Wednesday, October 20, 2021

India-China Tensions Re-Escalate; Can S.Korean-Origin K-9 Vajra ‘Mow-Down’ Chinese PLA?

Amid re-escalating tensions with China, the Indian Army has deployed its first K-9 Vajra (Thunder) self-propelled howitzer regiment along the Ladakh border where it has been locked in a bitter standoff with the Chinese PLA for more than a year.

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The K-9 Vajra, which has its origins in South Korea, is capable of striking enemy targets within a radius of around 50 kilometers. Its ammunition range varies from 18 to 54 km.

The Indian K-9 VAJRA-T is the localized version of the South Korean self-propelled 155mm/52cal Howitzer (SPH) ‘K-9 Thunder’ designed and developed by the Agency for Defense Development and Samsung Aerospace Industries. The weapon system is now manufactured by Hanwha Defense.

Besides India, K-9 is used by six other nations — Turkey, Australia, Estonia, Norway, Finland, and Egypt.

K-9 Vajra Self-Propelled Howitzer

K-9 Vajra is basically a howitzer on wheels. It is outfitted with its own propulsion system to move towards its firing position and can be utilized for long-range shelling on enemy positions. 

North Korean artillery attack near misses K9 Thunder, igniting fire on charges placed outside of the vehicle during a training exercise – Wikipedia

K-9 Vajra or any other modern self-propelled artillery vehicles may outwardly resemble tanks however they are generally lightly-armored. They shield their operators against shrapnel and small arms and are usually included as armored fighting vehicles. Many are equipped with machine guns to counter enemy infantry.

The K-9’s crew is guarded by an all-welded steel armor which is believed to endure 14.5 mm armor-piercing rounds, 152 mm shell fragments, and anti-personnel mines, and has overall nuclear, biological, and chemical protection.

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The K9 has the ability to fire its shells in MRSI mode (Multiple Rounds Simultaneous Impact). In the MRSI mode, the K9 is able to fire three shells in under 15 seconds — 1 shell every 5 seconds — each in different trajectories so that all of the shells land at their target at the same time.

This is particularly effective in surprise bombardment tactics, especially against enemy fortifications and strongholds in the open.

It is also supplemented with an ammunition resupply vehicle, called the K-10. Built on the K9 platform, it shares the same chassis as K9, preserving K9’s mobility, and can follow the main artillery battery without lagging behind.

The Indian Army Chief had words of high praise for Vajra. He said, “These guns can also work in high-altitude areas, field trials were extremely successful. We have now added an entire regiment, this will be really helpful.”

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Experts Speak On K9 Vajra 

A former Director-General of Artillery told The EurAsian Times that the deployment of Vajra is a step in the right direction. Other military analysts echoed this view.

Major General Rana Goswami (Retd), who commanded the Indian Army’s 105 mm Light Field Gun regiment, said, “It is a very good Artillery 155-mm gun-howitzer system. It is self-propelled and would generally be utilized along with armored formations in war. Faster to deploy and being tracked, it has the same mobility as tanks. 

Indian K9 SPH at Ladakh during 2020–2021 China–India skirmishes

Major General VK Madhok (Retd), a veteran of the first course Joint Services Wing (JSW) described the K9 Vajra as a “highly effective piece of artillery which may prove to be a gamechanger!”

It is a highly versatile, and lethal system which complements the employment of artillery in high-altitude areas. The deployment of these howitzers is a major boost to our troops deployed there.

The barrage of fire the K9 Vajra can rain down on the enemy makes it a nightmare for the PLA! The Vajra’s presence will be felt and constantly prey on the adversary’s mind. It will alter the dynamics in our favor,” Maj. Gen. Madhok said.

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According to Military author and analyst, Colonel Rajinder Singh Kushwaha (Retd) — with a range of 50 kilometers and effectively covering choke points and Concentration cum assembly areas, it can deliver a death blow to the enemy.

Its computerized accuracy and lethality of ammunition would cause unacceptable damage to the attacker. The employment of three regiments along with Dhanush regiments is certainly a good display of firepower. It will rain death from the sky on enemy troops,” he said.

Some analysts have indicated that plans are being finalized to order at least two more regiments worth of the K9 155mm/52 caliber howitzers for deployment in high-altitude areas of the mountains. It is believed that the process to work out the cost criteria for the additional 40 K9 Vajras is underway. 

Marines M777 Howitzer Artillery - Free photo on Pixabay
The M777 Ultra-Light Howitzers. (via Twitter)

The Indian Army has already placed orders for the M777 lightweight howitzers for high altitudes. Compared to the K9 Vajra, the M777 lightweight howitzers can reach areas in mountainous terrain easily.

This is indicative that the K9 Vajra and the M777 are likely to complement each other and cover maximum ground and types of topography in the sensitive Ladakh region.

A Howitzer-Turned-Tank?

Former Director-General of Artillery, Lieutenant PR Shankar (Retd), proposed the conversion of the K9 Vajra into a tank.

There are basically two options. First, use the K 9 Vajra hull and build a light tank on it. The second option is to up-gun a BMP and convert it into a light tank. I have grave doubts whether anything beyond a 40 mm gun can be mounted on a BMP. A 40 mm gun will be inadequate for the task,” he wrote in an article.

We are left with only one option. Luckily it is credible. However, within this, we have two choices. We can design and build a tank using the Vajra Hull and mating it with a 105/120 mm gun and turret.

We might come out with a prototype in about two years. Carry out trials for another two years…negotiate and place orders.

The other option is to evolve into a light tank by down gunning the Vajra progressively in stages while increasing our combat power,” the former DG Arty opined. The induction of the K9 Vajra has been widely accepted by Indian military leaders as being a step in the right direction,” the General added. 

K9 Vajra – Major Drawbacks

While the Vajra can be deployed for firing in just one minute, it isn’t stable enough to be fired on the move like a tank. The system was extensively and successfully used by Turkish armed forces in Syria.

Turkey operates its T-155 Firtina, a locally manufactured version of the South Korean K-9 Thunder. The Firtinas are long-barreled 155 mm howitzers with a range of 30 to 40 kilometers depending on the ammunition.

T-155 Fırtına - Wikipedia
T-155 Fırtına – Wikipedia

The Firtinas were first deployed against PKK forces in Iraq in 2008. Later, they were used in the conflict in Syria. On April 30, 2016, ISIS released a video depicting AT-13 Metis-M anti-tank guided missiles knocking out three Firtinas.

“Like most self-propelled artillery, the Firtina’s armor is for stopping shrapnel and small arms, not guided missiles — leaving one to wonder why the vehicles were in such an exposed position in the first place,” Sebastien Roblin wrote in a piece for War Is Boring.

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Nevertheless, the K9 has seen harsh combat environments in the Middle East and the cold climate of Korea. It was made to operate in the rugged environment of the Demilitarized Zone with North Korea.

This system has been well received by the Indian Army, as part of its long-staggered artillery modernization process and increases its firepower multiple times with the gunners. 

Major General Rana Goswami also warned – It can be very useful in the terrain of Ladakh with its long around 50 km range and ability to fire in low (below 45 degrees) and high angle (higher than 45 degrees). It can be very effective in a hot war scenario but will need protection from drone attacks.

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