The People’s Liberation Army may be arming its forces along the Indian border with its new lightweight, digitized, vehicle-mounted 155m Howitzer weapon engineered to bring new dimensions of mobile artillery attack to modern ground war.
The People’s Liberation Army PCL-181, first revealed publicly during China’s National Day military parade in 2019, is engineered for greater speed, endurance and combat mobility than previous self-propelled howitzer weapons, according to a June report in China’s Global Times; the PCL-181 weighs only twenty-tons, whereas China’s legacy howitzer weighs nearly twice as much, making transportation and maneuverability much more challenging. The Global Times quotes a military expert describing the new weapon’s advantages by stating “Its lightweight also gives the weapon an edge in high altitude areas when the lack of oxygen could impact the power of the engine, and it is also very agile and fast in quick-reaction deployments.”
Additional details about the platform, according to the report, say the PCL-181 relies upon an advanced, digitized control panel which helps enable automatic gun calibration and semi-automatic ammunition reload. The new weapon seems specifically suited for Chinese expeditionary operations, given the country’s well-known mountainous terrain.
“Artillery weapons like howitzers are useful in mountainous areas because projectiles fired from them follow a parabolic path, which can bypass mountains on terrains which would block linear shots from, for instance, traditional tanks,” a Chinese weapons expert said in the Global Times report.
The existence and possible deployment of this newly commissioned howitzer raises a number of interesting tactical questions. It clearly suggests that China is looking much more significantly at expeditionary operations, agility and rapid deployability, a set of priorities which also figure prominently in U.S. weapons development calculations. This kind of strategic emphasis is by now quite familiar to China’s modernization specialists, who have also engineered the country’s lightweight tank, the Type 15 VT5.
These war dynamics are also quite familiar to China’s U.S. rivals, who have much experience developing mobile artillery systems. For instance, the PCL-181 appears to attach an artillery cannon to a medium-sized tactical truck, a circumstance that invites certain questions. Would a 20-ton Howitzer, mounted on a lightweight tactical truck, offer the requisite survivability needed to support a mechanized armored column? While mobility and rapid deployability would of course be crucial in a fast-moving modern war environment, it would seem that artillery supporting advancing armored forces might need to operate with heavier protective armor to be less penetrable to enemy fire. While 155m cannons are able to fire at less vulnerable stand-off ranges, modern long-range sensors and weapons might make a twenty-ton platform much easier for adversaries to destroy or disrupt. These factors may provide some of the strategic basis for the U.S. efforts to engineer a forty-ton M109 Paladin Self-Propelled Howitzer, a system which also integrates semi-auto-loading technology, digital targeting and advanced, more versatile kinds of ammunition. (Army 2011 report on Paladin modernization) The U.S. Extended Range Cannon Artillery weapon, designed to fire as far as 70km, also figures prominently in this strategic equation.
Also, a lightweight tactical truck would also encounter certain restrictions in mountainous terrain, as it would not be able to ascend through steep, rocky inclines. Therefore, it would make sense to examine these tactical nuances in light of U.S. maneuvers in Afghanistan. Specifically, the U.S. M777 is engineered to be transportable in mountainous terrain, given that it can sling-load beneath a CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter. This enables ground forces to air-drop its artillery cannon into higher altitudes where mountainous terrain would prove unpassable for tactical trucks. This kind of transportability, not possible for a 20-ton tactical truck, would give U.S. ground forces an advantage in any kind of mountainous large-scale force-on-force war.
Secondly, with the U.S. Army modernization strategy for its M109 Paladin Self-Propelled Howitzer does emphasize expeditionary warfare, it is engineered as a heavier, armored platform to support armored brigades on the move in need of protection against heavy incoming fire. Also, the heavier Paladin could offer supportive and suppressive fire to advancing infantry at safer ranges. All of these factors align with the broader strategic recognition that a towed M777 Howitzer might be well-suited for keeping up with advancing infantry, meet mobility requirements and deploy easily to otherwise difficult to reach combat areas. Each U.S. system, therefore, seems to occupy a specific piece designed to complete a broader Combined Arms Maneuver puzzle. Given these factors, it might appear that the U.S. 155mm artillery posture might have certain advantages over its rival Chinese PCL-181.
That is not to say truck-mounted fire is not of great significance, the autoloading, rapid-fire technology, digital targeting and improved mobility associated with the PCL—181 does present significant new threats. The U.S. operates several truck-mounted ground-attack weapons systems, such as its mobile HIMARS rockets. The Army has also placed Phalanx area weapons, additional armor and extra .50-cal machine guns on its Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks. At the same time, mobile artillery such as the U.S. M777 is perhaps much better suited to support advancing Infantry Brigade Combat Teams in many warfare scenarios, as it could much more easily maneuver in off-road uneven terrain where trucks cannot drive.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.