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China Has The Best Truck Howitzers For Export

December 19, 2021
The PCL-171 at Air Show China. Via Chinese state media.

One of the more exciting corners in the global “land warfare” market are the artillery pieces adapted for wheeled transports. These so-called truck howitzers have gained enough popularity to inspire different models. But the demand for these are still modest–Israel, France, and Serbia compete with each other–and some countries prefer assembling their own. China’s state-owned conglomerates have crashed the trend and to nobody’s surprise offer the largest catalog of self-propelled artillery in the world. In the whole of Europe, for example, there are just 10 current wheeled and tracked self-propelled howitzers in the 155mm caliber for export. On the other hand, China’s Norinco boasts as many as 15 models of wheeled and tracked self-propelled howitzers in whatever caliber is required.

In addition to howitzers there are at least a handful of heavy caliber guns adapted for all-terrain vehicles that don’t fit the categorization for “self-propelled.” Norinco’s indirect fires extend to various mortars and rocket artillery as well. Of course, Norinco is allowed to export good old fashioned towed artillery.

This year’s Air Show China didn’t disappoint when it came to the military products advertised at the exhibition. Norinco enjoys the privilege of a spacious indoor emporium for its hardware and an obstacle course where its latest vehicles splash around in mud to mesmerize a live audience. Joining Norinco’s vast catalog is a truck mounted howitzer that combines a Dongfeng CSK181 tactical vehicle with a 122mm howitzer. To accommodate all its subsystems the chassis was enlarged for a 6×6 or three axle layout that supports a large enough bed. The resulting PCL-171 is recognized as the smaller sibling of the PCL-181 155mm truck mounted howitzer the PLA field in ever growing numbers.

The correct export “brand” for this 122mm truck mounted howitzer is elusive, although they presumably belong to the “SH” family, but its appearance at Air Show China is sufficient proof it’s for sale to customers everywhere. There’s a clear distinction between the military products that Chinese state-owned conglomerates are willing to sell abroad and those used by the PLA. This truck mounted howitzer is an exception though. The PCL-171 entered service with artillery units in large numbers and the resulting propaganda from China’s press reveals a lot about how it functions. It only takes three soldiers to operate a single howitzer and they all ride in the double cab along with the designated driver.

When emplacing the howitzer before firing the crew dig two shallow ditches where the hydraulic spades are lowered. These are the “L” shapes on the trails at the back of the vehicle that absorb the shock of recoil when the howitzer is fired. To further stabilize the weapon a metal plate underneath the truck bed is lowered to the ground by a hydraulic press. Operating the PCL-171’s armament is a marvel of automation. While its mechanical loading arm is fed by hand–the magazine is located behind the cab with 26 rounds and a separate compartment has six extra rounds–before it slides ammunition inside the breech the howitzer’s position is adjusted by a ruggedized control panel. Actual firing is done either at the press of a button or pulling a trigger near the breech. The best feature of the PCL-171 is the howitzer is positioned above the cab and this saves time when preparing the weapon for fires. It matters because the older PCL-09 truck howitzer that also carried a 122mm main armament needed to be parked with the cab facing away from the muzzle. The driver had to back up the vehicle before the crew start working.

The PLA are replacing their immense inventory of towed 122mm and 152mm howitzers with the PCL-181, PCL-171, and the PCL-161. The last is the same as the 171 except the vehicle is smaller, being a 4×4 truck carrying 31 rounds in its magazine. The PCL-161 is deployed with PLA artillery units in the Tibetan plateau. This whole “family” of truck mounted howitzers are for armies who want to replace their antiquated towed howitzers. They are joined by at least five alternate wheeled vehicles with the same armament. These are the SH-2 truck mounted howitzer; the PCL-09 truck mounted howitzer; the PLL-09 122mm howitzer based on the VN1 wheeled APC; at least two all terrain vehicles with 122mm howitzers. Norinco has one model of a 122mm tracked self-propelled howitzer and at least three 155mm tracked self-propelled howitzers for export. There’s another 155mm howitzer whose fully enclosed turret is mounted on an 8×8 APC hull.

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