Chinese arms firm shows Nato-standard artillery with aim of boosting weapon exports

Asia World

Both Norinco’s howitzers have Nato-standard 155mm calibres. The PLZ-52, also known as PLZ-05A, does not have an export record.

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However, the PCL-181, which was dubbed SH-15 for export variants, has been sold to Pakistan and Ethiopia.

As part of the communist bloc, China was reluctant to produce Nato-standard 155mm artillery until the late 1980s.

Calibre plays an important role in the export of artillery as it also determines the type of ammunition used. Changing the calibre of an existing weapon would require the military to replace all its artillery shells.

The PLZ-45 is one of the earliest models of a Chinese 155mm howitzer. Since it was first produced in 1997, it has been exported to Algeria, Ethiopia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – which used PLZ-45 to shell Houthi rebels during the Yemeni civil war in 2015, a first record of its operation in real combat.

The export history of the PCL-181 and PLZ-45 show that Chinese 155mm calibre Nato-standard artillery has mainly been sold to Middle Eastern and African countries.

Timothy Heath, a senior international defence researcher at the US-based think tank Rand Corporation, said these units were “generally superior” to Russian designs, yet they cost less than European-manufactured artillery.

“Chinese howitzers have good prospects for export to Middle Eastern and African countries because many of them use weapons systems from Nato,” Heath said.

“Moreover, artillery is relatively low cost compared to aircraft and other advanced weapon systems, yet very useful against opponents on the ground … the potential market could be significant.”

However, analysts said that while China could replace arms exports to developing countries from Russia, which is bogged down by war and international sanctions, Norinco’s display of Nato-standard artillery at an European defence exhibition would not lead to exports to Europe or any other US-allied nations.

At Eurosatory, KNDS France, a major French land-based weapons manufacturer, displayed its latest Caesar Mk. 2 155mm self-propelled gun for the first time, with an engine twice as powerful as the Mk. 1 which is currently deployed by Ukraine in its war against Russia.

Besides Ukraine, the howitzer is operated by eight other countries. Armenia, a former Russian ally, will be added to the list after French defence minister Sébastien Lecornu announced on Tuesday that France would sell the Caesar self-propelled howitzer to the country.

“[Artillery is] a growing market. Because of the war, there is more and more interest in Europe for modern systems for high-intensity warfare … So the competitors’ list could be very long,” said Robin Lambert, a spokesperson for KNDS France, while showcasing the Caesar Mk. 2 displayed outside the main Eurosatory exhibition hall.

“These are the kind of systems that are efficient, that are reliable, and which outrange all the other systems. So these three capacities [and] advantages make it some of the best solutions on the market.”

South Korea has a strong record of artillery exports to Europe, including Hanwha Aerospace’s K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzer which is one of its major export products. The K9 is operated in eight countries, mainly in Europe and the Middle East, and two more countries – Australia and Romania – are set to receive delivery.

“Our strengths are quick delivery, cost-effectiveness and price competitiveness,” said Hanwha Aerospace spokesman Danny Oh at the company’s Eurosatory booth where a real-life model of the K239 Chunmoo rocket artillery system was displayed in Europe for the first time.

“[K9] has already been used, and drew interest in many European countries, such as [in] northern and eastern Europe.”

Sunil Nair, a land platform expert with global military intelligence company Janes, said: “The Chinese artillery – PLZ-52, SH-15 – is good competition to … the K9 or Caesar on a ‘spec-to-spec’ comparison – armament range and rate of fire, mobility parameters and mission systems”.

“However, their effectiveness in the artillery system is dependent on various other factors,” Nair said.

For Heath, Norinco’s display of 155mm artillery shows that China sees an opportunity to sell these weapons to the European market using Nato ammunition, with the commercial and political intention of bringing profits to Chinese firms and expanding Beijing’s influence in Europe.

However, he said that while Chinese artillery’s performance was competitive, and its pricing gave it “a real selling point,” the designs were outdated, thus “lagging” behind their Western counterparts and likely to draw relatively less attention in Europe or other Western countries.

“Developing countries that rely extensively on Nato equipment usually want to maintain good ties with their patrons and thus will be reluctant to defect to Chinese equipment to save a little money,” Heath said.

“However, countries that used to rely on Russia will likely find Chinese weapons and equipment extremely appealing, given the quality and cost advantages.”

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Lukas Fiala, project coordinator of China Foresight at the London School of Economics, echoed the view that given the wide use of 155mm shells and the supply of firepower – which has re-entered policy discussions since the war in Ukraine – it “makes sense” for Chinese suppliers to cater to these specifications on the international market.

However, he said that buying Chinese arms in large quantities in the current geopolitical environment would “raise eyebrows” in Washington and some European capitals, driving some countries to consider alternatives before procuring Chinese artillery if a “less politically sensitive and affordable option is available”.

“As countries are reminded of the possibility of a large-scale land war, Norinco may well aim to present its own howitzers as a potential solution,” Fiala said.

“Nato countries will hardly purchase Chinese military equipment, however, so Norinco’s presence at Eurosatory is mostly about signalling to the wider international market that the firm is keeping pace with current trends and leaders in the industry.

“With Russia’s defence industry focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chinese firms are likely aiming to absorb some of the demand for Russian systems with alternatives that are readily available, both in terms of cost and political considerations.”