China's Secretive Quest for Heavier Artillery
A now-deleted post reveals a research contract to test-fire 203mm shells, bigger than anything in the U.S. or Chinese arsenal.
The People’s Liberation Army will soon begin experimenting with a bigger, more powerful cannon than any in the current Chinese or American arsenal, according to a contract recently awarded by the PLA Strategic Support Force.
A now-deleted post on the official Weapons and Equipment Procurement Information Network, a clearinghouse for Chinese military contracts, makes clear that the PLA is interested in testing 203mm (8-inch) artillery. That’s substantially larger than the PLA’s current 155mm (6-inch) guns, which suggests efforts to arm its future force with tubed artillery of longer range and much greater firepower.
While many militaries fielded 203mm cannons in the first part of the 20th century, most have phased them out in favor of 155mm guns. Today, the only 8-inch types used are the Russian 2S7 Pion/2S7M Malka, built between 1975 and 1990; and the old U.S. M110 self-propelled howitzer. Based on a cannon designed in 1919, the M110 was used by U.S. forces from 1963to the 1990s; it remains in service with several other nations as a legacy of Cold War partnerships.
China dabbled with 203mm artillery in the late 1980s, when Chinese arms manufacturer Norinco hired Gerald Bull, the Canadian engineer widely considered one of history’s greatest artillery developers. Bull, whose projects ranged from gun-launched rockets designed to reach outer space to Saddam Hussein’s “Project Babylon” supergun, traversed the globe selling his designs to a wide range of unsavory regimes, often with the U.S. government’s quiet approval. The PLA had originally hired Bull to develop a 155mm gun that could help counter the Soviet Union’s overwhelming firepower to the north. This became the PLL-01 howitzer, which remains in service today. Bull and Norinco went on to develop the 203mm W-90 artillery system, which apparently never advanced beyond the prototype stage. There are several possible reasons: technical difficulties, fewer export opportunities after the Iran-Iraq War, and Bull’s violent death in 1990 at the hands of a still-unknown intelligence service.
The PLA’s recent announcement suggests a new effort to revisit this past ambition and move beyond its current 155mm artillery. Though the contract award provides little detail about the PLA’s intentions, it does offer intriguing clues. For example, the tests must include the firing of an 85kg projectile at about 920 meters per second. The Malka can reportedly fire a 110kg projectile at 960 meters per second, suggesting that Chinese guns may not yet be up to Russian standards. (Still, given China’s history of defense cooperation with Russia—and ruthless theft of its technology—it is not implausible that the PLA will soon be receiving similar help with its artillery.)
The contract also calls for recording data on the projectile’s penetrative capabilities. This suggests that such a future artillery system may be intended to destroy strategic underground or reinforced targets, a prominent feature of Taiwan’s defenses.
The contract was awarded to China’s leading institution for developing advanced artillery, the Nanjing University of Science and Technology. Beginning as a military artillery academy in the 1950s, NUST has since designed many of the PLA’s artillery systems, including the most recent new system, the PCL-181 155mm howitzer unveiled at the 2019 National Day Parade. Today, it is perhaps the only school in China with a dedicated academic department for artillery engineering.
Interestingly, the cannon contract was awarded not by the PLA Army, who would be the most likely to use this system, but by the PLA Strategic Support Force, or PLASSF, responsible for the PLA’s space, cyber, and electronic warfare forces. While this may seem strange, the PLASSF also oversees numerous R&D facilities. For example, it runs one of the country’s leading institutes for hypersonic flight vehicle development: the China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center.
While the contract does not specify which PLASSF institution is managing the project, several open-source clues point to the Northwest Institute of Nuclear Technology (NINT) in Xi’an (a.k.a. Unit 63672). NINT is one of two PLASSF units known to be located in the Lintong district of Xi’an, named in the contract. Further, the phone number given in the contract (029-84767993) is very similar to others confirmed to be associated with NINT; a search reveals that all NINT numbers apparently begin with 029-84767XXX, with only the final three digits differing. This is not true of the other PLASSF unit located in Lintong District, and thus strongly suggests that NINT is the PLASSF unit that is working on this project.
It is notable that NINT is primarily responsible for nuclear weapons research, raising the possibility that this research could involve development of tactical nuclear artillery. The comparable Russian Malka is reportedly able to fire tactical nuclear projectiles, as was the M110 howitzer, the last 203mm artillery system deployed by the U.S. military. However, NINT also oversees other non-nuclear military research, including in lasers, electronics, materials, and chemistry, and a review of patents and academic journal articles demonstrate that NINT does have at least one team focused on artillery research. Thus, there is insufficient evidence to conclude the new weapon would have a nuclear capability.
China’s renewed interest in larger-caliber artillery may reflect the war in Ukraine, where both sides have used field guns to create openings for advance and blunting the enemy’s thrusts. In fact, both Russia and Ukraine have put the Soviet-era Malka to use. The massive gun is reportedly capable of creating a 16-foot hole in the ground or leveling a building with a single shot.
While it is unlikely that artillery would play quite as central a role in a Taiwan conflict, the PLA may be taking notes about the continued value in modern wars of powerful, long-range guns to clear large swathes of territory, strike strategic targets, flatten urban centers of resistance, and terrorize enemy populations.
Other sources speculate that this more powerful artillery could bridge the gap between the PLA’s smaller-caliber, shorter-range artillery and its longer-range rocket artillery. Special extended-range projectiles allow artillery to fire further, but with a tradeoff of smaller explosive charges, often unable to damage reinforced targets. In contrast, the diameter difference of just two inches allows the 203mm cannon to fire roughly twice as heavy a projectile as a 155mm cannon. A larger-caliber artillery system would thus give the PLA the ability to launch more explosive charge, at a longer distance, improving its ability to penetrate and destroy fortified targets deep in the enemy’s rear.
The PLA’s research into 203mm artillery by no means ensures its eventual fielding. Any new large artillery systems will likely come with the same drawbacks that led to most militaries to abandon them decades ago: a lower rate of fire; bulky, hard-to-move firing platforms; and difficult logistics.
But the research contract shows that the PLA Army has a real interest in artillery that happens to outmatch American cannons.
Ma Xiu is a Senior Research Analyst focusing on the People’s Liberation Army at BluePath Labs, LLC.
BluePath Labs Research Analyst Taylor A. Lee also contributed research to this article.