The joint UK-Germany programme to develop the Remote-Controlled Howitzer 155mm Wheeled Artillery Systems (RCH 155) mobile artillery platform for the British Army could be worth up to £3bn ($3.8bn), according to a senior UK Government official.

Announced at the end of April 2024, the decision to select the RCH 155 for the British Army’s Mobile Fires Platform (MFP) programme was something of a surprise, given the relative levels of development between it and the likely competition with the tracked South Korea K9 Thunder or wheeled Swedish Archer system.

On 13 May, UK Defence Procurement Minister James Cartlidge stated the joint UK-Germany programme for the RCH 155 was “potentially worth upwards of £3 billion” and marked “a step change towards a deeper industrial and wider defence relationship between the UK and Germany”.

This figure is significantly greater than the original budget for the MFP programme, which was expected to cost approximately £802m according to GlobalData’s ‘The UK Defense Market 2023-2028 report’.

The RCH 155 system has been developed by German defence prime KNDS and is based on the Boxer 8×8 wheeled vehicle, a type that has become widely operated by European militaries, including, recently, the UK.

With the RCH 155 platform relatively young in terms of development – it is currently not actively fielded by any active military force although the Bundeswehr began testing in February 2023 – the UK will be among the first adopters of the capability.

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Mobility has been an emphasis of the UK’s choice for the RCH, with an 8×8 wheeled option offering greater operational mobility compared to truck-based or tracked alternatives. Credit: KNDS

However, the UK will not be the first international export, with Ukraine in 2022 requesting Germany to supply 18 units of RCH 155, in a deal worth approximately €216m at the time. The systems are expected to be delivered to the armed forces of Ukraine in 2025.

Broken down, this equates to a per unit cost for Ukrainian RCH 155 of €12m, which if similar to any UK deal, would see the acquisition of 291 platforms for the British Army if based on the £3bn programme value, or 77 units if based on the earlier £802m expected programme cost. The larger value could refer to potential exports, although that too is unknown.

Taking the extreme ends of the budgets, the British Army could acquire anything from 77 to 291 RCH 155 artillery systems.

In the 1990s the British Army acquired 179 AS90s, the platform the RCH 155 will replace, at a time when the service was significantly larger.

Were the RCH 155 to also be acquired to replace the L118 105mm light gun also used by UK forces as part of the wider Future Soldier restructure and land mobility programmes, a sizeable multi-hundred acquisition would be needed.

In June 2023 it was disclosed that 19 June 2023 126 L118 105mm light guns were in service with the British Army.

It is unknown exactly when the RCH 155 will begin to enter service with the British Army, with a broad timeframe committing to provide a “minimum deployable capability… within this decade”, according to Cartlidge.

The assessment phase of the programme would “determine the best and most appropriate manufacturing approach” as well as “confirm the number of platforms required by the British Army,” Cartlidge said on 13 May.

Is there any AS90 155mm artillery left in the British Army?

Although the number of additional AS90 platforms being sent to Ukraine by the UK Government was initially undisclosed, on 29 April 2024, the UK Government stated it had provided a total of 50 AS90 self-propelled 155mm guns to Ukraine, an increase from the previously known figure of 32, indicating the latest provision could be for 18 platforms.

The dramatic fall in UK 155mm SPH numbers is stark, with the British Army receiving 179 AS90 platforms from 1992-1995. However, numbers have been steadily withdrawn, with the UK having 134 units in service in 2008, reducing to 117 by 2015, according to UK MoD figures.

Following the granting in kind of the new batch of a potential 18 AS90s to Ukraine, the British Army could be left with around 30 platforms remaining. However, it is unclear exactly how many AS90s remain in British Army service following the latest commitment of systems to Ukraine.

British Army AS90 155mm artillery platform on operation in Iraq in 2008. Credit: US DoD

Mark Francois, Conservative MP and member of the Defence Select Committee, stated on the House of Commons on 15 May that the UK had donated “all of our heavy artillery to Ukraine”.

Regardless, the UK’s ability to conduct artillery fires has been greatly reduced for a number of years, although a sticking plaster capability measure of 14 Archer 155mm artillery systems acquired from Sweden will reach initial operating capability by 31 October 2024.

The British Army does also operate the M270 multiple launch rocket system and is in the process of potentially doubling this fleet to around 80 vehicles.

Current artillery structure of the British Army

The structure and composition of the British Army is currently in a state of flux as a result of the ongoing Future Soldier initiative, which sees its units being re-modelled around formations known as Brigade Combat Teams (BCT), a term heavily laden with US influence. Once completed in 2025, the British Army will number 73,000 full-time personnel, the smallest for hundreds of years.

These “self-sufficient tactical formations” integrated a full range of combat capabilities, including artillery, UAS, cyber, air defence, engineers, signals, logistics support, as well as the main mechanised infantry or armour elements, the British Army states.

In the official Future Soldier structure outline, the British Army lists the BCTs to include 12 and 20 Armoured BCTs, the new Deep Recce Strike BCT, 7 Light Mech BCT and 4 Light BCT.

The 7th Light Mechanised BCT will incorporate the 4th Regiment Royal Artillery with a close support light artillery role (gaining an additional gun group) and the 105th Regiment Royal Artillery also providing close support light artillery (reserve) functions.

The 4th Light Brigade BCT will incorporate 103rd Regiment Royal Artillery, again, providing close support light artillery (reserve).

The L118 105mm could be replaced, with the vulnerability of static artillery batteries evident from combat seen in the Ukraine-Russia war. Credit: UK MoD/Crown copyright

However, the Deep Strike Recce BCT will feature a greater number of combat-orientated units, including the 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery providing armoured close support artillery, 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery providing deep fires (likely M270), the 19th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery roled as armoured close support artillery, the 26th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery in deep fires role, and the 104th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery under close support artillery (reserve).

Finally, 16 Air Assault BCT will feature 7 Para Regiment Royal Horse Artillery in the airborne close support artillery role.

This indicates nine artillery regiments in the British Army, broken down into 2 x Deep Fires (M270), 3 x light close support (L118 105mm/replacement), 2 x close support artillery (possibly RCH 155 and/or Archer), and 2 x armoured close support (AS90 replacement, the RCH 155).

This structure as outlined under Future Soldier was created prior to the selection of the RCH 155, with the British Army appearing to lose its armoured close support, potentially providing for 4 x close support artillery in any new structure.