November 28, 2013:
China recently revealed two new artillery shell designs. One was an improved base bleed technology to increase range of 152mm shells to 28 kilometers. Base bleed works by having some solid fuel in the base of the shell burn after firing, releasing gas that reduces drag and extends range.
China has long made incremental improvements to its artillery and ammunition. But another recent announcement was, well, somewhat incredible. This was the WS-35, an 18 kg (40 pound) 155mm guided shell. Using the Chinese GPS (Beidou) and INS (for backup), the WS-35 is described as having a max range of 100 kilometers and accuracy of 40 meters (125 feet). No one outside China has witnessed the WS-35 in action, so it’s uncertain how well it works or whether the announced capabilities are accurate.
WS-35 is mainly intended for the PLZ-05, which is known to be capable of firing rocket assisted shells with a range similar to shell designs in other nations (50-60 kilometers). It’s unclear how China has achieved a 100 kilometer range with a 155mm shell. The PLZ-05 is China’s primary self-propelled artillery system and is a 35 ton vehicle that looks like a tank but is armed with a 155mm howitzer.
Meanwhile, the WS-35 already has competition. The American Excalibur GPS shell weighs 45.5 kg (100 pounds), has a range of 40-60 kilometers (depending on how long the howitzer barrel is), and an accuracy of 10-20 meters. Excalibur shells cost $50,000 each, have been in service since 2007, and are to be replaced by the new PGK (Projectile Guidance Kit) shells.
PGK is actually a large fuze that screws into the front of a 155mm or 105mm shell. This longer fuze contains a GPS and small fins to guide the shell to a precision hit. It is less precise than Excalibur. That is, the PGK will ensure that the shell lands within 30 meters of the target. If it does not hit within 150 meters, PGK deactivates and the shell does not explode. An unguided shell will normally land within 300 or more meters of where it is aimed. An Excalibur shell lands within 10 meters of the target but PGK costs only $3,000 each and turns any shell into a GPS guided one. The army sent the first PGKs to Afghanistan in 2013, after successful testing in the United States. The big question is how important will the troops find the accuracy differences of Excalibur and PGK.