The British Army’s artillery corps was in pretty bad shape before Russia widened its war on Ukraine starting 11 months ago. Its guns and launchers were too few in number—and hurting for modernization.
But Russia’s war on Ukraine might save the corps from further decline—and even could reverse the decline. The British Army is donating to Ukraine more and more of its artillery, effectively forcing the government in London finally to spend real money on new guns and launchers.
At the center of this crisis is a British-made, self-propelled, 155-millimeter howitzer that once was among the best of its type in the world, but now quickly is becoming obsolete. The Vickers AS-90.
A pre-war survey of the British Army’s artillery revealed a small and aging force. The army had a single artillery brigade with three regiments—two with AS-90s, two with towed L-118 howitzers and one with M-270 rocket-launchers.
The brigade possessed just 89 AS-90s, 114 L-118s and 35 M-270s to support an 86,000-person army. For comparison, the Ukrainian army at the same time had several artillery brigades and 2,900 big guns and launchers to support an army that, counting reservists and territorials, numbered around 250,000 troops.
True, the Ukrainian arsenal included a lot of very old and inefficient, ex-Soviet guns and launchers. But what the Ukrainian artillery corps lacked in quality, it more than made up in quantity.
The Ukrainians could deploy one gun for every 85 troops. The Brits—a gun for every 235 troops. “The U.K. currently possesses a critical shortage of artillery,” the Royal United Services Institute in London warned.
Ukraine’s artillery bill grew, a lot, once the Russians attacked. Losses in big guns and launchers were steep. And as the army added infantry brigades, it needed extra artillery to support them.
Kyiv’s foreign allies quickly pledged more than 800 rocket-launchers and towed and self-propelled howitzers. The donations included some of the newest, and oldest, guns in Western arsenals. The United Kingdom has pledged, or already has donated, 54 L-118s, six M-270s and 30 AS-90s.
Several NATO countries gave away essentially all their older artillery, and used the giveaways as excuses to acquire better guns—often from South Korea.
That might be what happens in the United Kingdom, as well. “Modernization should not simply replicate existing platforms,” RUSI advised. Whatever artillery the British Army buys next in particular should improve on the mediocre range of the AS-90.
The five-person, 45-ton AS-90 wasn’t always a middling gun. When it debuted in British Army service in the early 1990s, it was among the world’s better tracked howitzers. A high degree of automation—including an automatic loader—gave the gun a high rate of fire: six rounds a minute for three minutes.
But the AS-90’s L31 gun is short, with a 39-caliber rating. The shorter the barrel, the shorter the firing range.
The AS-90 can shoot conventional—that is, non-rocket-assisted—shells just 16 miles, whereas South Korea’s K-9 tracked howitzer with its 52-caliber barrel can shoot as far as 19 miles. The U.S. Army is developing a 58-caliber barrel for its own M-109 howitzers that should give them an impressive 30-mile range with conventional shells.
The AS-90’s turret remains relevant, thanks to its extensive automation. When Poland initially licensed South Korea’s K-9 howitzer for local production, it added the AS-90’s turret onto the K-9’s chassis. But it’s worth noting that the Poles installed a 52-caliber gun of French origin instead of retaining the 39-caliber British gun.
The AS-90’s gun is holding it back. And its shortfalls probably are the main reason the British Army seems comfortable giving to Ukraine at least 30 of its 89 AS-90s. Disposing of the AS-90s has compelled the U.K. government to accelerate, by years, a $1-billion plan to replace the aging howitzers. “Instead of delivering in the 2030s, it will do this earlier this decade,” defense minister Ben Wallace explained.
The army is evaluating the K-9, the French Cesar, the Swedish Archer and other tracked and wheeled howitzers. All have long guns—52 calibers or greater.
While the selection process for a new howitzer gets underway, the army could get a few new-ish guns to bridge the gap between the AS-90s and whatever comes next. “I have also directed that, subject to commercial negotiation, an interim artillery capability is to be delivered,” Wallace stated.
Don’t be shocked if the interim and objective howitzers end up being the same. Don’t be shocked if the United Kingdom follow’s Poland’s, Norway’s and Estonia’s lead and taps the excellent K-9 for both requirements.
While ex-British AS-90s roll into battle with Ukrainian batteries, British batteries should be re-equipping for the next war—with guns that shoot much farther.