The Netherlands Is Sending Self-Propelled 155 mm Artillery to Ukraine
Germany to provide training and ammunition
Editor’s note: This is a big deal. The Netherlands only has about 30 PzH 2000 to send so that won’t decide the war. However in terms of what is being sent another taboo has been broken. Not just artillery, but now the more effective self-propelled artillery (can change position quickly and is more survivable).
It’s only a matter of time now until the US starts shipping its own self-propelled 155 mm artillery, the M109. In fact, Russia can count itself lucky that the US relies on aircraft for its firepower so much that it doesn’t have that much artillery to send to Ukraine.
On a per unit basis a self-propelled artillery piece will kill more Russians than anything else (drone, Javelin, tank…) that NATO sends.
On April 20, a report from Bloomberg News indicates the Netherlands is transferring some of its German-built Panzerhaubitze 2000 long-range armored howitzers to Ukraine.
Also known as the Pzh 2000, these hulking 61.5-ton tracked vehicles are arguably the heaviest land-warfare systems a Western ally has transferred to Ukraine so far.
Germany itself has so far refrained from giving heavy weapons to Ukraine as German Chancellor Scholze claims it risks depleting the reserves of the Bundeswehr or excessively provoking Russia. But Berlin will support the Dutch transfer to Ukraine by training Ukrainian soldiers on German or Polish soil to operate the big vehicles, as well as supply the 155-millimeter shells they use.
The remainder of this article looks at the Pzh 2000’s capabilities and how many could conceivably be dispatched to Ukraine.
155-millimeter caliber heavy artillery systems are quite common across the globe, but they’re hardly all created equal even if the shells fired are of similar diameter.
With the Panzerhaubitze 2000, which began development in 1987, German firms Rheinmetall and KMW set out to make the gold-plated Porsche of armored self-propelled howitzers to replace the Bundeswehr’s U.S.-built M109 Paladins. Thus the new vehicle integrated technological enhancements to nearly every aspect of what could have been a boilerplate design.
The resulting 12-meter-long vehicle, which incorporated elements of the Leopard 1 and 2 tanks, can still accelerate to a respectable 41-miles per hour thanks to its turbocharged 986 horsepower MTU 881 diesel engine.
The main armament is a long-barrel rifled 52-caliber 155-millimeter gun is fed shells by an ornate auto-loading system, as you can see below. The human loader need only insert appropriate strength charges prior to firing, though the gun can also be fully manually loaded should the autoloader malfunction. A total of 60 shells can be stored, typically including smoke and illumination rounds as well as high explosives.
The gun’s chromium-lined, laser-hardened barrel also has substantial heat tolerance, allowing it to sustain high rates of fire which would quickly overheat the barrel and require lengthy cool-downs in other howitzers.
Rapid fire attacks can be more lethal, as most casualties caused by artillery occur in the first few minutes of a bombardment, when personnel are surprised and exposed and have yet to make it into cover. That means firing, 20 shells in 1-2 minutes is much more effective than 20 shells in 10 minutes. Furthermore, rapid high-volume fires enhance survival, allowing artillery to quickly complete their fire missions and reposition to avoid counter-battery attacks from opposing artillery.
Here, the Pzh2000’s autoloader and barrel synergize: it can rapid fire 3 shells in just nine seconds, tolerate around 20 rounds in 2 minutes, or maintain 8 rounds per minute long-term. Furthermore, it’s fire control system can execute Multiple Release Simultaneous Impact (MRSI) strikes in which it discharges up to five or six rounds in succession with variable strength charges, which can all land at the same target at roughly the same time—ensuring a vicious initial strike before troops can make it into cover.
Another key characteristic is range: the longer, the more targets which can be hit, and the fewer enemy guns with range enough to shoot back. The Pzh 2000 has a maximum range of 22 miles using ordinary DM121 shells, but that increases to 29 miles using more expensive base-bleed shells, and up to a whopping 35-42 miles using DM702A1 rocket-assisted projectiles.
The Panzerhaubitze also boasts an elaborate fire control system informed by multiple sensors: a weather sensor to gauge climate factors (temperature, wind, humidity etc.), a combination of GPS and international navigation to precisely gauge the howitzer’s position and inclination; and even a phased array radar to gauge the speed and trajectory of the shell upon firing, and use that data to correct aim for subsequent rounds. These datapoints are all calculated by a fire control computer to generate a firing solution.
Even greater accuracy can be achieved using guided shells. Those can include American 155-millimeter munitions like the relatively cheap M1156 PGK GPS-guidance kit, or the fancier German SMArt 155 shell, which floats down on a parachute. Using a built in IR sensor, it scans for tanks below and discharges an explosively formed penetrator (EFP) into the thin top armor of armored vehicles detected.
The Pzh 2000 also has more elaborate protection than many armored howitzers, which are not supposed to engage enemy forces within sight under ordinary circumstances, but aren’t always so fortunate. Its welded steel armor is thick enough to repel 152-millimeter artillery fragments and 14.5-millimeter machine gun rounds used by Russian armored personnel carriers. The crew can also optionally fit add-on top armor to protect against mortars and cluster submunitions.
The vehicle is also engineered to improve survival odds if penetrated—particularly by ensuring ammunition is stored in separate compartments from the crew, as well as using blast-vents in the ceiling to allow some of the explosive pressure of a penetrating blast to “leak out” the vehicle.
From Germany and the Netherlands to Afghanistan
The Bundeswehr received its first Pzh 2000 in 1998, seven years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union it was designed to fight. Thus, rather than the 500 envisioned, the Bundeswehr received 185 Pzh 2000s through 2002, of which 108 remain active in four German artillery battalions today. Another 37 ex-Bundeswher Pzhs were sold Croatia and Lithuania, suggesting around 40 more inactive PzH 2000s remain in Germany’s reserve inventory.
Several other countries placed orders for factory-fresh Pzh 2000s. These include the Netherlands which ultimately received 39 Pzh-2000s, of which only 18-24 remain active in Royal Netherlands Army’s 41st Artillery battalion.
The Dutch were first to use the armored howitzers in combat when three were deployed to Deh Rawood and Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan in 2006. That September, they fired 4,000 rounds supporting the Canadian Operation Medusa offensive west of Kandahar. Then in June 2007 they helped repel a Taliban offensive in the Battle of Chora, killing 50 Taliban fighters in tandem with air support and raining down smoke screens to cover friendly troops. However, the practice of unobserved artillery fires at night created controversy due to the risks of civilian casualties.
In June 2010, three German Pzh 2000s arrived in Kunduz province Afghanistan in June 2010. The following month they performed the Bundeswehr’s first heavy artillery fire mission in combat. This unit went on to see extensive successful action in Operation Halmazag that November.
The Afghanistan deployments did reveal shortcomings in the Pzh 2000: sensitivity to high temperatures and dust. Germany subsequently upgraded 27 Panzerhaubitzes to the 2000A2 model with air conditioning systems, more powerful 8KW auxiliary power units, and MMT multi-spectral camouflage systems designed to reduce visual, heat and radar signatures.
Panzerhaubitzes for Ukraine?
Even prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, artillery played a decisive role in clashes between Ukrainian and Russian forces in the Donbas region dating back to 2014. It is likely to become dominant in the current campaign in Eastern Ukraine, where grinding attrition by fire power rather than fluid operational maneuvers appear likely to predominate.
Kyiv is thus eager to snap up whatever artillery it can get, particularly as it doesn’t have many self-propelled long-range artillery systems.
German manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) furthermore has offered to sell 100 Pzh 2000s for 1.7 billion euro package ($1.84 billion) to Kyiv—but new vehicles could not be delivered until 2024-2027. However, German Chancellor Scholz remains averse to approving sales of heavy weapons to Ukraine, even if his administration is supporting the training and ammunition supply of Dutch Pzh 2000s.
Subtracting the 18-24 in service, the Netherlands could theoretically send 15-21 Pzh 2000s to Ukraine, roughly enough to form one artillery battalion or 2-3 batteries. If Germany supplies SMArt-155 guided shells, those guns could bring potent anti-armored vehicle capabilities too.
If Ukraine can surmount the logistical challenges of operating the heavy and sophisticated German howitzers, conceivably other NATO Pzh 2000 operators like Germany or Italy could donate additional units to increase the Ukrainian force in size and efficiency.