Artillery: Lighter, Faster, Deadlier

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March 1, 2019: Chinese arms firm Norinco introduced a new 120mm mortar system, called SM4, in 2014. It was not a big seller and therein lies a lesson about competition and technology. Mounted in a WMZ551 6x6 wheeled armored vehicle, the 17 ton SM4 system has a crew of five and in addition to the 120mm mortar, the vehicle also carried 39 120mm shells. The SM4 is used by the light infantry battalions of the Chinese army and export customers have been difficult to come by. In fact, only Moslem nations were interested (Algeria bought some). The main reason for the lack of export sales is that Israeli mobile 120mm systems have dominated the market since 2003. That was when Israel introduced its Cardom system. These were frequently operated from wheeled armored vehicles, like the American Stryker. Cardom is a computerized 120mm recoil mortar with a remarkable fire control system that can be used with a compatible battle management system to provide accurate and immediate fire support against targets up to 16 kilometers distant. The producer claims “first round on target” takes less than 30 seconds and the highest maximum rate of fire of 16 rounds per minute. The major innovation of Cardom is its automation. Forward observers can transmit digital target location information to the Cardom mortars, which automatically use a system of small electric motors to precisely aim the mortar tube. The first customer for Cardomwas the Israeli Army and the troops found Cardom a big improvement over older mortars.

Cardom was followed a few years later by the Spear system. This a 120mm mortar that can be mounted on much lighter (hummer or pickup) type vehicles. Spear uses an innovative recoil system that reduces the recoil and allows the mortar to be fired from lighter (under six ton) vehicles. The soft recoil system reduces the force of the recoil over 90 percent. The rate of fire is also reduced a bit (from 20 to 16 rounds a minute) but with the use of GPS guided shells, this is less of a factor.

The breech-loading mortar system allowed for rapid fire and the turntable system takes data directly from forward observers and quickly positioned the 120mm tube to put the shells on the target. This mortar system could put shells on the target within minutes of a request. The system fires 20 rounds in two minutes and uses a GPS assisted fire control system to provide accuracy comparable to any other artillery system. The lightweight of this system enabled it to be moved by helicopter. The Spear mortar follows in this tradition, with the same capabilities of earlier lightweight 120mm mortars but now usable in even lighter vehicles.

The Cardom and Spear systems undergo periodic upgrades, the latest one being for Spear in 2017 which allowed it to be used in even lighter vehicles. The 120mm mortar is often preferred to 155mm howitzers because the mortar is lighter, faster firing, more mobile and, with the right ammunition, just as destructive as the larger howitzer. The 120mm shells are also about half the weight of 155mm ones. This was overcome with a higher rate of fire and the use of several types of cluster bomb shells and, more recently, GPS guided shells. One of these, for example, will destroy most armored vehicles.

Most nations prefer to buy 120mm mortar systems using Cardom and Spear. But Moslem nations, with a few exceptions (like Azerbaijan) refuse to buy Israeli equipment. Turkey used to be a customer but since 2000 has had a Moslem party controlling the government which halted the purchase of Israeli weapons.

 


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