France has sent several of its truck-mounted 155mm Caesar systems to Ukraine along with ammunition and some accessories. More are on the way. Ukrainian artillery crews arrived in France on April 22nd for training on how to operate Caesar.
A French firm developed Caesar in the 1990s and it entered service in 2003. In 2009 France sent eight Caesars to Afghanistan. The roads in Afghanistan are pretty bad, and wheeled combat vehicles have a hard time of it. Caesar was built to handle cross country operations as well as bad roads. Caesar was also light enough to be flown to a combat zone in a tactical transport like the C-130. Afghanistan was the first time Caesar has served in combat and the truck-mounted howitzer was successful. Nearly 300 Caesar systems have been delivered or are on order. The French Army has ordered about a hundred and the rest went to export customers. Those donated to Ukraine come from the French military and will probably be replaced by future French Caesar purchases. The Ukrainians know of Caesar’s combat record and believe it will be successful against the Russians, who are the best armed and trained force the French system has faced so far. Caesar is effective at handling enemy artillery (counterbattery operations) and can shoot and scoot. That means it takes Caesar less than a minute to halt, put the gun in firing position, fire a shell or two and be moving again.
Caesar is the lightest of the truck-mounted 155mm howitzers, weighing 18 tons. Other nations have built heavier (20-30 ton) systems, usually on a 6x6 or 8x8 heavy truck chassis. China recently introduced a vehicle of this type while Israel and South Africa introduced similar models at about the same time Caesar appeared.
One of the latest customers, the Czech Republic, ordered 52 Caesar systems, each mounted on the heavier 30-ton 8x8 Tatra truck chassis. This provides the Caesar crew of five or six with better armored protection than the standard 6x6 version and it carries more ammunition, up to 30 rounds compared to 18 in the original 18-ton Caesar. The Tatra version has an autoloading system that increases rate of fire to six rounds per minute and it can be operated by only 3 men instead of four on the original French version. The Czechs purchased Caesar because it was NATO compliant and some of the components (Tatra chassis and autoloader) are built locally.
The Czechs were one of the first Eastern European nations to join NATO in 1999. Being in NATO meant they had to replace military equipment with NATO standard versions. Until 1989 the Czechs were ruled by a communist dictatorship imposed by Russia and enforced by Russian troops. Once independent, a nationwide referendum approved dividing Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This was something the Czechs and Slovaks had been trying to do for over a century. Slovakia joined NATO in 2004. Both nations had to obtain NATO compatible equipment and because both nations were industrialized and major producers of weapons for nearly a century, both often built their own NATO compatible gear. The Czech Republic chose Caesar as the most cost-effective to replace their 152mm communist era DANA 8x8 wheeled 29-ton artillery vehicles. DANA was a Czechoslovakia-era firm based in Slovakia. The Czechs sold Ukraine 26 of their used DANA-M2 8x8 armored self-propelled 152mm artillery vehicles for $1.54 million each. Ukraine got these in 2021 and they were heavily used against the Russian invaders in 2022. The Slovaks developed an updated version of the DANA-M2 as the 155mm NATO compliant Zuzana -2 and Ukraine is seeking to obtain some of these as well.
Caesar is one of the latest truck-mounted 155mm artillery systems. The Israeli ATMOS was the first truck-mounted 155mm artillery vehicle to enter service, even though France and South Africa were developing the concept before Israeli firm Soltam produced ATMOS. The Israelis have a knack for developing hybrid weapons and doing it first and better than anyone else. Even before Israel became a nation, they had to improvise sufficient numbers of effective weapons to survive. Carrying artillery on a truck is nothing new. It allows the artillery to be moved around faster and with less wear and tear than towing it behind a truck. Artillery carried on a truck takes longer to unload and prepare to fire. At first the only ready-to-fire vehicular artillery were armored vehicles similar to tanks, but armed with indirect-fire artillery guns and howitzers rather than the smaller caliber direct-fire guns used by tanks. Tanks and, until recently self-propelled artillery traveled on tracks, which are more expensive, wear out more quickly and must be replaced more frequently than tires.
Although Israel did not need something like ATMOS itself, its defense firms were accustomed to improvising to provide export customers with innovative weapons they needed. Israel applied some modern tech to the truck-mounted artillery demand and came up with the first of several workable designs. On the rear of ATMOS is a mechanism that is placed on the ground to brace the gun, which can then be elevated or swerved as needed to aim the gun at the target.
The current version of ATMOS 2000 uses a 22-ton 6x6 cross-country truck that carries 27 rounds of 155mm ammo as well as the 155mm gun and six or more personnel. ATMOS requires a minimum of four men to emplace and operate the gun, which can fire shells at the rate of four to six a minute. Normally an ATMOS crew is six men, to make it easier to maintain and emplace the gun and deal with crewmen being lost to combat or non-combat causes. Like all Soltam artillery and mortar systems, ATMOS has a very capable and easy to use fire control system. The loading and aiming mechanism is equally efficient allowing the gun to be aimed, loaded, and fired with a small crew.
Over 70 ATMOS systems have been sold so far, including some modified and built under license in Romania and Poland. The Israeli army only recently ordered some ATMOS 2000 vehicles to replace elderly M109 self-propelled armored 155mm guns.
China recently developed the PCL-181, which is a 25- ton 6x6 truck carrying a gun crew of eight and a truck-bed mounted 155mm howitzer. PCL-181 will replace current towed howitzers. PCL-181 can be carried in heavy transport aircraft China recently introduced, and builds on the experience of similar systems built by other nations since the 1990s. China plans to offer an export version and these will compete with the earlier and very similar, SH-1 system that was developed just for the export market and introduced in 2006.