The German government has given arms-maker Krauss-Maffei Wegmann GmbH & Co. the green light to manufacture a hundred PzH-2000 self-propelled howitzers for the Ukrainian army as part of a $1.7-billion deal.
The tracked, 56-ton PzH-2000 with its 155-millimeter gun—18 of which Ukraine already has received from German and Dutch stocks—is one of the best howitzers in the world.
It’s even better when paired with a radar that can direct its fire at the enemy’s own artillery. As it happens, the Germans also are giving the Ukrainians at least one copy of their best ‘counterbattery’ radar. The truck-mounted Cobra.
There are several ways to aim artillery. You can put forward observers on the ground and radio in target coordinates then call in corrections as the rounds start falling. You also can direct fire from a manned aircraft or drone. Both the Ukrainian and Russian armies make good use of these methods of fire-control.
But for artillery barrages targeting other artillery, the classic methods might be too slow or too dangerous. In an explosive artillery duel, every second counts.
It’s for that reason that the world’s leading armies field purpose-built counterbattery radars. The idea is for the radar to detect enemy artillery fire and swiftly trace the shells back to their point of origin, so that your own guns can shoot back before the enemy battery picks up and moves.
Counterbattery is critical in Ukraine, where both the Russian and Ukrainian armies heavily rely on artillery. Destroy the enemy’s big guns, and you can prevent him conducting any offensive operations.
The Russian army has spent decades developing a sophisticated counterbattery process that, in theory, can send shells raining down on an enemy battery within seconds of that battery opening fire.
Counterbattery radars mounted on tracked vehicles arguably are the key to this system working, when it works at all. Russian army counterbattery seems totally to have broken down during the army’s doomed assault on Kyiv in northern Ukraine in the early weeks of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine beginning in late February.
That one failure doesn’t negate the idea of counterbattery. The Ukrainian army has been keen to develop its own counterbattery system, but with the latest Western radars in place of aging ex-Soviet gear.
The United States already has donated to Ukraine 30 of its own counterbattery radars. But the $50-million Cobra—a co-development of French firm Thales, Airbus and Lockheed Martin in the USA—might be the best counterbattery Ukraine could hope to acquire.
It’s a mobile, self-contained and highly automated system combining a 3D radar with a three-ton truck operated by three people. The radar with its 270-degree field of view can detect incoming shells as far as 60 miles away and relay their origin to compatible howitzers via radio datalink.
It should go without saying that the PzH-2000 is compatible.
Cobra not only is fast and accurate, it also fixes its own errors. In addition to tracking incoming enemy fire, the radar also can track friendly rounds flying toward enemy guns, register their impacts and automatically relay to the friendly battery corrections in order to walk the shots onto the targets.
So it’s a big deal that Ukraine is getting a bunch of PzH-2000s. It’s a bigger deal that the Ukrainian army is pairing these howitzers with a Cobra radar that makes the howitzers so much more accurate against Russian artillery.
Berlin pledged the Cobra back in May. That first radar could arrive soon—if it hasn’t already.