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The PLA Showed Another New Rocket Artillery System

December 2, 2019

Via Chinese media.

The October 1 military parade in Beijing was a shocker for even the most jaded analyst of the Chinese military. In a grandiose display that surpassed expectations nearly all of the vehicles driven past President Xi Jinping were brand new. The biggest surprise came near the end with the road mobile ballistic and cruise missiles, including the ominous DF-17 with its spear tip hypersonic warhead, that sent an unmistakable message to the US Navy about China’s intentions for the Asia-Pacific. But many lesser systems weren’t given proper coverage. Foremost are a formation of large trucks that appeared with the PLA’s self-propelled howitzers.

No other military today boasts as many different battlefield rockets as China’s armed forces. From portable 62mm bunker busters to a domestic equivalent of the Russian Smerch and everything in between, the PLA can now overmatch any other land army it must fight. The unnamed 8×8 trucks that appeared in Beijing on October 1, however, weren’t known to be in service. Their apparent weaponry was peculiar too–just eight launch tubes on two cells. The layout resembled the North Korean KN-09 rocket artillery system, which was armed with eight 300mm projectiles that had extreme range. But it’s uncommon for North Korean technology to ever influence China’s military-industrial projects.

A month after the military parade the Chinese news agency Global Times published a short analysis by Liu Xuanzun that offered few useful insights. The article claimed the vehicle, whose designation is reportedly “PHL-16” after the year it entered service, mounted eight 370mm rockets. The non-standard caliber is just one among several large diameter munitions the vehicle can be armed with. Apparently, this rocket artillery system is the sibling of the SR5 that’s designed to launch either 122mm Grad rockets or a variety of missiles. When the newer system is loaded with the same rockets as the PHL-03 each of its modular launchers carry five rounds for a total of 10.

A more useful comparison is the Polonez developed as a joint venture between Belarusian and Chinese companies. The Polonez is the deadliest rocket artillery weapon in Europe at the moment and is superior to the Russian BM-30 Smerch in two aspects. First, its munitions are able to travel farther, reaching an impressive 200 kilometers. Second, the Polonez’ launcher is designed for launching short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) known as the M20 with an estimated range of 300 km.

This new PLA rocket artillery system does share a few external commonalities with the Polonez; it’s an 8×8 truck supporting an elongated bed that fits a pivoting launcher. The launcher itself has eight tubes that may also carry containers for individual SRBMs or cruise missiles. If this is its intended role as a division level weapon, then the PLA have once again overmatched NATO and the US military as well as its main rivals in East Asia, Japan and Taiwan. Since the end of the Cold War, the US military in particular abandoned its arsenal of land-based ballistic and cruise missiles. Taiwan’s government should be concerned with advances in Chinese rocket artillery since these are now able to reach the island nation and penetrate its meager anti-missile defenses.

Given its organizational size the PLA’s adoption of the latest weapons manufactured by state-owned companies tends to be slow and piecemeal. There are also many examples where the export-ready weapons sold to willing countries are more advanced than the army’s present kit. It’s possible this new modular rocket artillery system may see limited service alongside its peers such as the Type 81 (wheeled 122mm Grad launcher) and the PZH-10 (tracked 122mm Grad launcher) and the “Chinese Smerch” the PHL-03.

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