China could soon start testing the 203-millimeter artillery cannons, which are bigger and more powerful than anything in the American arsenal, as per a recent contract awarded by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Chinese PLA’s Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) put out a contract for test-firing 203mm shells on the country’s official Weapons and Equipment Procurement Information Network, a clearing house for Chinese military contracts.
The actual post revealing this contract is now deleted. It appears to have been discovered by Peter W. Singer, an American international relations scholar, and Ma Xiu of BluePath Labs, LLC., who studies the PLA Rocket Force.
While there is nothing new in 203-millimeter cannons, as many militaries fielded them in the 20th century, most have retired them in favor of 155-millimeter guns.
Currently, the 203-millimeter-types fielded are the Russian 2S7 Pion/2S7M Malka, built between 1975 and 1990, and the old US M110 self-propelled howitzer based on a cannon designed in 1919. While the US military used the M110 from 1963 to the 1990s, several nations to which it was exported continue to use it.
China also tried developing the 203-millimeter artillery in the late 1980s, when China North Industries Group Corporation or Norinco hired Gerald Bull, a Canadian inventor and one of the world’s leading artillery experts, who was also involved in Saddam Hussein’s ‘Project Babylon’ supergun artillery project, as discussed at great length by EurAsian Times here.
China initially hired Bull to develop a 155-millimeter gun to counter the Soviet Union’s superior firepower, which resulted in the development of the PLL-01 howitzer. However, Bull and Norinco developed the 203-millimeter W-90 artillery system.
However, the W-90 reportedly could not advance beyond the prototype stage, which could be because of several possible reasons, such as technical obstacles or maybe even Bull’s assassination in 1990, linked to a still-unknown intelligence service.
That said, the recent PLA contract for what it refers to as the ‘203 Artillery Test Technology Development Project’ seems to be a revival of Chinese efforts to develop a 203-millimeter artillery system and move beyond its current 155-millimeter artillery.
Revelations From The Secretive Chinese Contract
While the contract does not provide many details about China’s objectives concerning the 203-millimeter artillery shells, it offers some interesting clues.
For example, the contract states that test-firing must involve an 85-kilogram projectile at a speed of about 920 meters per second. To put this into perspective, the Russian 203-millimeter self-propelled 2S7 Malka howitzer can fire a 110-kilogram projectile at a speed of 960 meters per second.
This means that Chinese guns have yet to catch up with Russian standards. However, given the history of defense cooperation between China and Russia, it should not be surprising if the PLA receives Russian assistance with its artillery development.
Their ties could increase in the wake of the Ukraine war that has only brought Beijing and Moscow closer.
Furthermore, the contract also states the requirement for testing the projectile’s penetrative capabilities. This could mean that the PLA may want to develop an artillery system capable of destroying strategic underground tunnel complexes or other reinforced targets, which feature prominently in Taiwan’s defenses.
The contract has been awarded to China’s Nanjing University of Science and Technology. The country’s premier institution for advanced artillery development has designed several of PLA’s artillery systems, like the PCL-181 155-millimeter howitzer. This is the most recent new system, unveiled at the 2019 National Day Parade.
As stated earlier, the contract has been awarded by the PLASSF, which oversees several research and development (R&D) facilities. But it is not specified in the contract exactly which PLASSF institution would be managing the project.
The contract, however, does provide the contact information of a person named Zhang Gong. This includes an address and a phone number. Based on the phone number, it can be safely assumed that the Northwest Institute of Nuclear Technology (NINT) in Xi’an (also known as Unit 63672) could be the managing institute.
The address of contact person is from Lintong District in Xi’an City, and NINT is one of the two PLASSF units known to be located in the Lintong district. The phone number in the contract, ‘029-84767993’, is similar to other phone numbers associated with NINT.
Singer and Xiu, in their article, note that all NINT numbers apparently begin with 029-84767XXX, with only the last three digits differing. However, this is not true of the other PLASSF unit in Lintong District. Therefore, it is strongly suggestive of NINT being the PLASSF unit managing this project.
Notably, NINT is mainly responsible for nuclear weapons research. This project could entail the development of tactical nuclear artillery, similar to the Russian Malka and the American M110 howitzers, capable of firing nuclear-tipped nuclear shells.
However, NINT oversees non-nuclear military research, such as lasers, electronics, materials, chemistry, and artillery. Therefore, its possible involvement does not form a sufficient basis to conclude that the new artillery system would be nuclear-capable.
China’s Interest In 203-mm Artillery Inspired By Ukraine War?
The revival of China’s interest in larger-caliber artillery seems to have been inspired by the ongoing war in Ukraine, where both sides have employed the Soviet-era Malka against each other.
As per reports, a single shot from the Malka can create a 16-foot hole in the ground or level an entire building.
For instance, a video released in March 2022 on social media purportedly showed an ammunition depo near Kharkiv being destroyed by a Russian strike. It is believed the 2S7 Malka was used in this assault.
There are speculations that such a powerful larger-caliber artillery could narrow the gap for the PLA between its short-range smaller-caliber artillery and the longer-range rocket artillery. Because while the extended-range projectiles enabled the artillery to fire further, they could not pack a sufficiently powerful punch required to destroy reinforced targets.
The 203-millimeter cannon can fire approximately twice as heavy a projectile as a 155-millimeter cannon. The PLA could then fire more explosive charges at longer ranges, enabling its forces to destroy fortified targets deep behind enemy lines.
That said, the contract by the PLASSF is only for test-firing and research. Therefore, it does not, by any means, ensure that it would eventually result in the fielding of a weapon system.
This is because any new larger-caliber artillery systems could bring the same shortcomings that led most militaries to phase them out. This includes a lower rate of fire, difficult mobility due to bulky systems, and difficult logistics.