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GC-45

155 mm towed gun-howitzer

GC-45 howitzer

The innovative GC-45 howitzer influenced numerous subsequent towed artillery designs, and has quite a colorful history on its own

 
 
Country of origin Canada
Entered service 1977
Crew 6 men
Armament
Gun bore 155 mm
Barrel length 45 calibers
Projectile weight 43 - 48 kg
Maximum range of fire (HE) 17.8 km
Maximum range of fire (EFRB) 29.9 km
Maximum range of fire (EFRB-BB) 39.6 km
Maximum rate of fire 5 rpm
Sustained rate of fire 25 rpm
Elevation range - 5 to + 72 degrees
Traverse range 70 degrees
Dimensions and weight
Weight 8.22 t
Length (in travelling order) ~ 7 m
Length (in combat order) 10.82 m
Width (in travelling order) 2.5 m
Width (in combat order) 10.36 m
Auxiliary power unit (optional)
Engine Porsche 2.3-liter petrol
Engine power 120 hp
Maximum road speed 30 km/h
Maximum cross-country speed ~ 15 km/h
Range (on roads) 130 km
Mobility
Towing vehicle 6x6 truck
Road towing speed 90 km/h
Cross-country towing speed ~ 45 km/h
Emplacement 1.5 minutes
Displacement 1.5 minutes

 

   Originally a product of the Space Research Corporation, the GC-45 ("Gun, Canada, 45 calibers") is a towed howitzer designed by the renowned artillery designer, the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) Canadian scientist and artillery engineer Dr. Gerard Bull. It has served in the armed forces of several nations since the late 1980s, and its design has influenced many artillery pieces developed since it first took shape in the mid-1970s. Its story is one of science, genius, innovation, and entrepreneurship... but also one of intrigue, unethical business practices, and ultimately the death of its creator.

   Even before designing the GC-45, Dr. Bull already had an outstanding reputation as an artillery engineer, and had worked with the US and Canadian governments on a variety of different programs involving artillery. His magnum opus (no pun intended) being the development of what remains the most powerful electromagnetic gun ever created under the mid-1960s Project HARP. The monolithic artillery piece built for HARP was able to launch 180 kg projectiles at up to 2100 m/sec, and even threw some into sub-orbital space, proving Dr. Bull's point that a gun could be used for projecting heavy payloads over great distances and into space just as easily as a rocket. The highest altitude achieved by HARP was 180 km --- a record which still stands today.

   Gerard Bull had also agitated the US and Canadian armed forces to develop guns of greatly increased range, citing a vast gulf between the range and quantity of artillery in NATO and the Warsaw Pact. However, the Department of Defense had no interest in Dr. Gerald Bull's proposals, and his arguments went ignored. His attitude was best summed up by his famous statement that "The US Army doesn't design guns to fight wars, it designs guns to make money". Fed-up with the inaction of the NATO governments, Dr. Bull opted to work outside the system to develop artillery based on his concepts, and founded the Space Research Corporation (SRC) for that purpose. His main work with SRC was to develop Extended Range, Full Bore (EFRB) ammunition, which had a much longer range than typical howitzer ammunition, thanks to improved aerodynamics (via a more tapered and sharply-pointed nose and a longer casing). Later integrated into SRC's ammunition research was the addition of "base bleed" aerodynamics, which had recently been quantified by the Swedish National Defence Research Institute. In addition, efforts were made to develop a gun with a much longer range than most artillery pieces in service at the time, even when firing conventional ammunition, whose end result by the 1970s was the CG-45. First artillery systems were completed in 1977.

   Unsurprisingly, the GC-45 drew little interest from any NATO countries; the idea of a 155 mm gun with such attributes was too far outside the comfort zone of most Western militaries at the time. It did however draw the attention of the South African government, which wanted to use it to modernize their artillery inventory. There was an arms embargo on South Africa at the time, due to their Apartheid policy, but the CIA ultimately talked Dr. Bull and SRC into the deal, and promised that it would stay secret. Beginning in 1977, SRC supplied South Africa with an unpublished number of GC-45s, and more than $30 million in ammunition (undoubtedly including ERFB and/or ERFB-BB rounds), all of which were transferred through Spain (which essentially "laundered" this ordnance, as Spain was not bound by the arms embargo). At this time, SRC also signed a contract with Thailand to supply them with 12 GC-45s. As SRC lacked an assembly line capability to produce weapons or ammunition in quantity, they contracted Poudres Reunies de Belgue in Belgium to produce the ammunition, and the Noricum division of the Voest-Alpine company in Austria to mass-produce the GC-45.

   The sale to South Africa also set the stage for the first of three catastrophes for the GC-45 program (to say nothing of Dr. Gerald Bull and SRC). By November of 1980, the US government's attitude toward SRC's business practices had taken an about-face, and Dr. Bull was arrested by U.S. Customs agents. However, the investigation into the arms deals was never completed, and was terminated by orders later revealed to originate from the White House, as the US government quickly realized that if the CIA's involvement in these dealings reached the courtroom, the result could be political dynamite for countless US and Canadian government officials. It did not however prevent Dr. Bull from ultimately being convicted (despite the shady circumstances of the investigation), though he ended up serving only 6 months in prison.

   The conviction was ultimately disastrous for all parties. It was strong enough to anger Dr. Gerard Bull into leaving North America, but weak enough that it not only failed to serve as a deterrent to future illicit arms sales, also accidentally emphasized US government that was involved in the same criminal act. Dr. Bull vowed never to set foot in North America again, and moved to Belgium. He also took his company with him, causing Canada and the US to lose what they had only just realized was an extremely valuable resource. SRC re-branded itself as SRC International after moving its operations to Belgium, and continued to develop artillery, including the FGH-155, a new generation of the GC-45. In 1981, marketing and production rights for the basic CG-45 were sold entirely to Noricum, who began advertising an upgraded version of the design as the GHN-45 ("Gun-Howitzer, Noricum, 45 calibers"). Production of the GHN-45 commenced in Austria in 1979. Soon after, Noricum sold licenses to companies in Israel and China, to produce their own copies of the GHN-45.

   During the 1980s, Noricum also produced some 500-600 GHN-45s, most of which were sold to undisclosed customers in the Middle East. There was also a $300 Million deal arranged by Dr. Gerard Bull, for the sale of 110 GHN-45s and 41 000 rounds (which was soon after expanded to include 200 guns). However, that sale was made during an arms embargo on Iraq, and in order to skirt UN sanctions, Noricum transferred the weapons to Iraq through other nations, including Libya and Jordan, which were not involved in the embargo. This resulted in the second catastrophe during the GC-45's production; the Austrian government supported the embargo, and when it came to light that Noricum violated it, action against that company was swift. At least 18 high-ranking employees of Noricum were arrested in 1989, along with a number of complicit Austrian government officials, in what soon became known as the "Noricum Affair". The legal proceedings were the largest trial in Austria since the end of World War 2, and resulted in all of these people receiving prison sentences by 1993. In fact, it had even came to light that Noricum was selling GHN-45s to both Iraq *and* Iran in the late 1980s --- at the same time!

   Though for all of Noricum's efforts at skirting international law, their sales weren't very profitable. After becoming an independent entity in 1989 as Maschinenfabrik Liezen AG, they were sold to Austrian industrialist Emmerich Assmann in October of that year... for only 1 Austrian Schilling. Production of the GHN-45 reportedly stopped in 1990. The Assmann Group went bankrupt only 4 years later (the Noricum Affair was probably a factor) and the former Noricum firm was re-sold to the Haider Group. It is still owned by the Haider Group to this day, but now focuses their efforts on civilian applications. It appears they have left the artillery business, which in light of their background is probably for the better.

   In the mean time, SRC International had been developing a second-generation CG-45, the FGH-155. It had numerous radical design improvements over the CG-45, including a 30% reduction in the number of parts used, but its development was never completed due to a third catastrophe, which sealed the fate of the GC-45 lineage. Dr. Gerard Bull had volunteered to help Iraq develop a gun of unprecedented range and power under "Project Babylon", which had apparently infuriated the wrong people. Before the "supergun" could be completed, Dr. Bull was gunned-down on his doorstep on March 20th 1990 by three men armed with 7.65 mm pistols. He was pronounced dead when the police arrived, and to this day, the identity, whereabouts and affiliation of the assassins have never been determined. Some have suggested that Dr. Bull may have been murdered by agents of the US government, Iranian, or Israeli governments, all of whom had strong motives to ensure that Iraq didn't complete the Project Babylon weapon. The most likely party was the Mossad, as they not only had the motive, but also the means, and the political connections to give their agents a very literal "license to kill". The Mossad was also caught distributing misleading information to the media immediately after Dr. Bull's death, creating a false narrative that Iraq was the perpetrator.

   Though regardless of who killed Dr. Gerald Bull, the FGH-155 program died with him. SRC International attempted to continue development and marketing of the new weapon on their own, but these efforts ultimately foundered, and both the FGH-155 program and SRC International itself were both dissolved by the mid-1990s.

   The GC-45 is quickly identifiable by a very long gun tube, a carriage fitted with 4 rubber tire wheels, and a long split trail with wheeled casters and spades at the end opposite the carriage. It is most often seen in its travelling position, with the gun traversed directly rear and resting atop an aft bracket, the trails locked together, and the casters extended to the sides. It is towed by a hitch on the tip of the trails, but models fitted with an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) are sometimes driven by gun crewmen riding atop the front of the carriage (see further below for details). The APU is also installed into the carriage in an overhanging front cab, which is absent on some versions; this can make identification of the GC-45 difficult, as it means that this one weapon has two alternate appearances. Many other towed artillery pieces have most or all of these attributes as well, so the GC-45 is very easily mistaken for other weapons in its class.

   The GC-45 has a split-trail carriage with steel space-frame trails, with storage boxes mounted on the sides, and tipped with folding spades and an A-frame gun support bracket. The 4-wheel carriage has a walking beam suspension, allowing the GC-45 to be towed on roads at speeds of up to 90 km/h. The pivoting action of the walking beam also gives the weapon excellent cross-country mobility. A screw jack and float system is mounted under the carriage, allowing as few as one crew member to jack the gun in 90 seconds. Releasing the ball jack allows the gun to settle on the undercarriage wheels. During the set-up or take-down phases, the trails can be spread to an extra-wide angle, to allow the gun to be more safely traversed through 360 degrees by the crew. The spades are pivoted, allowing for four positions in order to ease the handling of the heavier components of the weapon. The trail lifting assemblies are fitted with rubber tires, and may be raised or lowered using handwheels.

   The ordnance of the GC-45 is a conventional "bull barrel", with a very gradual and almost indiscernible taper from the chamber to the muzzle, and a cylindrical muzzle brake with three rectangular baffles. Two hydropneumatic struts alongside the breechblock assembly provide the support needed to elevate and depress the gun tube, and also partially absorb the recoil when the weapon is fired. Two hydropneumatic recoil absorbers are built into the breechblock assembly, one above the chamber and one below.

   The carriage and other components are made of high-allow steel, while the barrel is made of high-yield steel with an autofrettaged construction.

   GC-45s and GHN-45s were manufactured in versions both with and without an APU, according to the customer's requirements. On the vehicles with an APU, it was a Porsche 236 6.9 four-cylinder, four-cycle, air-cooled 2.3-litre petrol engine, producing 120 hp. It is installed in a fairing carried atop the front of the carriage, with two small round headlamps. The driver is seated atop the assembly on the right side, with an optional position for a passenger opposite the driver on the left side. In addition to providing electricity and power to traverse the gun tube, the APU also doubles as a propulsion system, allowing the CG-45 to be driven as a simple motor vehicle. Two 30-liter fuel tanks are fitted with the APU, allowing for a road range of up to 130 km. Top speed on a prepared road surface is 30 km/h, and the weapon can climb a 40% gradient at up to 5 km/h. The walking beam suspension also gives the GC-45 good off-road mobility when propelled by its APU, but it obviously will not be able to attain a full 30 km/h without a road. The main value of propulsion by the APU is the ability for the crew to rapidly position the weapons once delivered near the firing position by a prime mover, and to rapidly displace the weapons between alternate firing positions without the awkward and time-consuming process of using vehicles to tow them everywhere (an important consideration when trying to stay one step ahead of counter-battery artillery fire).

   Another interesting addition to the APU is an optional device that allows it to be connected to and synchronized with the engine in a 6x6 truck (or other prime mover), effectively combining the vehicle and the GC-45 into a single 10x10 vehicle for maximum traction. Other options for the APU version of the GC-45 include powered traversal, continuous tracks for the wheels to increase traction and decrease ground pressure, an emergency ready ammunition bracket with a capacity for up to 6 155 mm projectiles, and also an automated ammunition-handling system.

   The breech is opened by an automatic cam when the tube returns to battery, and is closed when the cam is disengaged. Ammunition is loaded using a semi-automatic telescoping pneumatic rammer, which is rotated for loading at high elevations. The pneumatic charge bottle is removable and rechargeable, and can be immediately replaced with a fully-charged example in the field as needed. A loading tray is located at the rear of the cradle, and elevates and depresses with the barrel assembly; it can also be swung-away. The breech has a conventional screw with an interrupted thread, and the chamber has a 22.94 m3 capacity. The tube is 7.72 m long (including the breech and muzzle brake), with 5.83 m of conventional groove-and-land rifling with 48 grooves and a 1/20 right-hand twist.

   Though the range of the GC-45 when firing standard projectiles and propellant charges is the same as any 39-caliber 155 mm gun (for example, 24 700 m with the M107 HE round and the N10 charge), its range is significantly greater when using ERFB ammunition. The basic ERFB round, when fired using the N10, has a range of 30 300 m --- this is the same as rocket-assisted ammunition fired from a 155 mm/L39 weapon, except that the ERFB has no rocket booster. The ERFB-BB round on the other hand has an exceptional 39 600 m range when fired with the same N10 charge (and again, this is *not* a rocket-assisted projectile). Also made for the GC-45 are smoke, white phosphorus, and illumination ERFB-BB rounds with the same ballistic performance, in addition to the basic high-explosive (HE) round.

   The GC-45 has been widely overlooked since its first combat use in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but a more careful analysis shows that for several reasons, the Coalition was exceptionally lucky. First, the terrain in the combat areas was predominately flat, open, and barren, making effective concealment and/or camouflage extremely difficult to acquire (compared to, for example, typical terrain in Central Europe or Southeast Asia). Second, the Iraqi government had essentially purged the ranks of the Iraqi Army's combat veterans from the Iran-Iraq War, transferring a handful of those most supportive of the Baath Party into the Republican Guard, and firing the rest, effectively forfeiting all of their military's amassed competence with artillery; US soldiers noted in Operation Desert Storm that Iraqi artillery would fire single rounds (not bombardments) at single positions, miss by miles, then attempt to correct and end up dropping shells even farther off-target. Third, the Iraqi Army had made the fatal error of using their artillery tractors to deliver towed artillery to fixed positions, and then immediately withdrew all of these tractors northward, leaving Iraqi towed artillery crews without any ability to relocate. There is little doubt that the outcome would have been any different, if the Iraqis had any other artillery pieces.

   From these factors and the known performance of the GC-45, it is clear that the damage it caused in 1991 could have been vastly greater, especially considering that few Coalition nations had 155 mm artillery pieces with 45-caliber tubes (even as of 2016, the US military has still never operated a 155 mm weapon with a tube longer than 39 calibers, and they have shown little interest in such a weapon). Experiences with US troops under fire by M-46s in the Vietnam War and South African Defense Force (SADF) troops being outgunned by M-46s and BM-30s in the 1970s give some indication of how much damage the GC-45 could have done, especially in light of the fact that South Africa selected it as the design basis of what would become the G-5 howitzer (speaking of which, Iraq had many G-5s as well).

   The remaining Iraqi GC-45s have also recently been refurbished and returned to service, for use against ISIL forces. It has yet to be seen as to whether these weapons this will have any noticeable effect in the ongoing civil war in that country.

   Nations known to have operated GC-45s, GHN-45s, and other licensed copies include China, Iraq (over 200 guns, making this nation the largest customer), Iran (120 guns), Kuwait, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Thailand (72 guns), and South Africa. Interestingly, despite the weapon's designation as "Gun, Canada, 45 calibers", the Canadian military never operated any.

   Only South Africa and Thailand ever acquired original SRC-built GC-45s. Only 18 were purchased by Thailand, while the number delivered to South Africa is unclear (as is the capacity they were used in). The only certainty is that it never achieved widespread service with the SADF, having been quickly superseded in development by the G-5 (a descendant of the GC-45 design). Spain also acquired three GC-45s for testing and evaluation, but ultimately never expanded on that order. Thailand later acquired a second order of at least 60 GHN-45s.

   The CG-45 was also produced under license by NORINCO in China as the PLL-01, and Soltam in Israel as the Soltam 845P, and are used by the armed forces of these nations. Other sources claim that Singapore's FH-88 is based on the GC-45, but given that the former has a 39-caliber barrel and a 4-wheel carriage, this is implausible. Kuwait's GC-45s may be PLL-01s, given their later decision to purchase China's PLZ-45 self-propelled howitzer, which is armed with the same gun tube.

   In addition to GHN-45s, Iraq also purchased a number of FGH-203s (a 203 mm evolution of the GC-45), which armed the Al-Fao self-propelled howitzer.

   The unit cost of the GC-45 has been estimated by Forecast International to be US$607 200 (though this estimate was made in 2002, so the weapon's cost has probably increased due to inflation), but it is no longer produced or offered.

   While the GC-45 is already fading into history, its legacy is still unfolding today. The glut of 152 mm and 155 mm artillery on the market today with barrels of 45 calibers, 52 calibers, and more were almost all either derived from, inspired by, or influenced by this artillery piece, as are the many artillery shells of exceptional range that are now in the headlines. Even after all artillery in service today has long-since been put out to pasture, the designs of the weapons that are likely replace them will all have been affected by the work of a maverick engineer in the late 1960s, which all the world's militaries had once dismissed as trivial.

   It may return to production in the future however, as a company in India has recently purchased production rights, and developed an improved model with a 52-caliber tube.

 

Variants

 

   GC-45: Original model, produced in Canada by SRC. Very few were manufactured, and due to SRC lacking an assembly line at the time, each gun was hand-made to order.

   GHN-45: Licensed Austrian copy, made by Noricum. These were the first mass-produced GC-45s. They have a number of modifications over the GC-45, and very closely resemble the South African G-5 howitzer (which is also a derivative of the GC-45; see below).

   PLL-01: Licensed Chinese copy, made by NORINCO. It is also called the Type 89 and WA021.

   AH1: Improved PLL-01, manufactured in China by NORINCO. Reportedly, the AH1 is in service with Ethiopia. There is also a 52-caliber version named the AH2.

   SH1: Chinese self-propelled howitzer made by NORINCO, consisting of an armored and reinforced WS5252 6x6 truck carrying the ordnance of the AH2 howitzer. The SH1 is operated by Myanmar, Pakistan, and possibly other nations.

   Soltam 845P: Licensed Israeli copy, made by Soltam.

   G-5: South African 155 mm/L45 gun-howitzer based on the design formula of the GC-45, but with extensive modifications. There are also versions with a longer 52-caliber tube.

   G-6: South African self-propelled howitzer vehicle, armed with the same ordnance as the G-5.

   Bharat-52: Licensed Indian copy of the GHN-45, with a new and longer 52-caliber tube.

   FGH-155: Radically improved version of the GC-45, with 30% less parts, a modular charge system with a cool-burning propellant, and many other new features. Unfortunately, Dr. Gerard Bull was murdered before development could be completed, and the rest of his team gradually abandoned the project. This weapon did not enter production.

   ST-155/45: Designation for a license-built Spanish variant of the FGH-155. However, despite further attempts by the would-be manufacturer, the death of Dr. Bull sealed this weapon's fate, and none were built. Currently the Spanish Army is using a locally-produced 155mm/L52 howitzers, that are similar in concept to the ST-155/45.

   FGH-203: 203 mm version of the FGH-155. The only operator was Iraq, who mounted this weapon on the Al-Fao self-propelled howitzer vehicle.

   Al-Fao: Iraqi self-propelled howitzer vehicle, with the ordnance of the FGH-203 mounted in a vehicle based on that of the G-5 self-propelled howitzer. Its weapon is often rated as having a bore of 210 mm.

   Unnamed Brazilian self-propelled howitzer: The ordnance of the GHN-45 was planned to be used in a self-propelled howitzer variant of the Engesa EE-T1 Osorio main battle tank, but Engesa went out of business in the early 1990s, and Noricum abandoned GHN-45 production several years later. Not even the design of this vehicle was finalized, let alone any prototypes built.

 

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