Army in a Rush to Produce New Cannon

By Stew Magnuson

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Future Combat Systems program wants to give the Army a gift on its 233rd birthday this year: a working prototype for its non-line-of-sight cannon.

The often maligned FCS program plans to unveil the first functioning 155 mm howitzer wedded onto a common chassis June 14 at the service’s birthday ball in Washington, D.C.

Four additional vehicles will be delivered by the end of this year, said Mark Signorelli, NLOS-C program manager at lead contractor BAE Systems.

BAE announced last year it will build a 150,000 square-foot production facility for the NLOS-C in Elgin, Okla., which is scheduled to open in early 2009.

The cannon is the vanguard in a series of eight vehicles that will be placed on a common FCS chassis.

Program managers have said that the cannon will provide lessons on how to meld the other systems with the vehicles, which include a non-line-of-sight mortar, a mounted combat system, and platforms designed to carry infantry, perform reconnaissance and surveillance, maintenance, medical missions, and command and control operations.

“We’re going to be way out in front of the rest of the FCS program in terms of production,” Signorelli told National Defense. Plans call for 18 cannons to be produced from 2010 to 2012. FCS officials said the goal is to roll out other technologies in the next several years, but most of the larger vehicles will probably not be fielded until the middle of the next decade.

Part of the reason for the cannon’s relatively fast production schedule is its unique status in the program.

The cannon is seen as the follow-on to the Crusader mobile artillery program, which was cancelled in 2002 after the Army sunk $2 billion into the project. The service still needed a modern version of the 1960s-era Paladin self-propelled howitzer, which is still in use today. Congress has a separate funding line for the cannon portion of the NLOS-C system, but the common chassis comes out of the FCS budget.

While the cannon enjoys solid backing from its congressional sponsors — particularly the Oklahoma delegation — the Army has been forced to play defense for the rest of FCS on Capitol Hill during every budget cycle dating back to 2004. About $1 billion has been slashed from its budget through the 2008 cycle. Four of its unmanned systems have been eliminated altogether due to budget constraints.

Some members of Congress and the Government Accountability Office have pointed to several potential sticking points to the overall FCS program. Most notably the large amount of new software that must be designed to properly network the vehicles and communications systems. A recent GAO report warned that there are potential pitfalls to producing the cannon five years ahead of the other FCS systems.

“Significant challenges involving integrating the technologies, software and design will follow,” the GAO said. “Costly rework of the cannon may be necessary.”

It is also questionable whether the Army needs a new mobile cannon, when there are few remaining scenarios where two armies square off on conventional battlefields.

Signorelli said that the NLOS-C separate funding stream only pays for the cannon’s development, not the chassis, network software or any FCS unique items. “We are dependent on the NLOS cannon funding and the FCS funding to be able to deliver the cannon,” he said.

“You would think that as far along and mature as we are with the cannon, we might get treated differently if something happens to FCS. But that’s speculation,” Signorelli added.

BAE owes some of this maturity to bits and pieces of the Crusader system and other cannon programs that it has integrated into NLOS-C. Among them are the automatic loading system that will allow rounds to be placed in the breach without soldiers having to do the heavy lifting.

Meanwhile, the cannon has undergone a series of reliability tests. As of late February, it had been shot 1,700 times. One cannon has been firing rounds until failure in order to collect data on the service lifetime, Signorelli said.

BAE has built two simulators at its Minneapolis facility to assist with the reliability test. One is a “vibration table” that mimics what it would be like to drive the vehicle over rough terrain.

“You can actually put terrain tracks in the computer and simulate driving at Aberdeen Proving Ground, for example,” said Ryan May, BAE’s Army programs marketing manager.

Another simulator mimics the shock of the cannon by firing a hammer-like device. Signorelli said the tests have identified several failures, and these have been addressed and corrected. The goal is to simulate the planned 20-year service life of the cannon, which would be about 15,000 miles and 5,000 rounds fired through the tube.

“The cannon we deliver this summer will have already gone through one cycle of reliability testing. And the earlier you find those reliability failures, the better you are,” Signorelli said.

The prototype to be delivered in June won’t be an exact model of what is being called for in the FCS requirements. There will be surrogate parts in place. Items such as the headlights are borrowed from the Bradley fighting vehicle. The video displays the operators will use to drive are also stopgaps. They will have the same look and feel as what will eventually be placed in the crew cab, he said.

Getting the propulsion, electronics, and band tracks right for the prototype were the more important objectives, Signorelli said.

It will not have the required armoring, but it will be ballasted for an operational weight of 27 tons, he added.

Weight continues to be a concern for both the NLOS-C and other FCS vehicles. Original plans called for the vehicles to come in at 20 tons, which would have allowed them to be transported on C-130s. That plan has been abandoned and most vehicles are now at 27 tons, meaning they must now be taken on larger C-17s, which cannot land on all runways.

Signorelli said 27.4 tons is the absolute limit to fit three fully loaded NLOS-Cs onto a C-17. Any more than that, and only two would fit, thus eroding further an FCS brigade’s mobility.

There are ongoing discussions with the Army on the final weight for the cannon. Armoring is the key issue, he said.

“We could see protection levels increase which would drive the weight up,” he added.

Topics: Advanced Weapons

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