Panzerhaubitze 2000 - The Self-Propelled Gun of the Future - Tank Historia

Panzerhaubitze 2000 – The Self-Propelled Gun of the Future

Today, few self-propelled artillery systems are as powerful, accurate, fast firing and deadly as the Panzerhaubitze 2000. With its autoloading 155 mm gun, a battalion of these machines can strike a target with 120 rounds in just 60 seconds.

Rocket assisted rounds can hit targets 40 miles away and guided shells can hit within a meter of their target.

But the Panzerhaubitze 2000 is still not done!

Its extremely high rate of fire allows it to fire three 155 mm rounds in just 10 seconds, or have 5 rounds land on a target simultaneously.

After unloading its 60 round magazine, this mighty self-propelled gun can change positions at over 40 mph.

PzH 2000 in Afghanistan.
A Dutch Panzerhaubitzer 2000 fires its mighty 155 mm, L/52 gun in Afghanistan.

Contents

Background

The Panzerhaubitze 2000’s roots go all the way back in the 1970s, when numerous European nations wanted to pool their money and resources to produce a self-propelled gun (SPG) that was distinctly European. Though the American M109 self-propelled howitzer was excellent, the nations of Europe was to reduce their reliance on American equipment.

The end result of this coalition was the SP70 program, which was meant to be a highly mobile, long range 155 mm artillery system.

However, the program would fizzle out after a decade of squabbling between Germany, the UK, and Italy over technical details and financing. With each country figuring they would have to produce their own domestic models, the UK went about making the AS-90, and Germany began work on a vehicle that would become the focus of this article; the Panzerhaubitze 2000.

An AS-90 after arriving in Estonia.
The AS-90 began development when it became clear the SP70 project wasn’t going to work. Image by Estonian Defence Ministry.

The requirements made for this vehicle were not exactly a walk in the park. Germany wanted a SPG that was fast, armored, accurate, quick to deploy and with modern electronics and systems. It would use a 155 mm gun, NATO’s standard artillery caliber.

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For building the chassis, German company Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, as it was known after the two companies’ merger in 1998, had its work cut out. A solely indigenous German-designed SPG had not been made since the Second World War.

Panzerhaubitze 2000

The chassis the team came up with is comparable to the size of a Leopard 2 tank. In fact, coming in at 11.7 meters (38 ft) long and 3.1 m (10 feet) high, the Panzerhaubitze 2000 is even bigger. It weighs 58 tons at full combat load.

Panzerhaubitze 2000 on display.
The Panzerhaubitze 2000 is one of the largest SPGs in service today, outweighing even some main battle tanks. Image by 270862 CC BY-ND 2.0.

Like all self-propelled artillery, the Panzerhaubitze 200 has relatively thin armor, with a thin layer of steel plating to protect it against shell fragments and small arms fire. However additional reactive armor plates can be placed around the vehicle if needed.

What the Panzerhaubitze lacks in armor makes up for its speed. It is fitted with an eight-cylinder turbocharged MTU 881 Ka-500 that produces 990 hp. This diesel engine is closely related to the V12 inside the Leopard 2.

This engine can propel the Panzerhaubitze 2000 to 41 mph on road and 28 mph offroad. In comparison, these speeds are equivalent to the Leopard 2 and are about twice as fast as older versions of the M109.

An MTU 881 engine after removal from a Panzerhaubitzer 2000
The MTU 881 power pack This engine can provide up to 3030 Nm (2235 ft lbs) of torque, and is also found in the Marder IFV.

This is an extremely important attribute, as it allows artillery systems to keep up with other advancing units during an advance. If they can’t keep up, the enemy can be quickly pushed out of range.

155 mm Gun

The Panzerhaubitze 2000’s most notable feature is, of course, its incredible gun.

It is the Rheinmetall L52, an 8 meter long, chromium-lined 155 mm masterpiece of artillery design. This tube, combined with modern ammunition, make it arguably the best piece of artillery on the planet today.

The average maximum range of its standard high explosive (HE) round is about 18 miles (30 km). However, the vehicle can fire a selection of rounds that significantly extend its range and accuracy.

A Rheinmetall L52 155 mm gun during tests.
The L52 gun barrel is designed to an extraordinarily high standard for weight reduction and accuracy. Image by Rheinmetall Denel Munition.

Firstly, base bleed rounds. Base bleed is not a new technology, having first been developed by Sweden in the 1960s, but back then it mostly resigned to coastal artillery before the Americans and Germans started using the type in SPGs.

Base bleed rounds increase range by reducing drag. One of the main areas of drag is the area of low pressure that forms behind the round.

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Base bleed technology reduces this effect with a gas generator that pumps gas into this area of low-pressure. This sounds similar to rocket-assisted ammunition, but the gas generator component doesn’t produce any thrust, it merely increases the pressure behind the round.

This diagram shows the difference between base bleed and conventional rounds.
The flat base of artillery rounds produces significant drag. Base bleed technologies significantly limits this by reducing the low pressure behind the shell.

By removing this area of low-pressure, base bleed rounds have less drag and therefore carry their energy longer, extending the Panzerhaubitze 2000’s range to about 27 miles (45 km).

For even more range, the system can fire rocket-assisted projectiles (RAP). These are rather self-explanatory: a small rocket booster in the back of the shell provides thrust during flight, significantly increasing range. The Panzerhaubitze 2000’s RAPs have a range of over 37 miles (60 km).

The Panzerhaubitze 2000 is also deadly against armored vehicles, thanks to its SMArt 155 fire-and-forget ammunition. These German rounds contain two individual submunitions that are ejected from the shell above the target.

A SMArt 155 shell, as used by the Panzerhaubitze 2000.
A SMArt 155 round. Next to it are the two submunitions and their parachutes. Image by Rheinmetall.

After ejecting, the submunitions deploy parachutes and scan the area with an infrared sensor and millimeter wave radar as they descend. Once a target has been found, they launch a top-down attack vehicles below.

Finally, there is the famous M982 Excalibur (come on, that’s a cool name). This is a state-of-the-art and prohibitively expensive guided round that can strike within 1-2 meters (3-6.5 ft) of its target.

Their high costs are offset by the fact that one Excalibur can often do the job of dozens of unguided shells.

An Excalibur guided shell.
The Excalibur is one of the most advanced artillery rounds available today. The fins allow the shell to essentially glide its way to the target.

Firing the Panzerhaubitze 2000

The Panzerhaubitze 2000 has an advanced fire control system to further improve its performance.

Whenever a round leaves the barrel, radar at the front of the vehicle measures its speed, while the internal temperature of the barrel is also measured. These factors, along with wind speed and the target’s course and speed are constantly fed into the system’s fire control computer for automatic gun corrections.

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The gun can fire in a wide range of motion with the ability to rotate a full 360 degrees and fire at elevations of -2.5 to +65 degrees.

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 firing its 155 mm gun.
The Panzerhaubitze 2000 is known for its exceptional gun handling.

If the ballistic characteristics of the L52 155 mm gun weren’t already impressive enough, the Panzerhaubitze 2000 takes it to another level with its sheer volume of fire.

It has an exceptional fire rate thanks to a digital autoloading mechanism.

Inside the fighting compartment, a claw-like device grabs a round from the magazine and places it into the loader. Once loaded, one of the human loaders will have to manually place the powder charge behind the round into the breech.

Dutch Panzerhaubitze 2000 crewmember loading the autoloader.
A Dutch crewmember loads a 155 mm round into the Panzerhaubitze’s autoloading system. The ammunition tray (with yellow label, upper right) swings down to be automatically loaded with a shell. It then swings back up level with the breech and rams the shell in.

The crew then have three firing modes: three rounds in 10 seconds, ten rounds in one minute, or 20 rounds in three minutes.

To put this into perspective, at maximum rate of fire, a battalion of 34 Panzerhaubitze 2000s can send 120 rounds downrange in under a minute.

The crew also has the option of placing the gun in semi-automatic mode, where the loading is still done automatically, but a lanyard will have to be pulled by a crew member to fire. Lastly, if the auto-loader does fail, the crew can load it manually.

Crew operating a Panzerhaubitze 2000.
The Panzerhaubitze 2000’s fighting compartment is accessed via the rear.

The Panzerhaubitze can hold 60 rounds and 288 powder charges inside the vehicle. When firing in automatic mode, the vehicle receives continual updates via secure, encrypted data links with the fire control center.

The weapon system is capable of expending all 60 of its rounds within 12 minutes as long as there is no malfunction or the internal barrel temperatures do not exceed 160 degrees Celsius.

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Perhaps the Panzerhaubitze 2000’s greatest party trick though is its ability to fire five rounds and have them all hit the target at the same time. It can do this by firing its shells at certain angles and with varying powder charges.

PzH 2000 5 Shots Diagram.
By firing at specific trajectories and times, the Panzerhaubitze 2000 can perform Multiple Rounds Simultaneous Impact (MRSI) with up to 5 rounds.

Service

Since its introduction into service in 2000, the Panzerhaubitze 2000 has seen little action until recently. The first nation to field the weapon in combat was the Dutch contingent of ISAF in Afghanistan starting in 2006. The Germans also sent several vehicles over to provide long-range artillery support around 2010. These vehicles were quite effective in delivering long-range fire, but crews did report that the gun system struggled with the sandy conditions in the desert.

However, the Panzerhaubitze 2000 has recently seen intense action in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict. The Germans, Dutch, and Italians donated vehicles to Ukraine in June this year.

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 in Europe.
Panzerhaubitze 2000s have provided excellent performance in Ukraine, but questionable reliability.

Since then, the three nations have given the Ukrainian army a total of 20 vehicles and corresponding ammunition free of charge.

While the exact details on their combat effectiveness have remained scarce, the little information we do have indicates they are proving invaluable on the battlefields.

In fact, the Ukrainians have used these guns so extensively that just after a month on the battlefield, most of them needed depot-level repairs.

There are particular concerns over barrel-wear. The German army envisioned that a high rate of fire would be no more than 100 rounds per day per gun. In practice, the Ukrainian military has already far surpassed this requirement.

Panzerhaubitze 2000 firing in Europe.
Ukrainian demands from the platform have far exceed the manufacturer’s expectations.

Ukraine has recently made a €1.7 billion order of 100 Panzerhaubitze 2000’s from Germany, strong evidence that the system is working well.

For now, it remains clear that this formidable machine is almost certainly one of the most capable self-propelled guns on the planet. Time will tell if this reputation withstands the test of war.

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Regardless, we will update this article as and when we learn more its performance in combat.