S. Africa’s 155-Millimeter Weapon Scores Top Marks From Experts


There is nothing quite like it on the market. It costs about a million dollars, comes in a handy package and outshoots most if not all of its rivals.

For the South African manufacturer, Armscor, the role of the 155-millimeter gun on both sides in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War has added credibility to its claim--emblazoned across full-page advertisements in international defense magazines--to provide customers with fully combat-tested equipment.

“The G-5 has an extremely strong design,” said Henry Dodds of Defense Marketing Services, in London. “Using extended-range, full-bore ammunition the G-5 has a range of 39 kilometers (24 miles)--better than anything else around.”

The Soviet equivalent, the D-20, has a range of 15 miles, while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s FH-70 can reach out to 20 miles.


Artillery has long played a special role on the battlefield.

Keeping Foe Off Balance

While infantry seize and hold ground and armored forces maneuver to deliver the decisive blow, the big guns keep an opponent off balance, pin him down and commit his forces to battle before he is ready to fight.

“If you’ve been under artillery fire, you’ll know how disconcerting it is, especially in the open,” said one soldier. “Even if you are well dug-in, it’ll bring tears to your eyes.”


For Iraqi as well as Iranian troops, analysts said, firepower was crucial in breaking up enemy forces as they moved in to attack. One specialist said so much ammunition was used that the bore in many artillery barrels wore thin.

The G-5 is more durable than most, and also very accurate.

“It’s exceptional,” said Christopher Foss, military editor of Jane’s Defense Weekly. “At high elevation, it can fire a shell 40 kilometers (25 miles). By using base bleed ammunition--in which a little powder is burnt in the base of the projectile as it leaves the barrel--the shell is steadier on its way to the target.”

The South Africans, unlike their competitors, offer a package that includes the gun, a tractor to give it mobility and a fire control system.

Ammunition Is Available

Armscor will also provide the extended range ammunition.

Iraq is believed to have had the G-5 for at least three years, using it together with 200 French 155 millimeter howitzers as the backbone of its artillery regiments.

Iraq fields 3,500 guns and heavy mortars to Iran’s 1,000.


Both Iran and Iraq acquired large numbers of the Austrian GHN-45 gun, one of the G-5’s several ancestors. But analysts say that Baghdad was not entirely happy with it, and approached South Africa for 155-millimeter ammunition. The G-5 soon followed.

“I don’t see any difficulty in Iran or Iraq trading with South Africa,” said Dodds. “The South Africans want oil, and the Iranians and Iraqis needed artillery.”

Pretoria is reported to have used worked-out mine shafts to store oil as a strategic reserve after imposition of an international oil embargo.

Some analysts believe that South Africa may have received rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles in part payment. In turn the Soviet-designed weapons and ammunition may have been supplied to South African-backed guerrillas opposing government forces in Angola and Mozambique, they believe.

Gun’s Evolution

For South Africa’s generals, the G-5 evolved from a need to match the firepower of Angolan forces.

“South African forces found themselves outgunned in 1975 by Angolans using Soviet artillery,” Dodds said.

Armscor took a sophisticated approach, welding together the best designs available in Europe, North America and Israel, along with its own modifications, to produce the G-5.


It was a model lesson in breaking arms sanctions and building up South Africa’s own arms industry.

The genealogy of the howitzer can be traced back to Canadian aerodynamic research and Jerry Bull, a scientist said by analysts to be one of the greats in artillery design.

Bull worked for the Canadian Defense Ministry from 1950 to 1961, working on artillery and guided weapons.

He left, he said by telephone from his present base in Western Europe, in protest against Canadian cut-backs, particularly in aerospace and the cancellation of the supersonic Avro Arrow project.

‘Strong Exception’

The nuclear era was well under way, and for Bull this was no time to be reducing spending on aerospace. “I took strong exception,” he says. “It was a disaster.”