Online Chinese military propaganda is now so widespread it’s hard to imagine what it doesn’t reveal. Photos released on the defence ministry’s news website showed the 80th Group Army’s artillery during a live-fire exercise somewhere in northern China. The “Group Army” is best understood as a corps-sized formation (50,000-70,000 strong) that operates autonomously from within a specific theatre. To the best of the Pentagon’s knowledge, China’s PLA has 13 Group Armies spread over five commands–north-south, east, west, and central–encompassing the whole country. Except for the Group Army tasked with attacking Taiwan, the rest of the PLA’s Group Armies are equipped for territorial defence.
The photo above shows a new rocket artillery system in use with the 80th Group Army. Its layout indicates it’s a generational upgrade of Type 81 multiple rocket launcher that’s analogous to the Soviet vintage BM-21 Grad which is recognized as the most widely used medium-range self-propelled rocket artillery system in the world today. The only difference between the Type 81 and BM-21 is their transporter; the Chinese-made analogue has a double cab truck while the Grad has the familiar single cab GAZ truck. The PLA’s fondness for rocket artillery meant Type 81 was produced in large numbers–it’s estimated 550 remain in service until the present–and the launcher for its 122mm rockets were repurposed for the Type 89 tracked rocket artillery system and the Type 90 rocket artillery system. The latter featured an elongated bed over its 6×6 chassis for carrying a rack of additional munitions to quicken reloading. This made it similar to the Czech RM-70 and the West German LARS-2.
The successor of Type 81 that we see now is called the “SR4” that entered production in the 2010s until its export-approved sibling the SR5 was rolled out. The SR4 carries an improved launcher for its 122mm munitions. This time the rocket tubes are arranged in cells or modules of 20 rocket tubes each making them easier to reload. The cab is also lightly armoured as protection from fragments, debris, and the backblast of the munitions. The range and accuracy of 122mm rockets have evolved at an astonishing rate since the 1960s and now reach as far as 52 kilometres with or without cluster munitions–this is superior to self-propelled and towed howitzers by a significant margin. The standard range of Grad rockets, however, is from 18 to 20 kilometres. Based on figures published in the IISS The Military Balance the PLA maintains 550 Type 81 rocket launchers and 375 Type 89 rocket launchers. The reader should be aware these are the same weapon systems except the Type 89 is a tracked vehicle. Of course, the estimated figures may not reflect the true number of the PLA’s rocket artillery.
It’s believed the SR4’s began entering service from 2013 onward and a few hundred are now deployed with the PLA. Their cousins are the tracked PZH-10 (sometimes called the “PZH-11”) that carry the same launchers for 122mm rockets. It’s unclear if the SR4 is available for export since the Type 90 and the SR5 are China’s offerings to countries that need medium-range rocket artillery. Besides Russia, only a few Asian countries manufacture their own 122mm rocket launchers and munitions: China, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Republic of Georgia’s state-owned armaments factory assembles an armoured 6×6 truck mounting a 40-tube Grad launcher. However, the production of the 122mm munitions needed by these rocket launchers is more widespread. India, Indonesia, Israel, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and Turkey have all acquired the means to mass-produce them. Iraq used to have the means but production is now dormant.
Chinese and Russian 122mm rocket launchers have proliferated throughout Asia and at least 31 regional militaries possess either in some variant. Locally developed rocket artillery systems are also thriving.