DRAGUIGNAN, France --- The French army has almost completed the wholesale transformation of its artillery, a process which has seen the merger of its air-defense and field artillery units and the gradual replacement of its towed (TRF1) and self-propelled (AUF1) 155mm howitzers by the Caesar truck-mounted, air-transportable gun of the same caliber but with substantially longer range.
In terms of units, the reorganization will be completed this summer with the disbandment of the 8th Artillery Regiment, the fourth to be disbanded since 2008 in a process which also saw the number of artillery officers reduced by 28%.
Despite having fewer units, the artillery’s overall firepower will in fact be enhanced because the truck-mounted Caesar, fitted with a 52-caliber tube, is able not only to attain ranges of the order of 40 kilometers, but also to deliver fire support over an area 45% greater than with a 39-caliber tube, which has a range of less than 30 km. Caesar is the acronym of CAmion Equipé d’un Système d’ARtillerie, or truck equipped with an artillery system.
The goal of the transformation is to be able to provide each of the army’s future maneuver units with an integral fire support unit comprising heavy and medium fire-support, as well as air-defense cover with Mistral truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles and 20mm automatic cannon. In parallel, the French army has also adopted the “joint fires” concept, with Fire Support Teams to maximize the return on firepower. These teams are designated “Détachement de Liaison, d’ Observation et de Coordination” (DLOC) by the French army.
In all, the French army plans to ultimately field 141 Caesars, 128 towed 120mm mortars, 186 Mistral missile launchers and 60 VAB wheeled vehicles armed with a 20mm dual-purpose gun. It also operates 24 Guided MLRS launchers, half of which will be retired by the end of this year.
Once the older 155mm weapons are retired – the process will be entirely completed by 2019 – all of the French army’s field artillery -- Caesar and 120mm rifled mortar – will be air-transportable by C-130H Hercules, thereby improving not only tactical but also strategic mobility, Lt Col Cyril Mathias, head of the French artillery capability branch, told reporters here April 22. He and other officers spoke during a media event organized by the Versailles, France-based Nexter Group, maker of the Caesar and its Bonus smart munition, and the French army's artillery school, based in this town in south-eastern France.
Caesar’s mobility was most recently illustrated in Mali, when the French army deployed four Caesars and four 120mm mortars in support of Operation Serval. Few details have as yet been released about their performance there, but the simple fact that they were deployed in a matter of days by standard military transport provided ground troops with a level of support that would have proved impossible with older self-propelled or towed 155mm guns.
Halving the size of the artillery branch while increasing available firepower was only made possible by Caesar, a novel 52-calibre cannon mounted on a six-wheeled medium truck and whose all-up weight does not exceed 18 metric tonnes. The only comparable artillery vehicle is the BAE Systems Archer, co-developed for Norway and Sweden, but at 30 metric tonnes it weighs half as much again, says Gen. Jacques Grenier, (ret’d), artillery adviser to Nexter Group. A conventional 155mm tracked self-propelled howitzer, like the German army’s PzH 2000, weighs 55 metric tonnes, mostly due to its armor protection, tracked running gear and rotating turret.
Nexter, then known as GIAT Industries, originally developed Caesar as a private venture in the 1990s, and won the first French army order thanks to the unexpected support of then Defense Minister Alain Richard, who overruled opposition by the army staff, which disliked the idea of a gun on a truck. This led some wags to say Caesar really stands for “CAnon à Effet de Surprise d’Alain Richard,” or Alain Richard’s surprise effect gun.
The minister’s support led to an initial order for five guns in 2002, followed in 2004 by another for 72. The army staff now thinks so highly of the weapon that it plans to order an additional 64 for delivery between 2015 and 2019.
Export orders have slowly mounted up, especially after Caesar was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 – barely 12 months after it entered French service in December 2008. As of late April, Grenier said, the company had delivered 183 guns out of 252 ordered by France (77), Indonesia (32), Thailand (7) and an unidentified Middle-Eastern country that Nexter will not name but which is widely known to be Saudi Arabia (132).
Nexter is very upbeat about the gun’s prospects, thanks to what it believes is a unique mix of long-distance firepower, light weight and low acquisition and ownership costs.
Caesar’s remarkably short reaction times multiply its effects. When it stops to fire, for example, its tube is already pointed towards its target, and fine laying is done in a matter of seconds. Each gun can fire 6 rounds per minute, and 1 minute and 40 seconds after having stopped, Caesar is ready to move on, thus avoiding counter-battery fire. Its five-man crew and some ammunition are carried on board, and it is fitted with semi-automatic loading, automatic laying and has a hydraulically-operated firing ramp.
Caesar's 40 km range with standard high-explosive shells can be extended to 42 km using Extended-Range Full Bore (ERFB) rounds, and even to over 55 km with additional propulsion. Accuracy is also quite good, with six rounds fired at a range of 37 km having a dispersion of less than 150 meters, according to French army range officers.
Nexter believes that thanks to these features, Caesar can become the natural replacement for the ubiquitous NATO-standard M-109 self-propelled gun, of which over 2,000 units were sold worldwide. One likely new customer is Denmark, which had to drop its original plan to buy the BAE Archer because of budget restrictions, and which is now expected to instead opt for Caesar.
Nexter's ability to provide “smart” munitions as well as a high-performance gun should prove a significant competitive advantage, Grenier says. Nexter demonstrated the Bonus anti-tank round it developed together with Sweden’s Bofors (now part of BAE Systems); Switzerland, originally a program member, pulled out before full-scale development.
Bonus is a cargo shell which carries two sub-munitions which are ejected at an altitude of about 200 meters above the target area, and which scan the ground as they fall to earth. Their explosively-formed penetrator warheads attack any armored vehicles they detect. The French army demonstrated two Bonus salvoes on April 22: the first two rounds hit three out of four targets (rusty tank hulls heated by petrol fires at a range of 30 km), but two of the four sub-munitions of the second salvo missed their targets, one of them impacting a target already hit.
Neither Grenier nor other French officers would be drawn about Bonus’ unit price, but one observed that, whatever the price, it will always be the least expensive way of delivering a high-explosive warhead on target at a range of 40 km – in all weathers, by day and night. Aircraft-launched weapons, he noted, are far more expensive and require that the aircraft be able to take off, something that weather and local conditions sometimes limit or preclude, but which do not affect artillery.
-- May 12: updated with minor editing changes.
-- May 13: corrected date of April 22 firing demonstration.