As the Indian Army surges ahead in its quest for fine-tuning its operational art of waging offensive manoeuvre warfare through penetration, envelopment, defensive-offensive manoeuvres, massed fire assaults, and turning movements involving mechanised, motorised and armoured forces, there has emerged an operational requirement for acquisition of new-generation motorised 155mm/52-calibre howitzers. Such assets, aided by airborne real-time battlespace surveillance and target acquisition assets like medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (MALE-UAV), will in all probability be acquired over the next five years. An appreciation of India’s terrain of operations as well as the country’s prevailing transportation infrastructure and the future operational scenario that is likely to call for the rapid re-deployment of field artillery assets from their peacetime locations to their operational staging areas by air transportation aircraft like the Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 or IL-76MD, serves to drive home the obvious conclusion, which is the superiority of the air-mobile motorised 155mm/52-calibre howitzer over its towed counterpart (about 400 of which are being sought by the Indian Army).
Tracked vehicles—be they main battle tanks, armoured infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, or self-propelled field artillery hardware—will have distinct disadvantages in terms of both strategic and tactical mobility as well as the conduct of manoeuvre warfare. Even when one considers the prospect of such armoured vehicles being transported to their staging areas in customised railroad wagons or towed heavy-duty trailers, one must take note of the severe vulnerabilities of such convoys to hostile aerial interdiction attack from standoff ranges, and the convoys’ inability to take instantaneous evasive manoeuvres on the ground. In addition, while tracked armoured vehicles have superior tactical mobility in flat terrain (both in the plains and deserts), they are at a distinct advantage when operating in jungle and mountainous terrain. Therefore, if the Indian Army is required to deploy either defensive or expeditionary forces along its borders in order to deal with regional low-intensity crises or limited border conflicts, the lightweight ground forces, especially those riding on wheels, will definitely play more decisive roles. Underlying this development is the assumption that such forces are nowadays more appropriate than the traditional ‘heavy mix’ for patrolling and controlling relatively large stretches of land. They are also well-suited to establishing a sort of ‘military omnipresence’, which is essential to the restoration of law-and-order in multinational peace support/peace enforcement operations. Such forces also have the requisite capabilities for rapid power projection across strategic distances within the Indian context. Additionally, all-wheeled armoured and artillery forces require much less transport capacity than the current track-dominated mix--not only because the platforms are lighter, but also because their logistical requirements are much lesser, and their capability, deployability and sustainability characteristics are superior to those of their tracked counterparts. In addition to their relative lightness, wheeled weapon systems tend to consume significantly less fuel (and other lubricants) than tracked armoured vehicles of equal weight. Thus, their relative lightness and reduced logistical needs together give the wheeled weapons platforms an edge over the tracked platforms in strategic mobility--meaning the transport of forces over continental and inter-theatre distances.
In terms of operational mobility (which refers to the ability to swiftly allocate and relocate forces within a theatre of crisis or war), the decisive factor is the ‘rolling resistance’ of a weapons platform travelling on ordinary roads. On roads the rolling resistance of tracked vehicles equals 4% of their weight, on average, while that of their wheeled counterparts (fitted with cross-country tyres) equals only 2% of their weight. Consequently, wheeled vehicles need less fuel and can cover longer distances by road before they need to be refuelled. In addition, if patrolling and area control missions are emphasized, road travel predominates and thus, the advantage of fuel economy accrues to the wheeled vehicles. Even in the context of typical warfighting scenarios, off-the-road activities constitute less than 50% of overall travel. This is because, within a sizeable theatre, many movements have to be devoted to marching the troops to the combat areas in a timely fashion, rather than to manoeuvring in the thick of battle. There are two reasons that mechanised and field artillery forces equipped with wheeled vehicles and platforms are more likely to deploy operationally in a timely fashion: First, there are fewer and shorter refuelling stops (the average road range of wheeled vehicles exceeds that of their tracked counterparts by almost 100%). Secondly, the average marching speed of wheeled platforms is, on roads, also 100% higher than that of tracked vehicles. The fact that wheeled weapons platforms can cover longer distances faster than tracked vehicles is complemented by yet another advantage: There is much less fatigue for their occupants because the wheeled platforms do not suffer the vibrations generated by tracked vehicles. In terms of tactical mobility of the kind needed when a formation is in immediate contact with its adversary, there are two imperatives in terms of mobility requirements: Good off-road mobility is an important precondition of being able to evade enemy action and exploit unexpected avenues of approach; and agility--a combination of high speed, good acceleration, and the ability to ‘zig-zag’--is key to being able to respond flexibly to rapidly changing opportunities and challenges. Also relevant to off-road mobility is the fact that wheeled platforms tend to excel in speed--on the road, of course, but also in open terrain, if it is fairly negotiable. When it comes to zig-zagging and acceleration, especially in mountainous terrain, the advantage also seems to go to wheeled platforms. While it is true that most tracked vehicles can pivot in place while few wheeled vehicles can (those with brake-steering), otherwise, however, wheeled platforms are more easily steered and their running gear is more responsive. Thus, compared to a tracked counterpart of equivalent weight and engine output, one can expect a wheeled platform to have not only higher speed, but also better acceleration and tactical mobility.
It is, perhaps, due to these operational realities that the armies of China, Myanmar and Thailand (and soon Pakistan as well) have decided to induct motorised 155mm/52-cal howitzers in large numbers. The Indian Army is soon due to float global tenders for procuring up to 800 such howitzers, and may well do away completely with the need for towed 155mm/52-cal howitzers, which are fast becoming weapons used to fight “the last war”. Even Myanmar last year bought an initial 12 NORA-B52 motorised 155mm/52-cal howitzers (photo 1) from Serbia, while Thailand on April 3, 2006 ordered six Caesar howitzers (photo 2) from France’s Nexter Systems. The NORA-B52 is mounted on an 8 x 8 Russian KAMAZ-63501 vehicle. The 155mm barrel comes fitted with a semi-automatic breech block and an advanced powder chamber self-sealing system. The howitzer can fire base-bleed rounds out to a range of 41.5km. The NORA-B52 is currently competing against the Caesar, Denel of South Africa’s T5-52 Condor (Photo 4), and NORINCO of China’s SH-1 in Pakistan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman. The Royal Thai Army (RTA) remains interested in ordering 12 more Caesars. All six units will be delivered by the year’s end to the RTA’s 2nd Army Region, headquartered in Prachinburi. Earlier, in June 2003, an initial five Caesars were delivered to the French Army and in December 2004, Nexter Systems was awarded a contract for 72 Caesars to equip eight land artillery Batteries of the French Army, with deliveries due for completion by 2011. In July 2006, an order for 76 Caesars was placed by the Saudi Arabian National Guard. The Caesar, which along with SOLTAM Systems’ ATMOS (photo 3) is expected to be the favourite contender for fulfilling the Indian Army’s requirements, comes equipped with a FAST-Hit computerised fire management system, developed jointly by Nexter Systems and EADS Defense Electronics, an Intertechnique ROB4 muzzle velocity radar system and a SAGEM Sigma 30 inertial navigation system and GPS receiver (which was ordered earlier this year for the Indian Army’s 212mm Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers. The T5-52 Condor, mounted on a TATRA 6 x 6, employs the top carriage of the G-5-2000 (in service with the Malaysian Army) that is mounted on a flat, open platform with deployable stabiliser legs to hold the gun steady during firings--Prasun K. Sengupta