Very few things remind the visitor of the days of Soltam at Elbit Systems' plant in Yokne'am: the Soltam gun plant, which knew better days but also countless labor disputes and crisis situations, had been acquired by Elbit Systems at the outset of the present decade and was transformed.
Today, Elbit Systems concentrates its land activities at the Yokne'am plant, including futuristic developments in the field of robotics. The manufacturing machinery has been replaced through a massive financial investment, and the working environment has changed accordingly – alongside the modern production halls they now have elegant dining rooms and cutting-edge fitness facilities for the benefit of the employees.
One of the primary projects handled at Elbit Systems' Yokne'am plant generates tremendous expectations in the IDF: it involves the development of the new self-propelled gun for the IDF Artillery Corps. This project has been set in motion as one of the primary acquisition programs of the IDF Ground Arm, after years of delays. In fact, during the time of Soltam, back in the 1980s, the development of a new gun designated 'Sholef' was under way in Yokne'am. That project was never completed, but German companies implemented its technology for the benefit of the development and manufacture of the Panzerhaubitze 2000 (PzH 2000) guns, currently sold around the world.
30 years later, Elbit Systems was awarded the contract for the development of the new self-propelled gun system for the IDF as a primary project, having won a competition against other bids, including a proposed cooperative alliance between IAI and KMW of Germany. The client is IMOD's Defense Research and Development Directorate (DDR&D, also known as MAFAT).
The decision to name Elbit Systems as the winner of the tender was endorsed in April 2017 by the Director General of IMOD, Maj. Gen. (res.) Udi Adam. Sources at IMOD said about the decision that "The analysis of the alternatives and the consolidation of the recommendation submitted to the DG of IMOD were carried out by the committee for the selection of developers at DDR&D, which received and reviewed numerous professional statements of opinion from all of the relevant elements within the defense establishment."
Following the announcement of the winner, the gun development project shifted into high gear, and recent activities have included a series of fire trials which started in the spring of 2017 and will continue well into the summer. A dedicated administration within Elbit Systems, headed by Ofer Zuriel, is leading the project. The prototype of the new gun system is already on display at the heart of the Yokne'am plant, but by April 2017, the Company has not allowed us to photograph and unveil it to the public. At the same time, a lot may already be reported about the new gun system: it will replace the 'Doher' guns currently in IDF use – the US-made M-109 guns supplied to the IDF in the 1970s. The service of these guns was extended and stretched far beyond normal limits.
Unlike the outdated 'Doher' guns, the new gun system will be fully autonomous and automatic. It will have a 155mm, 52 caliber barrel enabling it to fire to a range of 40 kilometers. Although the gun system may be operated by a single person, it is reasonable to assume that the crew will consist of 3-6 troopers, as opposed to the 10 men crew that currently operates each 'Doher' gun.
The IDF authorities are yet to decide whether the new self-propelled gun will be mounted on a wheeled or tracked chassis, and it is definitely possible that it would be versatile.
"The platform is less important," sources at Elbit Systems told us. "What's really important is for the new self-propelled gun system to evolve into a fighting system suitable for modern warfare environments that typically consist of urban areas containing enemy forces that are extremely difficult to spot. In these environments, the enemy often disappears from the display screens just seconds after it had popped up on them."
The new gun system will enable very prompt target engagement with an accuracy of a few meters, owing to the integration of the new high-precision fuze currently being developed for the IDF Artillery Corps by IAI. IMI Systems takes part in the new gun project – they are developing and manufacturing a new modular propellant that would enable high rates of fire.
According to its specifications, the new self-propelled gun system will include a fully autonomous robotic loading system. In fact, no operators will man the gun turret, just as there are no operators in the launching turrets of the MLRS rocket system. The loading system will be able to pick up the appropriate cartridge, arm it with the required fuze, and guide it independently into the gun barrel. Each gun will constitute an independent fire unit, transferring the data to a fire management center that may be located very far from the gun units. The fast reloading and recoiling cycle determines the rate of fire, and in fact there are no restrictions on maintaining a rate of fire of 8 rounds per minute, as long as the self-propelled gun unit has the appropriate ammunition. As the firing is fully automatic, the operators will not become exhausted. The barrel of the new gun system will also be able to withstand the increased rate of fire.
Sources at Elbit Systems told us that combining the capabilities of the new gun system with the high-precision fuze being developed by IAI will lead to much more than a battlefield revolution, owing to the renewed option of incorporating artillery elements in modern warfare profiles (today, artillery elements cannot take part in many combat scenarios, owing to the concerns regarding possible collateral damage inflicted on uninvolved parties). "Integrating the new fuze will reduce the number of shells that need to be fired in order to hit each target while improving the effectiveness of each round fired."
At the same time as developing the new gun system into a precision fire asset, the IDF Artillery Corps will retain the capability of the gun system as a "statistical fire weapon system" by using standard (as opposed to high precision) fuzes. Statistical fire offers some significant advantages over high-precision fire for the purpose of disrupting enemy activities in area cells that do not constitute pinpoint targets (In fact, this was one of the lessons derived from Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014).
The complete interview can be found in issue 37 of Israel Defense magazine. To subscribe, click here.