Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is waiting for a visit of Dave Cameron this April, and according to japanese press, a defence collaboration agreement involving joint research and development projects is on the cards, DefenseNews report.
What caught my eye is that the report specifically mentions collaboration in development of an autoloader for 155 mm howitzers, only program specified in what is said to be a group of 4 projects.
The question is: why would the UK invest in a 155 mm howitzer autoloader?
The AS90 has a bustle-mounted autoloader which contains 31 of the vehicle's 48 on-board projectiles and charges. It makes it possible to fire at a burst rate of three rounds in 10 seconds, or six rounds per minute. Sustained rate is two rounds per minute.
It is a reliable and good system, but certainly not world-beating: modern howitzers such as the PZH2000 can fire 8 to 12 rounds per minute, and fire rapidly enough to perform MRSI, Multiple Rounds, Simultaneous Impact, attacks.
An upgrade of the AS90 autoloader is not planned, but if the UK is willing to put effort and money into research and development of a new system, some kind of long term interest must be there.
Last time that the AS90 was to be upgraded significantly was in 2000, when the Braveheart upgrade was to fit new modular launch charges and a longer 52 caliber barrel.
The current 39 caliber barrel gives, with standard HE rounds L15A2, a maximum range of 24,7 km increasing to a maximum of 32 km with ERFB ammunition.
All modern self propelled howitzers, and even some towed ones, are getting the longer 52 caliber barrel, because it offers massive advantages in terms of firing range: an AS90 with 52 caliber barrel could fire a standard L15 shell at 30 Km, and an ERFB at 40 or more kilometers of distance.
The Braveheart upgrade, immensely interesting, was centered on the longer barrel and on a new family of modular launch charges from South Africa's SOMCHEM, a subsidiary of Denel. These charges were particularly attractive because they offer an incredibly low barrel wear, but unfortunately they couldn't meet the regulation for Insensitive Munitions and this gave the MOD a good excuse to put the project "on hold" and effectively kill it. First of many kills that have severely hampered the efforts of the Royal Artillery to modernize its equipment and capabilities under the Indirect Fire, Precision Attack program, almost all part of which have been sacrificed at some point.
According to the NAO's Major Projects report of 2001, Braveheart was to cost 188 million pounds, delivering 96 upgraded guns (interestingly, and sadly, after the cuts in the SDSR2010, the AS90 numbers have gone down to 95, but without any upgrade balancing the reduction!), 202 spare barrels and 1.169.130 modular launch charges.
The awareness that the AS90 is practically ready for barrel change and immediate passage to the 52 caliber barrel makes it even more irritating that the Royal Artillery's main weapon is being kept significantly outranged by most possible competitors, with all the risks that this implies. During the first Iraq war in 1990, Saddam's army had self propelled howitzers capable of firing on targets 40 and more kilometers away, and the US emergency reaction was to create a longer range MLRS rocket by diminishing the load of submunitions and augmenting the propulsion charge. They also, in due curse, changed the barrels on their M109 self propelled howitzers, while the UK is still lagging to this day.
The only AS90 export success is, in itself, out there to remind everyone of the problem, and of the fact that the solution is at hand reach but never financed: Poland, who acquired the AS90 turret design for installation on a hull designed nationally modifying a T-72 tank, is to produce a consistent number of "Krab" (at least 144, since the plan is for 3 regiments each on 48 guns), the resulting self propelled howitzer, all with 52 caliber barrels.
Whatever can help the Royal Artillery resurrect the upgrade idea for the AS90 is welcome.
It will also be interesting to see what the other 3 projects will entail.
In another news of collaboration, Sweden is to get, via UOR for its forces in Afghanistan, 12 Viking rear cars from the Royal Marines. The cars will be delivered in british Afghan TES configuration, with complete additional armor. The Dutch will make available the front cars instead.
They are an urgent requirement for sweden infantry.
The UK, at the end of operations, will get the 12 cars back, refitted and uplifted to MK2 standard, at zero extra cost. These will join a total of 24 MK2 Viking vehicles that were ordered by the MOD for Afghan ops.
The Viking MK2 is a significantly improved Viking variant, more powerful, better protected and with greater weight growth margin. It was also considered by the British Army alongside the Bronco, which was the one selected in the end, entering service as Warthog.
The british armed forces have acquired no less than 166 Vikings, but a considerable number has been destroyed or damaged so seriously to be written off during operations in Afghanistan. The original Royal Marines order was for 108 Vikings.
An order of 21 Vikings was also placed by the Army, which will use them to create high-mobility Tac Party carriers for the reception and redistribution of Watchkeeper imagery to formations on the ground.