earlier (2003) Cardom fire control system. Before Spear, 120mm mortars could only be operated from heavier wheeled armored vehicles, like the American Stryker or heavy trucks. Spear enabled the Spear to be used from light trucks, like the American hummer or the Indian Tata 4x4. Israel offered Spear systems already mounted in Israeli light armored trucks but also sold Spear systems that could be mounted in any light truck that had room for it. Most Spear customers preferred roomy light trucks so there was space for more ammunition.

Cardom is an important aspect of Spear because its unique computerized fire control system can be used with a compatible battle management system to provide accurate and immediate fire support against targets up to 16 kilometers distant. The “first round on target” can take less than 30 seconds and the highest maximum rate of fire of 16 rounds per minute. The major innovation of Cardom is its automation. Forward observers can transmit digital target location information to the Spear-equipped mortars, which automatically use a system of small electric motors to precisely aim the mortar tube. The first customer for Cardom was the Israeli Army and the troops found Cardom a big improvement over older mortar fire control designs. So did many other nations, including the United States.

Cardom became an international best-seller with the introduction of the Spear system, which uses an innovative recoil system that reduces the recoil over 90 percent and allows the mortar to be fired from lighter (under six ton) vehicles. The rate of fire is also reduced a bit (from 20 to 16 rounds a minute) but with the use of GPS guided shells, this is less of a factor.

This breech-loading mortar system allows for rapid fire while the turntable system takes data directly from forward observers and quickly positions the 120mm tube to put the shells on the target. This mortar system can put shells on the target in less than a minute of a request for fire. Cardom uses a GPS assisted fire control system to provide accuracy comparable to any other artillery system. The lightness of this system enabled it to be moved by helicopter. The Spear mortar follows in this tradition, with the same capabilities of earlier lightweight 120mm mortars but now usable in even lighter vehicles. Many nations found that a truck mounted 120mm mortar was cheaper and easier to maintain than a tracked vehicle. While the tracked vehicles could move more effectively over broken terrain, it was found that this advantage was not used frequently enough to outweigh the benefits of a truck mounted system.

Spear, especially its Cardom element, undergoes periodic upgrades, the latest one being for Spear Mk 2 in 2017 which allowed it to be used in even lighter vehicles. The 120mm mortar is often preferred to 155mm howitzers because the mortar is lighter, faster firing, more mobile and, with the right ammunition, just as destructive as the larger howitzer. The 120mm shells are also about half the weight of 155mm ones. This is overcome with a higher rate of fire and the use of several types of cluster bomb shells and, more recently, GPS guided shells. One of these, for example, will destroy most armored vehicles.

Most nations prefer to buy 120mm mortar systems using Spear. But Moslem nations, with a few exceptions (like Azerbaijan) refuse to buy Israeli equipment. Turkey used to be a customer but since 2000 has had a Moslem party controlling the government which halted the purchase of Israeli weapons.

There has been some competion for Spear. In 2014 Chinese arms firm Norinco introduced a similar 120mm mortar system, called SM4. It was not a big seller and therein lies a lesson about competition and technology. Mounted in a WMZ551 6x6 wheeled armored vehicle, the 17-ton SM4 system has a crew of five and in addition to the 120mm mortar, the vehicle also carried 39 120mm shells. The SM4 is used by the light infantry battalions of the Chinese army and export customers have been difficult to come by. In fact, only Moslem nations were interested (Algeria bought some). The main reason for the lack of export sales is that Israeli mobile Spear 120mm systems has dominated the market since 2014 because it is more accurate, cheaper and accurate than any competing system.




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