All Guns Blazing

Nexter Systems make a strong case for Caesar Mounted Gun System

A FORCE Report

Canjuers Military Camp, Provence, France: For those used to Indian cantonments, French Army’s Canjuers Military Camp looks more like a hill resort. Sprawled across low hills and verdant valleys, made even more lush by unseasonal rain and mist, the over 300sqkm camp conforms to local architectural designs and shrubbery. No limestone and red brick powder-lined roads, no overarching peripheral security, no gates with check-points and no discreetly-placed rifle-toting soldiers, that you catch from the corner of your eyes. Driving uphill from Draguignan, there’s nothing to suggest when one leaves the civil area and enters the military domain, except of course a signpost. One may just as well be going for a picnic on grassy slopes.

Caesar Guns

But not only is this picturesque resort a military establishment, it is one of the largest such camps in Europe. Canjuers is the heart of French Army. This is where it trains its men, takes delivery of new equipment, carry out trials as well as demonstration firing. As one of the major suppliers to the French Army, Nexter System — the producer of guns, ammunition and infantry combat vehicles — often makes use of the sprawling Canjuers landscape for showing off its products to potential customers. As an annual tradition, Nexter brings together existing and potential customers once a year to Canjuers to show the firing of Caesar Mounted Gun System. Also invited are French Army veterans as a mark of filial solidarity. Often, Nexter invites the potential customers to participate in the firing of the Caesar system, both for fun and familiarisation. A certification of sorts is then issued to them recognising their participation.

This year, coinciding with the commercial delegation, Nexter invited a select group of international journalists on a pre-Eurosatory familiarisation tour. With 155mm/52 Calibre Caesar firing as the piece de resistance, the tour started with the Canjuers Military Camp, even though the weather threatened to spoil the firing demonstration. Furious rain had lashed the camp the previous day, pouring well into the night. The morning of May 21 didn’t hold much hope of a different weather. Dark clouds had welled up fairly early and by the time the entourage reached the firing range, a light drizzle had started. However, braving rain and dark clouds, the Nexter-invited group, accompanied by the veterans, dutifully assembled to view indirect firing of Caesar, which will gradually become the standard artillery for the French Army, replacing the current 155 AUF 1 and 155TRF1.

For the demonstration, four Caesar MGS drove up to the firing position to simultaneously fire charge two at low angle. As smoke went up after the fire, the guns quickly changed position firing another round before moving again. The idea was to display the tactical mobility of the system which weighs less than 17 tons in a battlefield and has the speed of 80kmph.

Developed through the late 1990s by the erstwhile GIAT Industries (it was reorganised into Nexter in 2006 by shedding excessive flab) to the specifications of the French artillery, Caesar was first put to test in 2003, when five units were given to the French Army for trials. Following the successful trials, the French Army placed the order for 72 guns in late 2004. Deliveries started in 2008. Within a couple of years, the French deployed the air-transportable guns in Afghanistan and Lebanon. The international exposure also brought along customers. While Saudi Arabia and Thailand have already bought the guns, India could be the next customer. So far Nexter has received the order for 215 units of Caesar, of which it has already delivered 180. However, if the Indian Army chooses to buy the French gun, its order will be the biggest so far for Nexter, more than that of the French Army as well. Apparently, Indian artillery is looking for about 800 numbers. Under the 2015-2020 Programming Law of the French Army, a second series of 64 Caesar MGS will be bought, taking the total to 136.

A lot of soldiers participating in the demonstration at Canjuers had recently returned from Afghanistan, where the French claim that the gun has been a huge success; a claim that should be taken lightly, given that the enemy there has no artillery. However, since it was a joint industry-military demonstration, it was only in fitness of things that the military has its say too. A sergeant who was overseeing the firing spoke to FORCE briefly about his experience with the gun. Having earlier operated other guns, he said, “Caesar is very user-friendly; it is easy and safe to operate.” The sergeant had recently returned from Afghanistan. “There we mainly fired illumination rounds,” he said, adding on a serious note, “But firing in the presence of journalists is more challenging.”

And why should that be? The sergeant shuffled his rain-soaked feet and looked uncertain. Clearly, soldiers the world over are the same. They fearlessly go charging at the enemy, but are reduced to nervous wrecks in the presence of the media. Performance pressure?

The second demonstration of the day was to testify the accuracy of the weapon system. For this, the entourage drove further up to a vantage point at the altitude of 1,000m above sea level to see the target. Even as the drizzle turned more furious, a cloak of mist descended upon the valley substantially reducing the visibility. Several rounds were fired, starting with an illumination one. All the shots hit the same target one after the other. “This shows the consistency and accuracy of Caesar,” said one Nexter official. The demonstrations were capped by two rounds of fire by Bonus ammunition. Developed by Nexter, Bonus is smart ammunition. Not only it increases the range of fire to nearly 55km (the standard French Army ammunition LU211 gives the range of 38km) it also enhances its accuracy. The round spins over the target for a few seconds, picking it up from the clutter before hitting it. While one could not see the spinning round through rain and mist, a Nexter official said that on a clear day it is possible to see the round before it hits the target.

However, even without smart munitions, Caesar, which carries 18 complete rounds onboard, boasts of accuracy, primarily because of its central navigation unit and a ballistic computer, which while giving self-reliance to the system, can also be interfaced with any C4I. In the French Army, it is fully integrated into the ‘Atlas’ Fire Control System, firing at the rate of six rounds per minute. Without Bonus also, Caesar gives the range of 42km with ERFB (extended range full bore) munition, making it a tempting platform for in-depth firing. Adaptable to various operational constraints and usage doctrines, Caesar offers a number of options including ballistic protection up to Stanag 4569 level 3 and a muzzle velocity radar.

The final demonstration was direct firing for which the group was driven to yet another location within Canjuers. While in indirect firing one sees either the gun or the target hence feels a bit removed from action, direct firing puts one right in the middle of the scene, a bit like a tennis match. You look right and left; see the gun fire and then the target going up in flames. It also conveys much more strongly the power of the weapon system.

However, power was not the only thing that Nexter wanted to communicate through these demonstrations. It was the versatility and adaptability of the weapon that the company wants to convey to potential customers, with India being the most prized one because of the sheer size of the deal. For the French Army, Caesar is mounted on two different chassis; the earlier guns are on the AUF1 platform and the newer ones are integrated on Renault Trucks Defence’s Sherpa 6×6. Nexter is also integrating the guns on Soframe’s 6×6 chassis (Mercedes-Unimog base) and will showcase these two configurations at the Eurosatory 2012 show in Paris in June.

Talking to FORCE over dinner, executive vice president, artillery department, Nexter Systems, Gilles Sarreau said, “Contrary to what people think, Caesar is a very versatile system, so much so that the customers can tailor its cost according to their requirements.” With India on his mind, he said, “The gun is designed in such way that it can be integrated on any platform.” In India, he said that the company is currently exploring three options. While the first one would be to let its joint venture partner L&T take the lead, the other options include a direct secondary partnership with some Indian truck manufacturers (Tata or Ashok Leyland) or letting Renault work with an Indian partner, as it has already supplied some trucks, Sherpa Lite, to the Indian Army. “By the time the RFP for the mounted system comes out, we would have down-selected two options,” said Sarreau raising a toast to future cooperation with India.