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The PLA Are Rapidly Adopting This Truck Howitzer

July 22, 2020

Via Chinese state media.

With Beijing committed to a tougher foreign policy ever since it emerged from its struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic, the PLA’s rapid modernization continues uninterrupted. A small but significant transformation for the ground forces is the new PCL-181 truck howitzer, which is also available for export as the “SH15,” that Chinese media claims is meant to replace the aging 152mm and 130mm towed howitzers still in service in some commands. Given its organizational size, the PLA does maintain significant inventories of aging weapons but the sheer output of state-owned military industries can change this within a few years. Equipping entire brigades with a truck howitzer mounting a 155mm gun is a firepower boost too great to ignore.

The existence of the PCL-181 has been known for some years now and Pakistan is its likeliest original customer after one model was put on display during an arms show in 2018. A formation of PCL-181’s were also included in the spectacular October 1 military parade that took place in Beijing last year. A few media appearances since revealed more details about it such as a hydraulic-assisted loading system where a mechanical arm slides the propellant and its live round into the breech. The process of operating the main armament is further hastened by a control panel on the left-hand wheel arches at the back of the truck.

Judging by photos shared by Chinese media, the PCL-181 only requires five soldiers to operate it. Another photo showing an aerial view of a PCL-181 formation had 36 truck howitzers in total, suggesting this was the intended size for an artillery unit assigned to a mechanized brigade. But the variety of mobile indirect fires maintained by the PLA remains bewildering whether it’s tube artillery or rocket artillery. There are two other wheeled self-propelled howitzers in service, the PCL-09 with its 122mm howitzer on a 6×6 truck and the lesser-known PLL-09 that’s based on an ubiquitous 8×8 APC. Even before the PCL-181 was revealed, military-industrial giant Norinco enjoyed limited success with its SH-series of truck howitzers available in 122mm, 152mm, and 155mm variants. The world’s largest catalog of self-propelled artillery ready for export is found among state-owned Chinese companies.

Chinese media claim the shift from towed artillery to a truck howitzer is driven by three considerations. First, a truck howitzer takes less time to travel and deploy for firing with a mere three minutes needed to emplace and prepare the main armament. An older towed howitzer, for example, usually takes longer to prepare since it must be separated from its carrier vehicle and positioned and then fortified in a dugout. Second, each PCL-181 that forms a battery of six howitzers travels with its own ammunition magazine located in a compartment behind the armored cab with the rounds stored in sealed containers. This spares the crew from having to unload ammunition from a separate vehicle accompanying them. Third and last, in another obvious nod to the PLA’s ambitions, the PCL-181’s weight at just 25 tons makes it transportable by air.

It’s safe to assume hundreds of PCL-181’s are now in service with the PLA. This is a marked advantage over rival militaries in the Asia-Pacific who have almost no alternatives to their aging artillery systems and struggle with adopting newer ones on the same scale.

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