This represents a second successful sale of PLZ-45s to the Middle East, following an earlier sale to Kuwait. In 2000 China exported 54 of the self-propelled guns to Kuwait, sufficient to arm two battalions.
This latest batch of PLZ-45s is primarily to be used for testing purposes, according to the industry source. Once the Saudi military determines that the weapons meet its needs, it likely will import more of the howitzers.
However, the United States has voiced objections to the Saudis' procurement of Chinese-made howitzers, the source said.
Kuwait also faced immense pressure from the United States when it decided to import PLZ-45s from China. The publisher of a military journal in Kuwait told the author during a meeting in Abu Dhabi the reason Kuwait chose to purchase the PLZ-45s was the weapons compared well with similar systems available from the West, including the U.S.-made M109A3 howitzer. The guns performed satisfactorily in live-fire tests, he said, and China's price could not be beat.
This is the first time for the Saudi Arabian army to purchase Chinese-made weapons. Riyadh also has expressed keen interest in the Pakistani-made A1-Khalid main battle tank, or MBT-2000. Pakistan plans to send the tank directly to Saudi Arabia for an in-kind exhibition.
The PLZ-45 fires three types of munitions -- ERFB/HE, ERFB-BB/HE and ERFB-BB/RA/HE projectiles, which have respective firing ranges of 18, 24 and 30 miles.
In addition, China has introduced Russian Krasnopol 155mm gun-launched laser-guided munitions, under license from Russia.
The Kuwaiti military observer told the author the Kuwaiti army is not deliberating over whether it needs to import Chinese-made guided munitions. He said the army has received a price offer on munitions from Chinese weapons supplier Norinco and a technical introduction of the system.
So far, the United Arab Emirates is the only country that has imported the Chinese version of the Krasnopol, which the Chinese call the GP1. The PLZ-45s to be exported to Saudi Arabia do not include GP1 projectiles.
Another source from the military industry says the People's Liberation Army is already using the latest Chinese Type 05 52x 155mm self-propelled gun, but there is currently no plan to export this weapon to overseas markets. The reason is that the Chinese system is still technologically inferior to the NATO 155mm gun.
The PLZ-45 system already has attained the NATO standard, however, and is thus capable of firing all types of munitions. It fires four to five rounds per minute, and a full load is 30 rounds.
Several international military observers have voiced the opinion that the Type 05 52x 155mm self-propelled gun currently in use by the PLA is extremely similar to the Russian 2S19 serial 155mm SPG. When asked about this, the designer of the PLZ-45 says such speculation is groundless and not true.
"China developed its 155mm SPG much earlier than Russia, and the PLZ-45 was exported to overseas countries as early as 2000. There is no similar system in Russia comparable to the Chinese-made 155mm SPG," he insisted.
(Andrei Chang is editor in chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, registered in Toronto.)