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Chinese Artillery Makes Weak Armies Strong

December 6, 2021
Via Chinese state media.

Two arms shows this year served as gigantic marketing events for what qualifies as the world’s largest selection of exportable conventional weapons. There was Russia’s annual Army 2021 in August and then Air Show China in Guangdong occupying the last week of September. Between them were more different types of weapon systems than could fit in any normal exhibition held elsewhere. But Air Show China, which skipped a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, eclipses its Russian counterpart for sheer volume. Just one of the exhibitors at this event–the conglomerate Norinco–had more products on display for every imaginable domain than its competitors in, for example, North America or Western Europe. Of course, Norinco didn’t forget the artillery.

Air Show China 2021 still lived up to its reputation as an event for boosting the country’s aerospace sector. But what sets it apart in the region are indoor and outdoor exhibits for state-owned manufacturers to display their export approved military technology. Norinco enjoys the unique privilege of substantial floor area and a muddy obstacle course where its “land systems” are driven around to entertain a live audience. For this year’s show a new-ish self-propelled mortar splashed across the same obstacle course and added to the artillery Norinco is offering foreign end users.

The vehicle itself is the generational replacement for the aging WZ 551 6×6 APC that has enjoyed a distinguished career as the PLA’s favorite troop carrier since the 1980s. The export variant of this APC used to be known as the Type 92 and then the VN2. The ancestry of this popular armored vehicle was understood to be European with an appearance and layout that drew on the French VAB and the West German Fuchs. The French influence was more pronounced on the WZ 551 since its armaments until the 1990s were similar to those found on French combat vehicles.

Norinco boasts an impressive catalog of wheeled APCs aside from the VN2 and unveiled the VN9 a few years back. The VN9 is still a 6×6 APC but with a longer hull and side doors for the cab. At Air Show China 2021 the VN9 appeared again as an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) and a mobile mortar (pictured above) whose armament resembled the turret on the Russian-made NONA-S and NONA-SVK airborne combat vehicles. Norinco is believed to have adopted the turret 30 years ago and reproduced it for several of its own vehicles. The main armament is a 120mm mortar with an optional secondary armament of a ring mounted heavy machine gun.

The ideal end user of the VN9 mobile mortar, branded as the “CS/SM2A,” is an army that needs new artillery systems to support its mechanized units. The fully enclosed and oscillating turret of this mobile mortar is a better offering compared to mobile mortars supplied by Israel and some European manufacturers. It’s possible to equip an entire formation with Norinco wheeled APCs and have air defense, artillery, command and control, direct fire support, and protected transport all based on the same vehicle. Such is the potential of either the VN2 and the VN9. Norinco does the same for the 8×8 VN1 APC and its 13 variants that also includes a self-propelled 120mm mortar in a fully enclosed turret, another 120mm muzzle loaded mortar installed inside the hull, and a self-propelled 122mm howitzer in a turret.

Armies who plan on upgrading their artillery are best served by Norinco’s catalog. If NATO standards are required Norinco has self-propelled and towed 155mm howitzers available. If Soviet calibers need to be maintained Norinco’s 122mm howitzers are available in as many as six different vehicles. For long-range bombardment Norinco can supply its latest rocket artillery systems the SR5 and the AR3. Both are equipped with modules that fit different calibers, including “King Dragon” short-range ballistic missiles able to strike targets at 150 and 300 kilometers distant. If mobility is a premium Norinco does have artillery weapons on all-terrain vehicles including automatic mortars, light howitzers, and multiple rocket launchers.

Too much fawning media coverage of China’s “defense industry” has glossed over the fact it’s stuck in overproduction. With technological reach no longer an issue the problem today is the only viable markets for these products are some parts of Asia and the African continent. Global sales of Chinese military products are growing but trail Western arms exports by a significant margin. Air Show China 2021 did make it abundantly clear that Asia and not the “West” leads the world in manufacturing weapons.

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