March 15, 2023:
Israel recently announced that it had received an order from a NATO country for $252 million worth of Israeli rocket launchers and mobile 155mm artillery systems. Israel often does not identify export customers right away, another aspect of Israel still being at war with several dangerous foes. This purchase is a result of the Ukraine War and NATO nations realizing that it might be a good idea to modernize their armed forces. Despite its small population, Israel is one of the top ten arms exporters. So is South Korea, which has received orders from NATO nations for an even wider array of weapons than Israel can supply. Israel has an edge because Israeli weapons are designed and built by local firms that realize these weapons might be used by Israeli forces to defend the country. That gives Israeli weapons an edge with many potential customers.
This recent order was for $119 million worth of ATMOS truck mounted 155mm artillery systems. The rest of the order was for $133 million worth of the PULS MLRS (Multiple Rocket Launcher System).
Elbit manufactures the recently developed PULS MLRS vehicle that can carry two pods, each with guided rockets of different calibers and weight. The PULS MCLS (multiple calibers launch rocket system) is mounted on a 6x6 or 8x8 heavy truck that can be airlifted, with pods, by a C-130 transport. Each pod is designed to carry and launch a specific rocket type. Current pods are available for 18 Accular 122mm (max range of 35 kilometers), ten Accular 160mm (40 kilometers), four EXTRA rockets (150 kilometers) and a pod with two Predator Hawk rockets (300 kilometers). PULS is designed to be easily configured for any number of fire control systems, making the system more attractive to export customers. Israeli PULS systems work with a new Israeli fire control system that coordinates the use of multiple ground and air launched missiles and rockets. This new fire control system was used successfully in 2021 when Hamas started another war with the massive launch of thousands of rockets. This attack was defeated within days using the new Israeli fire control system, which included some innovative systems for quickly finding targets for Israeli rockets and missiles and destroying more targets in a shorter time, with fewer Israeli losses than in the 50-day 2014 Hamas war.
The origins of PULS go back to 2011 when Israel decided to replace most of its 155mm artillery with guided rockets. That led to a proliferation of new guided rocket designs. That was followed by training some of these rocket battalions to fire GPS guided rockets into inhabited areas. Currently this means Gaza, where Israel has heretofore used F-16s firing smart bombs or helicopters using guided missiles to attack terrorist targets there. Now, GPS guided rockets take over more and more of these missions. This is a lot cheaper and, with more shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles showing up in Gaza, a lot safer for Israeli pilots.
In 2018 Israel formed a new artillery unit that used long-range (300 kilometers or more) surface-to-surface missiles. This was prompted by the success the Americans were having with GPS guided rockets in Afghanistan. The weapon used in Afghanistan was the 309 kg (680 pound) GMLRS (guided multiple launch rocket system), a 227mm GPS guided rocket that entered service in 2004. It has a range of 70 kilometers and the ability to land within meters of its intended target at any range. This is because of using GPS, plus a less accurate backup inertial guidance system, to find its target. Israel accepted that the American use of GPS guidance in rockets, while more expensive, was more effective than the cheaper (but less accurate) Israeli developed rocket guidance system and even cheaper unguided artillery shells.
Israel went ahead and developed its own GPS guided rockets, like the Romach, a 175mm rocket similar to the American GMLRS but smaller and with a range of 35 kilometers. Israel has also developed a GPS guided 155mm artillery and 120mm mortar shells. Each tank battalion has some of these 120mm mortars and using GPS guided shells does not require using a lot of ammo to get the job done. In effect, Israel has all but eliminated the use of the traditional artillery barrage, reducing ammo use by over 90 percent. This meant many artillery units were not needed and were disbanded.
In 2016 Israel introduced the locally developed EXTRA (EXTended Range Artillery) GPS guided rocket. This is a 570 kg (1,254 pounds) 306mm weapon that has a max range of 150 kilometers. There is a ship-launched (Trigon) version of this in service and an air-launched (Rampage) version that enters service in 2019.
This radical shift in artillery weapons has been coming since the 2006 war with Hezbollah when the Israelis found that they did little damage to Hezbollah bunkers, even though over 120,000 unguided 155mm shells were fired at them. Meanwhile, they noted that the U.S. 227mm MLRS rockets with GPS guidance were excellent at taking out similar targets in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel equipped its unguided 160mm Accular rockets with GPS. These 110 kg (242 pound) rockets have a range of 40 kilometers and make it possible for one bunker to be destroyed with one rocket. The larger and more accurate (lands within 5 meters of the target versus 10 meters) Romach came out of that project.
The long-range rocket unit formed in 2018 was initially equipped with LORA (Long Range Artillery Rocket). Israel introduced LORA in 2007 and back then it was noted that the Israeli weapon was similar to the U.S. ATACMS. Each LORA missile weighed up to 1.8 tons depending on which type of warhead was installed. These warheads weighed from 400 to 600 kg. Normally range is 300 kilometers but that can be extended to 400 kilometers with a lighter warhead. GPS guidance is standard, with jam proof INS backup, and will put the warhead within 10 meters (30 feet) of the aim point.
LORA was an improvement on the American ATACMS (introduced in 1986) and one was fired from a MLRS launcher that normally carried six of the standard 227mm MLRS rockets. Both LORA and ATACMs are 610mm rockets that weighed about the same and used a GPS/INS guidance system. Both are basically short-range ballistic missiles. Where LORA differed was in that it was carried, four to a sealed launcher, on a heavy truck. Moreover, LORA was designed from the beginning to be operated from ships and to use additional guidance system options. The one that was known about was a two-way video link that enabled an operator to confirm the target, abort if necessary and also adjust aim to make it a bit more accurate. Israel has other guidance system options which are not advertised, like a pattern matching system that will provide even more accuracy and is jam proof (no GPS or radio link).
In 2017 Israel announced a successful test of a new version of its LORA system that can be mounted and fired from standard shipping containers. The test involved a truck hauling a shipping container parked on a ship deck. The containerized LORA uses a minimum of two containers; one containing four missiles each in the standard sealed container, and the standard electric (not hydraulic) system to point the missile skyward so it will be fired without the rocket blast damaging the ship. Another container contains the control center and some maintenance and test equipment. In the original ship launched version the launch center electronics were installed in the ship CIC (Combat Information Center) like other fire control equipment. A ship could carry four or more containers with launchers and the container version could also be used on land with the containers mounted on any heavy truck or tractor-trailer designed to carry those containers. The new container system also makes it easier to add more firepower to existing warships or even unarmed naval support vessels. LORA also has a ground (and bunker) penetrating conventional warhead for LORA.
Israel used its experience with LORA to design and build more long range (300 kilometers or more) guided rockets to take over missions previously handled by manned aircraft. In addition to LORA there is also the experience with loitering munitions. Israel now has a ground-launched version of its air-launched Delilah cruise missile. Delilah saw combat for the first time during the 2006 war with Hezbollah. Delilah is a 1.3-ton weapon, with a range of 250 kilometers and a 30 kg (66 pound) warhead. It uses GPS, inertial systems and onboard vidcam (video camera) for guidance. Delilah is designed to cruise around, taking and transmitting vidcam images to detect the right target, then attacking. In Lebanon, it was used to attack trucks carrying missiles. Delilah can stay in the air for up to half an hour and has been used in Syria several times during 2018 to destroy air defense systems. The ground-launched Delilah is meant for any type of target. There was always talk of a longer-range Delilah and now that there is a ground-launched version and a longer-range (at least 500 kilometers) version might be a useful addition to the long-range missile artillery unit. Israel currently plans to spend as much as $2 billion on his unit over and next decade and initially the unit is receiving $500 million for more LORA missiles and launch vehicles.
Truck mounted 155mm artillery have been popular in Ukraine, and the first of these to enter service in 2001 was the Israeli ATMOS, developed and built by Soltam. Currently ATMOS systems cost about $4 million each. ATMOS uses a NATO standard 155mm howitzer that can fire a shell at targets up to 41 kilometers distant, which is most effective using expensive (at least $15,000 each) GPS guided shells.
ATMOS was the first truck-mounted 155mm artillery vehicle to enter service, even though France and South Africa were developing the concept before Soltam. 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, and their suspension systems require more maintenance.
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, 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 needs only 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.
In the 1990s, a French firm was the first to develop a truck-mounted 155mm system called Caesar, which entered service in 2003, two years after ATMOS. In 2009 France sent eight Caesar howitzers to Afghanistan. The roads in Afghanistan are pretty bad, and wheeled combat vehicles have a hard time of it. But Caesar was built to handle cross country operations. Afghanistan was the first time Caesar had served in combat and was successful. The French Army has ordered about a hundred and another hundred have been exported. 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 heavy truck chassis.
This French experience with Caesar in Afghanistan encouraged Sweden about the ability of its Archer system to operate in the vast rural areas of Scandinavia. Some parts of rural Sweden are similar to Afghanistan, but worse (more swamps). Sweden had had some Archer systems in service 2013 and 24 by 2017 and eventually 48. There have been no export customers.
South Africa introduced a similar T5-52 in 2002 but was unable to find any export customers. The Israeli ATMOS finally got some combat experience in the brief 2020 war between Armenia and ATMOS user Azerbaijan. In 2022 Ukraine received 18 Caesar systems with 31 more to be delivered in 2023. Ukraine has also received several hundred GPS guided shells, which were used by mobile artillery systems, like Caesar, to destroy Russian targets with one shell, then move before Russia could fire back.
None of these systems can be considered an exotic piece of technology. For example, Archer is an FH77 155mm/L52 howitzer mounted on a modified Volvo 6x6 dump truck. The vehicle, with the howitzer on board, weighs 30 tons. L52 means the barrel is 52 times the caliber (8 meters/25 feet). When the vehicle halts, the four-man crew can extend the metal braces in the rear, raise the barrel, and be firing within minutes. After firing, the vehicle can be moving in less than a minute. Archer can use the Excalibur GPS guided round, which means Archer and an ammo vehicle can supply lots of effective firepower without the need for constant resupply. Each Archer vehicle costs about $5 million.