Even though there is one system for each task, getting it just right is in fact technologically very difficult, and requires subtle choices between many criteria (weight, motorization, fuel type, interoperability, maintainability, agility, speed, range, production cost, maintenance cost, and around a gazillion others). The French seem to have got it right, with their Caesar artillery system.
Here is how not to do it. The United States, at the end of the 1990s, decided to dig into its very deep pockets, and use the window of opportunity bestowed by its then-thriving economy to secure its military hegemony for decades to come. The name of the plan as telling: “Army after next”, a series of battle enactments and wargames, designed to indicate exactly what needed to be modified. The US didn’t want to be one step ahead of the world, it wanted to be two steps ahead. So, billions of available dollars were funneled into workgroups, as industrial firms (Boeing, Northrop, and many others) started working on the Future Combat Systems program. A new series of ultra-high-tech vehicles, both manned and unmanned, were to roll out of factories in 2017, all connected to the same battlefield computer network. But as any engineer knows, whatever is complex may impress (and there is a lot of military value in impressing the enemy, true) but it usually doesn’t work. The more complex the system, the more likely it is to be stymied by unwanted events. The more parts in a vehicle, the more chances there are that one will break down and immobilize the vehicle. WWII Jeeps were slow gas-guzzlers, but they were wonderfully reliable, to the extent that tens of thousands still run perfectly well today. FCS weapons were anything but Jeeps. For instance, the XM1203, which the FCS program proposed to replace the M109 Paladins with, presented staggering capabilities compared to its predecessor. Easier to transport by air, better connected to the battalion headquarters, fitted with every possible technological gimmick engineers could think of. Now, the XM1203 never had the chance to show its unreliability, as it was cancelled with the rest of the FCS program in 2009. In April of 2009, Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defense, announced major budget slashes within the program, due to rarefying funds after the Iraq War effort, Hurricane Katrina and slumping post-subprime economy. Just months later, the US shut down the entire program, re-focusing on counter-insurrection efforts, instead of conventional warfare.
The first question any military engineer should ask before building a weapons system is “what will it depend upon?” What will it require to work? In the case of the American FCS XM1203, the answer was: too many things (a hefty maintenance chain, a properly operating network, etc…). Even its predecessor, the Paladin M109, showed reliability issues so great that several NATO countries phased them out, including Germany and the Netherlands which replaced them with their more reliable PzH 2000. In the case of the French Caesar (self-propelled howitzer, built on a truck chassis), the answer is “gas, shells, and 3 men”.
Not surprisingly, the Caesar cannon has therefore been purchased by many countries: Indonesia, Saudi Arabia (which opted away from its usual American suppliers), Thailand and Lebanon. In the most recent development, Dô Ba Ty, Vietnamese Army Chief of Staff, and Phung Quang Thanh, Vice-minister of Defense, must confirm still their intention to purchase the howitzer, which is already owned by several neighboring countries. Despite the fact that Asia is not usual playground for French arms dealers, Caesar cannon seems to be very successful over there. But there are reasons for that success: the Caesar was built on France’s long experience of battlefields, and the assumption that nothing ever works as planned. Nexter therefore built an artillery system that relied on minimal prerequisites, so that it could operate everywhere. It holds the usual 155-mm fire power (with all possible declinations, such as illuminating shells, smoke, incendiary, area-effect, point-effect, etc.), which means that it can face any conventional army and lay down the fire it is intended to. But because it is built on a truck chassis, it is both much simpler to operate and maintain on the one hand, and much faster than a tracked chassis on the other. With this flexibility, the Caesar was able to become a key chess-piece during France’s intervention in Mali. While artillery is usually seen as slow, powerful and stodgy, it chased down the quick and nimble insurgents in the desert wherever they were. With speeds up to 100 km/h and a mere 3 minutes of deployment before firing, Malian insurgents were left with very little time to breathe before taking the next round of shells. And while the Caesar focuses on being rugged and effective, it does hold the most important “options”, such as air transportability and MRSI capacity (Multiple Rounds Simultaneous Impact), which synchronizes successive shots so that they land at the same time, thereby denying the enemy the chance to scramble out of the kill zone – a very important feature when dealing with ultra-agile combat teams.
In fact, the Unites States learned the hard way the importance of flexibility. When the American enemy shifted from large conventional army to small insurgent teams, it amounted to having thrown out the window already a large share of a 340-billion-dollar FCS program. Whereas the same shift didn’t make any difference within the French army, who’s rugged, combat-proven and simply effective armament proved devastatingly efficient against insurgent teams in Mali. Quite the opposite: it gave them the upper hand. The United States, when failing to ask itself the key-question “what do our systems rely on to work?” walked past the main answer without noticing it. The entire Future Combat Systems program relied on an ultra-fit economy to finance the 340-billion program, and on every tactical maneuver going as planned. Two legs which any military commander knows are too weak to stand on.