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UK artillery seeks greater range and accuracy

21st September 2022 - 09:00 GMT | by Christopher F Foss in London

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Royal Artillery firing the M270 MLRS. (Photo: UK MoD/Crown Copyright)

The Integrated Review and MoD Command Paper underlined the value of improving the British Army’s artillery capabilities — but the UK will have to break a trend of failed procurements to succeed in future.

With the planned uplift in UK defence spending in the coming years, the Royal Artillery (RA) hopes to replace or refurbish its existing weapons to enable targets to be engaged more rapidly at longer range, with better accuracy and to greater effect.

The Integrated Review (IR) and subsequent MoD Command Paper pushed artillery modernisation firmly up the agenda, and it has stayed there thanks to the effectiveness of conventional tube artillery and artillery rocket systems in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

As the Command Paper stated: ‘Investment in longer range artillery will mean the [British] Army is able to deliver a more precise and lethal response and attack potential adversaries at greater depth, providing greater protection.’

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Over the last few years, the RA has rationalised its indirect fire weapons, which now comprise Lockheed Martin M270B1 227mm (12-round) tracked Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS), BAE/RBSL 155mm/39cal AS90 tracked self-propelled guns, BAE 105mm L118 Light Guns and some Rafael Exactor 2 missile systems.

In addition to artillery, UK armed forces have other assets that can provide indirect fire support including aircraft, attack helicopters, UAVs and even gunfire from RN surface vessels or submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles.

New ammunition types and enhancements in C2 and target acquisition are also earmarked.

The latter is of increasing importance as potential threat forces use shoot-and-scoot tactics to avoid counter-battery fire.  

The UK has provided Ukraine with significant quantities of missiles and artillery and these will have to be replaced. In addition, current ammunition stocks are considered to be too low for a sustained conflict.

While the UK is self-sufficient in most small arms ammunition (5.56mm and 7.62mm), it does not have the capability to provide a complete range of artillery ammunition and its associated charges.

The UK took delivery of four M270 MLRSs from the US with the remainder being built on the European production line which also supplied France, Germany and Italy.

These fired the original unguided 227mm rocket to a maximum range of 31.6km with 644 sub-munitions, but the original M270 has been phased out of service in the UK.

Some have already been upgraded to the M270B1 standard, which includes the latest US computerised fire control system (FCS) as fitted to the upgraded US Army M270A1 systems.  

The M270B1 fires the guided MLRS rocket with blast fragmentation warhead out to a maximum range beyond 70km.

M270B1 launchers are deployed by 26 Regiment RA to provide deep fires support at the divisional level.

Before the publication of the IR, a decision had been taken for Lockheed Martin to lead an upgrade of an additional 44 M270B1 launchers and four MLRS repair and recovery vehicles.

In the short term, this would remove obsolescence with upgrades to the FCS, protection and mobility. Also, by adding a composite rubber track to the UK systems, the upgrade would bring RA-operated M270s up to the US M270A2 standard.

AS90PzH 2000Caesar 6x6K9 ThunderATMOSAGM/RCH 155Caesar 8x8
TitleAS90PzH 2000Caesar 6x6K9 ThunderATMOSAGM/RCH 155Caesar 8x8
CategoriesArtilleryArtilleryArtilleryArtilleryArtilleryArtilleryArtillery
SubcategoriesSelf-propelled gunsSelf-propelled gunsSelf-propelled gunsSelf-propelled gunsSelf-propelled gunsSelf-propelled gunsSelf-propelled guns
SuppliersBAE SystemsKrauss-Maffei WegmannNexter SystemsHanwha DefenseElbit Systems Land and C4IKrauss-Maffei WegmannNexter Systems, Czechoslovak Group (CSG)
RegionEUROPEEUROPE, EUROPEEUROPEASIA, ASIAMIDDLE EAST, ASIAEUROPEEUROPE, EUROPE
Manufacturer CountryUKGERMANY, ITALYFRANCESOUTH KOREA, INDIAISRAEL, THAILANDGERMANYFRANCE, CZECH REPUBLIC
StatusOut of productionIn productionIn productionIn productionIn productionIn productionIn production
Length 1 (overall)9m10.6m10m12m9.5m10.3m12.3m
Width 1 (overall)3.3m3.5m2.5m3.4m2.55m2.99m2.8m
Crew5565626

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The £250 million ($300 million), ten-year upgrade would leave the RA capable of firing GMLRS-ER rounds to ranges of up to 150km and even the Precision Strike Missile to 500km.

The Defence Science and Technology Lab (Dstl) is playing a leading role in upgrading and enhancing UK indirect firepower capability.

One example of ongoing R&D is the Deep Fires Rocket System (DFRS), which if fielded will enable targets to be engaged at extended range with precision attack.

Another Dstl project is Land Precision Strike, which is said to be at the concept development stage. It would enable the British Army to engage high-value, time-sensitive and fleeting targets with a low collateral effect, according to Dstl.

In the short term, the currently deployed Exactor 2 would be retained and perhaps have improved mobility as it is currently based on a trolley.

The AS90 should have been upgraded more than 20 years ago with the 155mm/52 calibre Extended Range Ordnance (ERO) and a modular charge system (MCS).

This was cancelled, leaving the UK as one of the few major powers in Europe not to have replaced its 155mm/39cal systems with a longer-range 155mm/52cal weapon that is more survivable against counter-battery fire.

The UK has an ongoing ten-year, £800 million competition to replace the AS90 called the Mobile Fires Platform (MFP), to be deployed at brigade level. The eventual solution could be tracked or wheeled but it will certainly be a 155mm/52cal system with a suite of improved ammunition and a training package.

Potential providers of the MFP include Nexter with the Caesar 6x6 or 8x8 self-propelled howitzer;  Krauss-Maffei Wegmann with its PzH 2000 or the Remote Controlled Howitzer 155; Elbit Systems with its ATMOS or SIGMA system; Hanwha Defense with the K9A2 Thunder; and BAE Systems with the upgraded AS90.

The original intention was to procure enough systems in the MFP programme to equip two Armoured Infantry Brigades and the two Strike Brigades, but the latter have now been dispensed with and the former are now called Armoured Brigade Combat Teams.

However, in future the UK will have to obtain its artillery and tank barrels from abroad because the sole UK-based factory for manufacturing 155mm artillery barrels — the former Royal Ordnance Factory in Nottingham — closed as long ago as 2001.

Dstl is working on the Light Fires Platform (LFP) as a potential replacement for the 105mm Light Gun and QinetiQ is undertaking a three-year pre-concept study for a 127mm electrically powered and uncrewed system.

Yet the UK has an unfortunate history of embarking on ambitious artillery programmes that fall by the wayside.

As well as the previously mentioned ERO/MCS, abortive programmes in the UK included a subsequently cancelled order for the German 155mm SMArt top-attack munition; the Lightweight Mobile Artillery Weapon System Gun and Rocket; and the MBDA-developed Fire Shadow loitering munition, which was also cancelled after considerable investment.

Will MFP, LFP and DFRS share the same fate?

Christopher F Foss

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Christopher F Foss


Christopher F Foss is an internationally recognised authority on armoured fighting vehicles, artillery and other weapon systems, …

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