Weapons: Hybrids Establish A Niche


January 23, 2022: Israeli defense manufacturer Soltam delivered twelve ATMOS 2000 truck-mounted 155mm artillery vehicles to the Philippines at the end of 2021. This is the second Asian country to receive ATMOS, Thailand received six in 2015. Each ATMOS vehicle cost nearly $4 million and they arrived in the Philippines with additional equipment to form two artillery batteries of six guns each. Philippines ordered ATMOS in 2019 and plans to use it to provide mobile artillery support against Islamic terrorist and communist rebels, especially those whose remote camps are discovered by aerial surveillance. The NATO standard 155mm howitzer 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. The Philippines will use unguided shells, which cost less than $150 each and are most effective targets less than 30 kilometers away.

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 in a 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 travelled 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 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 than 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 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.

Soltam 120mm mortar systems are even bigger sellers than ATMOS because there is more demand for improved 120mm weapons. Over 70 ATMOS systems have been sold so far, including some modified and built under license in in Romania and Poland. The Israeli army only recently ordered some ATMOS 2000 vehicles to replace elderly M109 self-propelled armored 155mm guns.

Israel has become one of the largest arms exporters by getting new systems to market faster and then upgrading them faster than the competition. That now includes China, which introduced the PCL-181, a new truck-mounted 155mm artillery vehicle in 2020. With this, they follow the example of France, Sweden, South Africa and Israel. These other nations have been selling similar systems since 2001.

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.

In the 1990s, a French firm was the first to develop a truck-mounted 155mm system called Caesar, which entered service in 2003. 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 has 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.

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.




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