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Argentina Cold War

Vehículo de Combate Artillería (VCA)

Argentina Argentina (1983-present)
Self Propelled Artillery – 20 Built

The Vehículo de Combate Artillería (VCA) is an elongated Tanque Argentino Mediano (TAM) chassis that carries a large OTO Melara turret housing a powerful 155 mm gun. This has allowed the Ejército Argentino (Eng: Argentinian Army) to have its heaviest artillery piece on a mobile and tested platform that is able to cover the vast areas of terrain in the potentially conflictive southern tip of the country.

Context – Lessons from War

The late ’70s and early ’80s were a period of great international instability for Argentina. In 1978, Argentina’s long-standing border dispute with Chile over the strategic Picton, Lennox, and Nueva islands off the southern tip of the continent almost got violent. An eleventh-hour papal mediation halted Operation Soberanía, the Argentinian invasion of Chile, in its tracks. Four years later, in 1982, Argentinian forces landed on the Falkland Island/Las Islas Malvinas to claim them from the British. After a short war, The British ejected the Argentine forces from the islands.

The area of operations for both confrontations was the southern part of the country, a large, flat sparsely populated area. Border disputes with Chile would not be fully solved for another decade and the ultimate goal of successive Argentinian governments was to take over Las Malvinas. Argentina had found that it lacked the capacity to transport large-caliber weaponry over such long distances. Argentina did have some vehicles capable of playing this role: a small number of AMX-13-based Canon de 155 mm Mle F3 Automoteur, but these were in limited numbers and were very limited due to their small size. The solution would be to put such heavy weaponry on a mobile platform. With the introduction of the TAM and VCTP in the early ’80s, it seemed that the platform would be available if adapted.

A Canon de 155 mm Mle F3 Automoteur in Argentinian service – Sigal Fogliani, p. 47
The Tanque Argentino Mediano – source: Cicalesi & Rivas, p. 27

Development

The exact details behind the VCA’s development are unclear. According to Mazarrasa (La Familia Acorazada TAM), in 1983, Tanque Argentino Mediano Sociedad del Estado (TAMSE), the company which had been set up in March 1980 to coordinate the development and assembly of the TAM program, began thinking about adapting a TAM to mount a heavy 155 mm gun. A first prototype appeared in 1984, but delays meant that an initial serial production for 25 vehicles would not begin until 1990.

Cicalesi and Rivas (TAM) on the other hand, propose that the VCA’s development began as an offshoot of the abandoned Tanque Argentino Pesado (TAP) project. The TAP was to be a heavier version of the TAM with a stretched chassis and a 120 mm gun. Once the TAP project was canceled, the elongated chassis was used on the VCA instead. Cicalesi and Rivas also suggest that the VCA was not presented to the public until July 9th, 1989, when a prototype took part in a military parade to celebrate the nation’s independence day. According to these authors, only 20 vehicles were built.

Assembly took place at the TAMSE facilities in Boulogne sur Mer. It is worth noting that some early sources refer to it as VCCñ, or Vehículo de Combate Cañón.

The TAP, according to Cicalesi and Rivas, the starting point for the VCA – Cicalesi & Rivas, p. 11
The first public appearance of the VCA, Buenos Aires, July 9th, 1989. Note that this first vehicle had a sand camouflage scheme not adopted in service – Cicalesi & Rivas, p. 47
A recently assembled VCA in the TAMSE facilities in Boulogne sur Mer – source: Sigal Fogliani, p. 113

Design

External Appearance and Armor

The most distinguishable aspect of the VCA in respect to the TAM is its large size. Whereas the TAM’s chassis is 6.75 m long, the VCA was elongated by 860 mm to take the larger turret, gun and ammunition. As with the TAM it was based on, and by extension, the Marder 1, the frontal plate is at a pronounced 75º angle and the sides and rear plates are positioned at 32º. At the front of the tank, on each side, are headlights. Behind these, also on each side, are wing mirrors.

The VCA’s armor is made out of electrically welded nickel-chromium-molybdenum steel. The front plate is 50 mm thick and the sides and rear 35 mm.

As with all vehicles of the TAM family, the VCA is equipped with an NBC protection system allowing the crew to operate in a contaminated area for up to 8 hours, although they cannot fire without losing NBC protection. The NBC system feeds the main and driver’s compartment with filtered air that can absorb solid or gaseous elements from poisonous or radioactive substances. The vehicle is able to operate in very harsh temperatures, from as low as -35ºC to as high as 42ºC. There is also an automatic fire extinguishing system that can be triggered from the interior or exterior.

Turret

One of the biggest changes for the VCA was the much larger turret, which could hold a 155 mm gun. The turret was of the Palmaria type developed by the Italian company OTO-Melara. A private venture purely for export, OTO-Melara began development of the turret in 1977 to mount on the OF-40 platform. Argentina took delivery of the last of 25 Palmaria turrets in 1986. The turret is made of duralumin of an unspecified thickness and weighs 12 tonnes. The turret’s drives are hydraulic with manual backup and are operated by a Siemens System 300S Programmable logic controller (PLC).

On the top-right of the turret is a circular hatch for the commander with eight episcopes and a machine gun mount. The top-left side has the gun optics. The left side of the turret has a large hatch/door which opens backward, whereas, on the opposite side, a smaller door/hatch opens to the front. These hatches/doors serve as entrances/exits for the VCA’s crew. Behind the smaller door, there is a rectangular hatch that serves to load the VCA’s ammunition. At the rear, there is a smoke evacuator and two baskets to carry the crew’s equipment. On each side of the frontal cheeks of the turret are a set of 4 Wegman 77 mm smoke launchers.

The large OTO-Melara Palmaria turret during tests in Italy – source: Mazarrasa, p. 46

Armament and Gun Optics

The main armament on the VCA is the 155 mm howitzer also developed by OTO-Melara. The gun has a monobloc tube with a double-baffle muzzle brake and a fume extractor. The gun depression is -5º and the elevation +70º, whilst it can fire 360º horizontally in a fully rotatable turret.

Ammunition capacity consists of 28 shells, 23 of which are in the rear part of the turret and 5 in the hull according to Mazarresa, or 30 shells, 23 in the turret and 7 in the hull according to Cicalesi and Rivas, and are of a variety of NATO-standard types produced by Simmel Difesa:

Name P-3 P-3BB P-3RAP
Type High Explosive High Explosive hollow-base High Explosive Rocket Assisted Projectile
Explosive charge 11.7 kg Over 11.7 kg 8 kg
Total Weight 43.2 kg Over 43.2 kg ?
Range 24 km 24.6 km 30 km
Name P-4 ILUM P-5
Type Illumination Smoke
Operating Inside the shell is a flare ‘package’ which burns for 65 seconds descending at 5 m/s with a non-flammable parachute illumination and 1,600 diameter circle Inside the shell are four smoke canisters weighing 7.9 kg each which burn for 2.5 minutes providing a smokescreen 200 m long, 50 m wide, 10-15 m deep at a distance of 150 m from the point of impact

According to Cicalesi and Rivas, Argentina has developed its own rounds of ammunition, too.

Most sources do not mention the automatic loader originally designed by OTO-Melara being retained on the VCA. Four rounds per minute can be fired, but the sustained rate of fire is just one per minute. However, Sigal Fogliani does mention an automatic loading system with three modes: a round every 15 seconds for 3 minutes; 1 round a minute for an hour; and 1 round every 3 minutes. He also notes a round every 30 seconds for when the process is done manually.

The 155 mm howitzer is aimed using an Aeritalia P170 thermal sight with two settings (x1 and x8 magnification) or an Aeritalia P164 during nighttime. To correctly establish the angle to fire, a Aeritalia P186 goniometer with one setting (x4) is used.

Secondary armament consists of a 7.62 mm FN MAG 60-40 machine gun placed on the commander’s cupola at the top of the turret. The 7.62 × 51 NATO-standard bullets the machine guns fire have a muzzle velocity of 840 m/sec and a firing range of around 1,200 m. Additional weaponry for the crew includes their personal weapons and 8 hand grenades.

The VCA, Argentina’s heaviest armored vehicle – source: Cicalesi & Rivas, p. 45

Suspension and Undercarriage

The VCA had a modified suspension to that of the TAM. Two torsion bars were added, totaling fourteen for the suspension with seven rubber-tired paired road wheels and four return rollers on each side. All except for the fourth road wheel station have hydraulic shock dampers which were also features present on the Marder 1, the vehicle the TAM was based on. On the VCA, they have the important role of absorbing the VCA’s firing recoil force of 55 tonnes.

The tracks are of a Vickers system, each track consisting of 102 links with rubber tank treads. These can be substituted by snow cleats if required.

A VCA crosses an M4T6 pontoon bridge during a training operation in Patagonia – Cicalesi & Rivas, p. 46

Interior

The interior of the VCA is divided into two main sections, with the frontal section being further sub-divided into two sub-sections. The bigger of these sub-sections, occupying ⅔ of the space, houses the engine, whilst the smaller one is for the driver and driving mechanisms to the left. There is a hatch above the driver’s position and three episcopes, and the whole section of the frontal hull covering the engine can be opened for engine maintenance.

The central and rear sections contain the fighting compartment and the turret where the other four crew members are: the commander, sat in a foldable chair to the right of the gun breech; the gunner, in the same position as the commander but to the left; and two loaders sat behind the commander and gunner.

The rear of the vehicle has a door for the crew to enter and exit and resupply the vehicle. In the hull, there is an auxiliary engine which provides energy for the turret’s rotation and the gun, meaning the VCA can fire even if its main engine is off or non-operational.

Communications are by means of VHF SEL SEM-180 and SEM-190 systems, and a SEL SEM-170 receiver.

Engine and Performance

The engine on the VCA is the German-built MTU MB 833 Ka 500 diesel engine. This six-cylinder engine is rated at 537 kilowatts (720 hp) at 2,200-2,400 revolutions per minute. This engine is used on all TAM family vehicles, with a power-to-weight ratio of 13.3 kilowatts per tonne of 18 hp per tonne.

The engine is kept cool by two ventilators at its rear powered by a 33 hp engine of their own.

The gearbox on the VCA is the HSWL 204 automatic planetary gearbox with torque converter and four forward/four reverse gear ratios. The first three are epicyclic gear trains (also known as planetary gears) and the fourth is a clutch disc.

The maximum road speed is 55 km/h forwards and backward. Off-road or cross-country speed is limited to 40 km/h. The maximum range is limited to 520 km, but it can be increased by 350 km with additional 200-liter fuel tanks, though these are hardly ever used. The fuel capacity inside the tank is 873 liters, more than in other TAM family vehicles, and the fuel consumption is 1.7 liters per km.

Among other performance indicators, the VCA can overcome 60% gradients, 30% side slopes, 1 m tall obstacles, and cross 2.9 m wide trenches. When it comes to fording, it is capable of fording 1.5 m-deep waters without preparation, increased to 2 m with preparation.

Despite the fact it has more fuel capacity than other TAM vehicles, the VCA still needs some help getting places. Pictured, a VCA being carried by an Iveco Euro Trakker truck – source: Cicalesi & Rivas, p. 46

Organization

The VCAs of the Ejército Argentino equip two units of the armored artillery groups, the Grupo de Artillería Blindado 9 and the Grupo de Artillería Blindado 11 «Coronel Juan Bautista Thorne». GA Bl 9 is based in Chubut province in the middle of the Patagonian plateau, whilst GA Bl 11 is based in the town of Comandante Luis Piedrabuena, Santa Cruz province, the southernmost point of Patagonia. Each GA consists of two batteries of 4 VCAs. Additionally, each battery has a Vehículo de Combate Centro Director de Tiro (VCCDT) to command operations at battery level, whilst there is a single Vehículo de Combate Centro Director de Fuego (VCCDF) per GA to command the operations of the whole group. Originally, the plan was to equip each battery with 4 VCAmun to carry and supply the VCA with ammunition. However, after 2 VCAmuns entered service in 2002, no more of these vehicles have been built. Thus, the VCAs are supplied by modified M548A1s.

A battery of the Grupo de Artillería Blindado 11 «Coronel Juan Bautista Thorne», showing 4 VCAs, a VCCDT and a VCCDF – source: Cicalesi & Rivas, p. 44


Two photos showing a VCA being resupplied from a VCAmun during a training exercise. Note the open hatch in the picture to the right – source: Cicalesi & Rivas, pp. 44 and 48

Service

After a long development process, the VCA was first presented to the public in a military parade celebrating Argentina’s independence day on July 9th, 1989. Serial production took some time, and in May 1997, the first of 20 VCAs equipped their designated armored artillery groups stationed in the southern part of Argentina. They have not been engaged in any action since they were brought into service.

Two VCAs operating in the vast open Patagonian meseta – source: Cicalesi & Rivas, p. 45

Modernization

Despite only entering service in 1997, the VCA has already been subject to some modifications. In November 2014, a single VCA of the GA Bl 11 was modernized with a more advanced gun optic. In October 2016, 18 VCAs were transferred to Boulogne sur Mer, the former headquarters of TAMSE, for more widespread modifications. The older turret hydraulic drive was replaced with a Siemens System 300S PLC and a new LCD Touch Screen replaced the older touch sensors.

Conclusion

The VCA has proved to be a successful development for the Argentinian forces, far surpassing the older Canon de 155 mm Mle F3 Automoteur in range and self-sufficiency. It is unlikely that enough will be built to fully equip the remaining armored artillery groups of the Ejército Argentino, but they will undoubtedly continue in service for many decades, providing Argentina with a match to the M109s of its most important regional rivals, Brazil and Chile.

Illustration of the VCA number EA 437290 call sign “SUIPACHA” by Pablo Javier Gomez

Sources

Anon., Desarrollo y Defensa, Concluyeron los trabajos de modernización en los primeros VCA Palmaria, (28 October 2016) [accessed 24/04/2020] Anon., GRUPO DE ARTILLERIA BLINDADO 9 RESEÑA HISTORICA [sic], (17 May 2008)  [accessed 24/04/2020] Anon., Grupo de Artillería Blindado 11 “Coronel Juan Bautista Thorne” Reseña Histórica de la Unidad, (23 May 2016) [accessed 24/04/2020] Javier de Mazarrasa, La Familia Acorazada TAM (Valladolid: Quirón Ediciones, 1996)
Juan Carlos Cicalesi & Santiago Rivas, TAM The Argentine Tanque Argentino Mediano – History, Technology, Variants (Erlangen: Tankograd Publishing, 2012)
Luís María Maíz, “Nuevos Integrantes de la Familia TAM”, Revista Defensa, No. 74 (June 1984)
Marcelo Javier Rivera, El Tanque Argentino Mediano – TAM, Universidad Federal de Juiz de Fora, 2008
Ricardo Sigal Fagliani, Blindados Argentinos de Uruguay y Paraguay (Ayer y Hoy Ediciones, 1997)

Specifications

Dimensions 7.69 without gun x 3.29 x 2.85 m
Total weight, battle ready 40 tonnes
Crew 5 (commander, driver, 2 x loader and gunner)
Propulsion MTU-MB 833 Ka-500 6-cyl diesel, 720 hp
Speed 55 km/h
Operational range 520 km
Primary Armament 155 mm OTO-Malera howitzer
Secondary Armament 7.62 mm NATO FN MAG 60-40
Armor Front hull – 50 mm
Side hull – 35 mm
Rear hull – 35 mm
Turret – Aluminium

One reply on “Vehículo de Combate Artillería (VCA)”

Pretty light for a SPG, but I have soft spot for TAM.

Vehicle has varying degrees of protection as it is made out of TAM hull which was not heavily modified. It has a lot more protection on a hull than turret. Any protection it might have against artillery splinters or smaller caliber guns is negated by a big weakspot in place of a turret. This uneven level of protection makes vehicle heavier than other alternatives and in turn makes it inherently more expensive. It requires bigger engine, bigger engine is more thirsty, you need more fuel inside of SPG, etc. At the same time, this armor on a vehicle in practice does very little. They needed to reduce protection on a hull and to create a stronger turret out of weight savings. There is a reason of why other Western SPG systems have low levels of protection, but it is all around, even and are designed to reliably protect against specific kinds of danger.

The real tragedy is that due to Argentinian financial situation there weren’t any more than 20 of those vehicles produced. It is a fine SPG for Argentina. Being native design it means that those millions of euros spent on military hardware never leaves the country, instead it creates jobs inside the country. I would had expected low level production and modernization of SPG and other TAM vehicles to be continuous as both USA and Russia/USSR knew the impact arms industry has on local job market and were always prioritized giving contracts away to manufacturers to produce military hardware even if it is not needed. It also keeps production lines open which enables nation to potentially export vehicle abroad or to easily ramp up production without incurring heavy financial penalties of starting new lines from scratch. 20 VCA vehicles are way too few SPGs produced and it barely makes it worth the effort to design their own SPG, but I guess it is a lot better than some nations where politicians would refuse to release funding for weapon programs who were developed for a decade, just because they do not fancy prioritizing military needs anymore. Looking at you France and your ELC series of light tanks.

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