Many armies think that artillery systems can work for decades without serious upgrading," Amos Matan, Elbit Systems' Land Division VP explains to IsraelDefense.
"This perception is slowly but surely changing. The senior command echelons in many militaries understand the need for low-cost, highly mobile, precision-fire, operationally flexible artillery that is capable of using a broad range of ammunition."
Artillery is on the rise in many countries, including Israel, where the IDF plans to replace its longstanding arsenal with a new 155 mm/52 caliber self-propelled cannon.
Although smart weapons systems have taken over traditional artillery roles, cannons and mortars remain a vital feature of ground operations activity. Israel's recent conflicts, such as Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, reaffirmed the importance of artillery.
Soltam has been developing and manufacturing artillery systems for decades. Like all of Israel's defense industries, it too faces a major hurdle when it comes to IDF replenishment: the IDF gives high priority to procuring weapons systems from the US, since the US requires the aid be spent on American military purchases.
The current renovations at Soltam's Yokne’am production line show that the plant's mother company, Elbit Systems, sees artillery as the driving force for its growth. Recognizing the renewed interest in artillery several years ago, Soltam developed a new type of artillery system that already scored several successful sales and has huge market potential.
Advanced Weapons at an Affordable Price
The US 155mm M109 Howitzer, the most common artillery system in the world, has been in IDF use for nearly forty years.
Amos Matan is not the only one who advocates a re-gentrification of the IDF's artillery arsenal. In IsraelDefense issue No. 6 (January-February 2012), the IDF's Chief Artillery Officer, Brigadier General David Swisa, stated that the Artillery Corps is interested in a new platform.
"As long as my voice is heard, I will not recommend upgrading forty-year-old weapons to anyone. These self-propelled howitzers are coming apart. It would be like trying to upgrade an old car," Swisa explains. The procurement of new self-propelled cannons will be pursued in coming discussions in the IDF’s next five-year plan (2013-2017).
Soltam believes that "something new is needed" in order to break the cycle of conventional, banal thinking. This is one of the reasons that it developed ATMOS 2000 (Autonomous Truck-Mounted Howitzer System), a highly mobile apparatus that integrates a relatively inexpensive platform with an advanced computerized weapons system.
ATMOS 2000 is a flexible, modular system adaptable to a multitude of trucks or platforms according to client specifications. The standard truck is loaded with all components necessary for operation, including a computerized Advanced Fire and Control System (AFCS) and an electric generator for auxiliary systems.
"Mobility, trafficability, and greater ranges are critical requirements. This is especially important in countries where the topography hinders artillery systems mounted on tank hulls, which has been the standard means for self-propelled artillery for decades, including the IDF," says Matan.
Additionally, counter-battery radar systems force gun crews to rapidly and frequently change position in order to avoid counter-fire from various sources.
Modern cannons are automatically loaded, and computerized systems are capable of delivering highly precise fire under various conditions. The cannons immediately calculate and correct the deviation of the first shell in order to improve the accuracy of succeeding projectiles.
ATMOS 2000 is equipped with a tactical computer, INS (Inertial Navigation System), muzzle velocity radar, and day and night vision systems that enable independent target acquisition. The IDF has tested the system, but still favors the self-propelled cannon mounted on a tracked APC (preferably a Bradley Fight Vehicle) that can be obtained from US surplus.
At this point, US military aid enters the picture. BAE has developed a new 155mm/39 caliber cannon that the US defense establishment is currently testing and offering to the IDF.
Elbit Systems is trying to circumvent the terms of US military aid by applying the principle of bandwagoning; Soltam joined BAE, which was delighted to gain the IDF's rich operational knowledge.
"Together we're proposing a different type of cannon than the ones developed by the US, something entirely new that we believe will meet the demands of the US military, the IDF, and many other armies," Matan avows cryptically without revealing more.
A tender for the new cannon is expected to be issued in the US next year. If the BAE-Elbit system is chosen, chances are the IDF will procure it with American military aid.
A Precision Mortar Too
"Elbit's Land Division offers the ground forces a comprehensive solution: providing artillery units with real-time information from land, sea, and air sensors, thereby transforming the individual cannon into a lethal and precise weapon. In most cases, the first shells will hit the target with deadly accuracy," declares Matan.
Akin to artillery, mortars have not lost their operational worth. Recent wars (not only in Israel) have proven that advanced mortars are invaluable to maneuvering ground forces.
Soltam manufactures the 120 mm Cardom (Hatchet) Recoil Mortar System (RMS). The mortar can be mounted on a Humvee or an APC with a special recoil-absorbing system that allows the weapon to be fired from inside the vehicle.
According to Matan, Cardom has lived up to its expectations in operations with US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The IDF also reported excellent results with the mortar in the Second Lebanon War and in Operation Cast Lead, and recently decided to procure additional Cardom systems for the infantry.
According to foreign reports, other countries, in addition to the US, have also purchased Soltam products. Elbit's world-class knowledge and advanced fire and control systems have contributed to the surge in sales.
With the production of new systems underway in Yokne'am, Soltam has become the cornerstone in Elbit's Land Division. Recently, the company has been busy in Eastern Europe as well, modifying Soviet-era systems to fulfill new requirements.
"Our ground systems have a wide range of proven capabilities that are designed to meet the challenges of the future battlefield," concludes Matan.
** Photo: Atmos, by Elbit