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China Keeps Thousands Of Old Howitzers In Storage

January 31, 2022
Via Chinese state media.

If decades spent analyzing its equipment inventory is correct the PLA have between 4,000 and 6,000 towed howitzers with a 122mm caliber. These include a single battery, emplaced with standing mannequins on open ground, somewhere in the Tibetan plateau for a rocket artillery exercise. The footage broadcast by Chinese state media in December 2021 showed the PHL-03’s, also known as the Chinese versions of the Russian BM-30 Smerch, unleashing a barrage on the exposed Type 83 howitzers with predictable results. No worries, of course, since there are so many old artillery pieces and rocket launchers to spare.

The Type 83 was a short-lived towed howitzer model chambered for 122mm rounds. It was still mass-produced in staggering numbers but has since disappeared from the PLA’s artillery units. Its legacy does endure in the new generation of truck mounted howitzers the PLA embraced as replacements for their old guns. The appeal of truck howitzers are reduced crews, improved mobility, and the once strenuous work emplacing and loading the weapon is automated through digitized control panels. It’s also advantageous to travel with a full magazine of rounds sealed in containers as the time spent unloading the ammunition and arranging them near the howitzer is eliminated.

Before the advent of the Type 83 the PLA’s 100mm, 122mm, 130mm, and 152mm howitzers were copied from Soviet models. Many remain in service even when state-owned manufacturers like Norinco have the expertise and production lines for assembling their self-propelled replacements. Before the Type 83 entered service the PLA had ample stocks of the M-30 and D-74 howitzers–these were copies. The M-30 in particular was of Soviet origin and enjoyed gigantic production figures in World War 2. (At least 19,000 were manufactured.) So many are still kept in storage by Russia’s army today. The Chinese variant was designated the Type 54 and it too was made in large quantities. The Type 54 was then repurposed for a self-propelled howitzer called the Type 70-I that was akin to a gun carriage compared to its Soviet counterpart the 2S1 Gvozdika.

For some reason the Type 83 never enjoyed the same career as its siblings the Type 54 and the Type 59 despite having many improvements over either. Its lack of a splinter shield and shortened barrel cut down on its weight. One reason could be the PLA’s sudden preference for 155mm howitzers when the technology was transferred to Norinco in the mid-1980s. From 1990 onward the Type 83 disappeared without a trace and it’s ironic how another copy of a Soviet howitzer the D-30 became more common with the PLA under the designation Type 96.

It’s claimed the Type 83 howitzer did find customers abroad but the orders were insignificant. Yet China’s readiness to supply war material for countries that can afford them is always underestimated. Iran and Pakistan each received up to a thousand 130mm howitzers for boosting their capacity for waging conventional warfare. Decades earlier China’s solidarity with North Korea and North Vietnam meant an unending supply of heavy weapons reached their militaries. While US support for its allies in the “third world” during the Cold War was measurable in dollar value China kept pace with sheer quantity. To the credit of Norinco the armaments it churned out in the 1950s and 1960s remain usable until now as long as they’ve had proper maintenance and storage.

The fate of China’s forgotten Type 83 howitzers as training fodder appears to be sealed. It’s not that big a deal since countries who need artillery have Norinco’s immense catalog to choose from. A niche that China serves very well are ammunition supplies for aging and antiquated howitzers in any caliber. While the Russians are able to do the same the Chinese are more agile and less transparent when transferring enhanced laser-guided large caliber ammunition somewhere. On a closing note, if 122mm howitzers are badly needed, Norinco offers as many as ten different models in every variant, whether tracked, wheeled, or towed. An interesting descendant of the Type 83 features the same barrel on a new chassis with folding stabilizers like those on the M777 howitzer.

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