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The Mysterious Origins Of A New North Korean Howitzer

October 26, 2018

The intriguing self-propelled howitzer at the 2018 parade carried the usual combination of auto-grenade launchers and MANPADs on its turret, for some reason. North Korea’s army have 122mm, 130mm, 152mm, and 170mm self-propelled guns in their arsenal.

When news agencies around the world hailed the absence of ballistic missiles during North Korea’s military parade on September 9 this meant less scrutiny for the hardware shown at the event. A particular weapon system that stood out among the vehicles in Pyongyang that day was a self-propelled howitzer–a company of them, in fact–that shared no resemblance to other artillery pieces used by the North Korean army.

While early comparisons to its rival from across the DMZ were helpful, the mystery weapon in Pyongyang had no clear links to any of its suspected analogs. But a comprehensive survey of mobile artillery in use today did reveal a few clues about its origins.

North Korea’s military industries have decades of experience mass-producing both mobile and towed artillery. The standard practice since the 1970s was to mount either a 100mm, 122mm, 130mm, or 152mm gun on the same tracked chassis as a T-55. These crude vehicles had close to no armor and an open top configuration where some crew members carried shoulder-fired MANPADs for “organic” air defenses.

Iranian Raad-2 self-propelled howitzers during a parade.

This year, however, North Korea’s military engineers responsible for developing new armored vehicles appear to have combined a foreign design with local specifications. The resulting “M-2018” (a temporary designation to be used here on 21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com) has six external features matching those found on a rare Iranian self-propelled howitzer called the “Raad-2.” These are:

  1. A round cap on the front of the hull.
  2. Rubber pads on its tracks.
  3. Six road wheels “borrowed” from a main battle tank.
  4. Rubber skirts on either side of the hull.
  5. An angular, rather than square, turret.
  6. Side doors on the turret that open to the left.

Taking note of these remarkable similarities means the M-2018 isn’t related to any self-propelled howitzers from either China or Russia, who are North Korea’s two main historical allies. If the idea of collaborating with Iran seems absurd, it bears repeating Pyongyang and Tehran have enjoyed warm bilateral ties since the 1980s when the latter desperately needed weapons. Since then, North Korea’s artillery and rockets have done their part to strengthen the Islamic Republic. It appears the old favor is now repaid with the Raad-2, one of the strangest creations of Iran’s military-industrial sector.

The blue dots indicate similar external features between the M-2018 and the Raad-2.

At some point in the 1990s state-owned Iranian manufacturers acquired licenses to assemble Russian T-72S tanks and BMP-2 IFVs. These vehicles were later spun off as “homegrown” technological innovations. The practice extended to an indigenous mobile artillery program for augmenting the Artesh‘ aging stockpile of US-made M109 and M110 self-propelled howitzers. The result was a 122mm self-propelled howitzer called the Raad-1 that used a BMP-2’s hull and a 155mm self-propelled howitzer called the Raad-2.

It’s unclear when the Raad-2 entered service but some quantities were made for the Artesh in the 2000s. For continuity’s sake, the Raad-2 was armed with a replica of the M185 cannon on the M109. How Iranian engineers managed to copy it, like many other details about the Raad-2, is unknown. The Raad-2’s chassis and hull, on the other hand, were assembled with parts from a T-72 tank. The distinctive round cap held by five rivets found below the glacis is a cover for the radiator cooling fan on a T-72’s V-12 diesel engine.

The same “cap” is found on the engine compartment of a T-72 tank.

Like the Raad-2, the M-2018 has a round cap at the front of its hull, which indicates where the engine is. The North Korean army’s newest main battle tank does resemble the T-72 too and it isn’t surprising if the engineers tasked with the M-2018’s design used its parts for the new self-propelled howitzer. Besides, North Korea’s mobile artillery were all built on top of tanks. What’s truly intriguing about the M-2018 is the main armament–its appearance has almost nothing in common with the 152mm guns on Chinese or Russian self-propelled howitzers.

But there are clear differences between the two “cousins.” The M-2018 is armed with a 152mm gun that looks like it has a length of 52 calibers with two horizontal equilibrators attached under the barrel. The travel lock on the M-2018 is mounted on the edge of the glacis whereas on the Raad-2 it’s closer to the driver’s hatch. There are numerous defensive countermeasures on the M-2018; like two separate rows of smoke grenade dischargers; a remote weapon station armed with two AGS-17 grenade launchers; a pivoting mount for two MANPADs.

An important difference between the Raad-2 and the M-2018 is the engine exhaust. On the Raad-2 it’s on the left while on the M-2018 it’s on the right. It’s tempting to point out a new Chinese self-propelled howitzer called the PLZ-52 can be mistaken for the M-2018 but when compared side by side the two have little in common except for the location of the travel lock and the rubber pads on their tracks.

This is the “classic” North Korean 152mm self-propelled howitzer that’s still in service today. The main armament is a local design that still retains a splinter shield for no reason.

The commonalities spotted in the M-2018 and the Raad-2 shouldn’t serve as conclusive evidence yet. It’s impossible to even determine any prior agreements, much less a timeline, for when a joint venture involving Iranian engineers and their North Korean counterparts took place. At the very least, the M-2018 utilizes a main battle tank’s chassis and hull as an economical solution to produce a mobile artillery weapon. This approach to R&D was a proven success in Iran so the lessons learned are applicable elsewhere. But if Pyongyang and Tehran can build artillery together, what will they do next?

North Korea’s newest military equipment deserves unflinching analysis beyond mere photographic comparisons. Like its predecessors, the M-2018 may never be used in combat. But it’s also proof that Pyongyang is modernizing its conventional arsenal at a rapid clip. This arms racing directed at its enemies belies much of the regime’s newfound goodwill. For a completely local design, albeit with an appearance borrowed from an Iranian vehicle, there’s a decent chance the M-2018 is exported in the near future.

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