Hedgehog Armor Saves Ukraine’s German-Built Super Howitzer From Russian Kamikaze Drone

Images disseminated on social media in November from the frontlines of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine show damage to a German-built Panzerhaubitze 2000 (PzH 2000) self-propelled howitzer system delivered to the Ukrainian military. Relatively limited damage that is.

The photos, apparently dated November 9, reveal blast damage that has scored and penetrated the howitzer’s rifled 155-millimeter gun barrel in a few places. But the front hull underneath appears to have been spared, possibly thanks to a protective matting densely covered in 60-millimeter rubber rods called igelpanzerung—literally “hedgehog armor.”

While the rods at the blast’s center have been obliterated and the matting penetrated, the armor underneath, though damaged, visibly remains unpenetrated, leaving crew and internal systems unharmed. The PzH 2000 will require some repairs but will likely be back in service soon.

The attack is likely, but not confirmed, to have come from a Russian Lancet-3 kamikaze drone which can mount either a high-explosive or shaped charge anti-tank (HEAT) warhead weighing 6.6-11 pounds (see more below). Considering the PzH 2000’s layout, it appears the munition detonated above/against the gun barrel, projecting the blast downwards into the hull.

This is the first PzH 2000 confirmed damaged by enemy fire. Ukraine has received at least 14 PzH 2000s donated from Germany, eight from the Netherlands and six from Italy. Kyiv furthermore plans to buy 100 more from manufacturer KMW using 1.7 billion euros in donated security assistance funding, but those will require time to build.

As I wrote in this earlier in-depth profile, the PzH-2000 is Germany’s heavy, “gold-plated” take on the armored, tracked self-propelled howitzer—not only benefiting from a highly sophisticated autoloading and rapid-firing precision strike capabilities, but also built with a much greater degree of protection than most comparable systems. The resulting vehicle is powerful, heavy and expensive (€17 million each.)

In this case the ‘gold-plating’—or the optional, add-on rubber hedgehog matting as it were—may have paid off. Top armor is near-universally thin and relatively vulnerable on armored vehicles, an Achille’s heel increasingly exploited both by hi-tech anti-tank missiles and artillery shells—but also, with surprising effectiveness, by cheap commercial drones dropping anti-tank grenades.

Most such anti-tank weapons use shaped-charge HEAT warheads that discharge an explosively-formed penetrating jet on impact. Such munitions don’t depend on kinetic energy to blast through armor.

Though convenient, HEAT warheads have a variety of effective counters such as bricks of explosive reactive armor and fancy composite passive armor. But these solutions are usually reserved for heavy main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.

Igelpanzerung is, in theory, a cheaper method that can be applied to a vehicle that isn’t ordinarily exposed to direct fire from tank guns or anti-tank missiles. Instead, it’s meant to protect against artillery cluster shells that release dozens of bomblets/grenades, each with its own small HEAT warhead.

The rubber rods disrupt the formation of the penetrating jet, either stopping it or setting askew the angle (see schematic below), diffusing the warhead’s energy enough so that even relatively thin armor underneath has a chance of withstanding it.

The PzH 2000 can be fitted with up to 75 panels of hedgehog armor which can be applied in the field. The add-on protection may come at significant cost in weight, with optional top armor reportedly adding 9.5 short tons. Germany’s Puma infantry fighting vehicle can also optionally mount hedgehog armor.

Formidable but flawed

With a maximum range of 42 miles, Ukraine’s PzH 2000s are considered to be one of the deadliest and most precise artillery systems delivered by NATO allies, alongside the French CAESAR howitzer truck, Slovakian Zuzana 2 and Polish Krab system. They have seen extensive combat, including notably during Ukraine’s successful Kharkiv counteroffensive.

However, the PzH 2000s have exhibited faster wear than anticipated under the extremely intense usage conditions in Ukraine. According to Der Spiegel, they were built for fire rates not expected to exceed 100 shells per day, while Ukrainian PzH 2000s sometimes discharge up to 300 shells in 24 hours. This rapidly stresses their fully automated loading systems and gun barrels, triggering maintenance-needed sensors.

As a result, one-third or more of Ukraine’s PzH 2000s are out of service undergoing repairs at any given time. A center established in Lithuania began making repairs in September, with the first Panzerhaubitze returning to Ukraine from there October 14.

Compounding matters, Germany’s defense ministry failed to heed repeated warning it hadn’t procured enough spare parts to support intense combat use, forcing the temporary cannibalization of one Ukrainian PzH 2000 in Lithuania to allow five others to return to service. Berlin is now belatedly scrambling to order additional spare parts and building a repair hub in Slovakia (which borders Ukraine) to speed up servicing and rotation back into the field.

The Lancet-3 Menace

Russia has used these camera-equipped loitering munitions to hunt Ukraine’s elusive Western-supplied precision artillery units deep behind the frontline. Though carrying a smaller warhead than the much cheaper Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 drone, the missile-like Lancet-3 can search for and destroy moving targets, making it far more useful for tactical strikes.

Color video recordings both from the point-of-view of the suicide drone, and from the perspective of ‘buddy’ surveillance drones, show Lancet-3s slamming into Ukrainian artillery and air defense vehicles, including over a dozen U.S.-supplied M777 towed howitzers and a valuable French-supplied CAESAR howitzer.

The Lancet-3’s warhead is heavier than the preceding Lancet 1 and KUB BLA kamikaze drones, the latter of which appears to have been less effective and accurate when used earlier during Russia’s invasion. The only comfort for Ukrainian troops is that it still doesn’t appear powerful enough to guarantee destruction of targeted vehicles, and towed howitzer crews often appear to hear the incoming drone and run away before it hits. Ukraine has also successfully diverted many Lancet strikes to hit wooden decoy vehicles.

Nonetheless, Lancet-3s have taken a considerable toll, and appear responsible for the majority of accurate strikes on Western-supplied 155-millimeter artillery deep behind Ukrainian lines.

As of November 27, the Oryx blog visually documents the destruction to all causes of 19 M777 towed howitzers, three Polish-built Krabs, two M109A3GNs supplied by Denmark, and a Slovakian Zuzana 2. ditionally, the damaged PzH 2000 joins one French CAESAR system, three M109A3GNs and one Krab seen to have been damaged but not destroyed.

Of course, there is a confirmation bias factor to consider: a kamikaze munition which systematically records its own attack footage is liable to produce more videos of confirmed hits than other methods. Release of Lancet footage may also be timed according to propaganda factors, such as to divert attention from Russia’s reliance on Iranian drones for strategic attacks.

While Hedgehog armor won’t stop a tank shell or direct hit from a larger smart munition, it still may help against smaller drone-borne threats including both self-destroying loitering munitions and grenade-dropping commercial quadcopters. That may grow important as these become more pervasive on the battlefield. Furthermore, the modular nature of the armor means it can be installed on the frontline when/where warranted, rather than adding systematically to the base system’s weight and logistical burdens.

In the 2000s, the U.S. military had to scramble to deploy mine-resistant vehicles (MRAPs) in response to widespread use of IEDs by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gives Western militaries reason to think ahead about cost-efficient methods for protecting vehicles and their crews from proliferating threats from above.

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