SPECIAL REPORT: The 24 Programs the Army Promised to Expedite: Part One — Fires, Long-Range and Short
Lockheed Martin rendering
In October 2021 then Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville vowed to put 24 key technologies “in the hands of soldiers” by the end of fiscal year 2023.
Now that the deadline has passed, National Defense in this special report looks at each of the 24 technologies and assigns them a letter grade based on how close the Army got to fielding the systems.
Part one looks at missiles and guns, both large and small.
But first: How the 24 Programs Were Graded
How the 24 Programs Were Graded
In the spirit of this being an “Army report card,” National Defense decided to assign each of the programs a letter grade based on how far the program progressed by the end of fiscal year 2023.
Former Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville declared in 2021 the Army would put 24 key technologies “in the hands of soldiers” by the end of fiscal year 2023. In a speech a year later, McConville’s operative words were “fielding” and “testing.”
All three of these are imprecise terms in the world of military acquisitions. “In the hands of soldiers” could mean “soldier touchpoints,” where operators are asked to test and evaluate prototypes. That could happen as early as the requirements writing process — as was the case for the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle many years before it went into production.
“Fielding” and “testing” are also vague terms.
McConville’s overall message during the two speeches was that the Army has turned a corner on speeding up its acquisitions, and the new technologies it had been investing in will soon be helping the Army transform as it faces future challenges.
A soldier trying out a prototype at some point during the acquisition process before fiscal year 2023 would not have been a bold declaration.
There are also new terms — “functional” or “operational prototypes” — that muddy the picture. Officials say these could be used if a shooting war were to break out. But questions remain as to whether they could be quickly manufactured at scale to support soldiers in the field.
In that spirit, to earn an A+, the program’s technology needs to be “in the hands of enough soldiers” to where it could make an impact if the Army were asked to go to war on Oct. 1, 2023.
Here is a description of National Defense’s grading system:
A-plus — Initial operational capability or first unit fielded.
A — Test and evaluation phase completed. Army awaiting results, or contractor implementing fixes.
A-minus — Contractor has delivered items to Army/undergoing test-and-evaluation phase.
B-plus — Contractor is close to delivering first items for test and evaluation.
B — Contractor is working on delivering capability.
B-minus — Army recently has issued contract award.
C-plus — Contractors have submitted proposals/awaiting award announcement.
C — Army evaluating potential technologies after soldiers have provided feedback/request for proposals issued.
C-minus — Prototypes “in the hands of soldiers” for evaluation/feedback to inform requirements or RFPs.
D — Army still writing requirements/returning to drawing board after acquired technology has failed to perform.
F — No discernable progress developing the technology.
Those familiar with the traditional acquisition system may note that the As roughly correspond to what is called Milestone C, the Bs, Milestone B and the Cs, Milestone A.
However, assigning a grade is not that simple as the Army is making full use of nontraditional acquisition processes, such as Other Transaction Authority, which allow it to go from competitive prototyping directly to a production contract.
And as noted before, “touchpoints” where soldiers are brought in to evaluate a technology and provide feedback can happen in different phases of the acquisition process.
Meanwhile, we gratefully acknowledge the Breaking Defense website for first publishing the list of 24 technologies.
A final note: The editor in chief assigned the letter grades based on the reporters’ findings and after conferring with the managing editor. The final decision on the grade was the editor in chief’s alone, and criticism, feedback and general disagreements should be directed his way. — Stew Magnuson
PRECISION STRIKE MISSILE
The U.S. military’s pivot to the Indo-Pacific has left the Army looking for weapon systems that can operate at longer distances. One such system is the Precision Strike Missile, which the service envisions delivering conventional munitions as far as 500 kilometers.
The surface-to-surface ballistic missile replaces the Army Tactical Missile System, which has a range of about 300 kilometers and has been in service since 1991.
The new missile’s “range of over 500 kilometers meets the Army’s number one modernization priority regarding long-range and deep-strike capability,” said a statement from the Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space.
Contractor Lockheed Martin has been delivering operational prototypes at the rate of about two per month, but the Government Accountability Office in its 2023 annual report on major weapon systems said the service may be getting ahead of itself. “By committing to limited production of an initial quantity before technologies and manufacturing processes are mature and the design is stable, the program risks discovering issues in testing that may require rework on missiles in production,” GAO stated.
Prior to the Army’s self-imposed deadline of fielding the system before the end of fiscal year 2023, the missile had only demonstrated a range of 400 kilometers, falling 100 kilometers short of its goal, the PEO said.
The Army wants future versions to go a whole lot farther, faster and be more precise. The service is looking for it to eventually hit targets on the move.
The system’s modular design should allow for incremental changes, the PEO said.
These longer ranges are made possible by the United States withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, after the Trump administration accused Russia of noncompliance.
Prime contractor Lockheed Martin’s design is sleeker, and therefore faster, than the Army Tactical Missile System, which also allows operators to double the number of missiles they can load onto existing launchers.
GAO pegs operational tests beginning the first quarter of fiscal year 2024 and initial operational capability the second quarter of 2025. — Stew Magnuson
The program is making progress in early capability testing, but the 100-kilometer shortfall and one fiscal quarter delay in test and evaluation knocks its grade down to a B+.
EXTENDED RANGE CANNON ARTILLERY
Considered the “signature effort” of the Army’s top modernization priority of long-range precision fires, the Extended Range Cannon Artillery program faces an uncertain future due to technical challenges encountered during testing.
Initiated in 2018, the program is meant to provide the Army a next-generation howitzer capability with “dramatically increased range … while also providing the architecture and growth margins for future propellant and projectile advancements,” a Program Executive Office Ground Combat Systems spokesperson said in an email.
However, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth said during a June media roundtable that the system — developed by the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Armaments Center, with support from industry partners — has experienced “some engineering challenges … that I think are going to create a schedule delay.”
Of the 24 technologies the Army committed to have in soldiers’ hands by the end of fiscal year 2023, ERCA is “really the only one where we’ve seen a slowdown,” Wormuth said. It probably will not “get over the finish line in ,” she added.
A Government Accountability Office report published in June said a July 2021 technical readiness assessment identified an issue with “a critical subcomponent of the cannon assembly.” The Army originally “planned to complete subsystem developmental testing in December 2022,” but additional technical challenges identified during testing required the service to pause further activities, the report said.
“I think the technical challenges that the program has experienced” were “not completely unexpected,” Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Doug Bush told reporters in August. “It’s an entirely new cannon … a larger one, put on an older chassis. So, I think we’re going through engineering challenges to make sure we have a system that’s safe and effective.”
The Army conducted “follow-on testing over this summer to determine where we are, setting up a potential decision this fall on staying on path or looking at different options,” Bush said.
“Everything I’m getting from my requirements community is they still want the extended range,” he said. “So, what are the other options potentially for getting at that range if this effort and this approach [are] not going to work out exactly as we hoped? What are the other options? And I think, fundamentally, the artillery community still wants that longer range, and there might be other ways to get it.” — Josh Luckenbaugh
The uncertainty, lack of progress and confidence that the program will move forward are hallmarks of past failed Army programs. It garners a D grade.
LONG-RANGE HYPERSONIC WEAPON
The Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon is one of the service’s top modernization priorities, aimed at long-term competition with China and Russia. Despite testing setbacks, the Army said it’s on track to deliver the nation’s first prototype long-range hypersonic weapon, promising the first battery this fall.
It is a ground-launched boost-glide missile, equipped with a hypersonic glide body and associated transport. It has a range of nearly 2,800 kilometers and is armed with hypersonic missiles that could travel over 6,000 kilometers per hour.
Lockheed Martin is heading up the ground support equipment, consisting of the battery operations centers, transporter erector launchers and support vehicles. Dynetics Technical Solutions is the lead for the weapon’s common hypersonic glide body.
The glide body uses a booster rocket motor designed to be maneuverable and travel at Mach 5 or greater. Jonathan Pettus, senior vice president of aerospace, defense and civil at Dynetics, said they are on schedule to deliver the first battery of glide bodies to “be deployed this fall.”
The program is nearing the end of the planned four-year prototype development and demonstration period and continues to execute “an aggressive system development schedule and will deliver a prototype LRHW system,” said a spokesperson for the Program Executive Office Missiles and Space in an email.
Lab, ground and flight testing are underway as planned, but are not yet complete, the spokesperson said. A Defense Department statement indicated yet another flight test was postponed on Sept. 6 “as a result of pre-test flight checks.” — Laura Heckmann
This could be the first of several U.S. hypersonic weapons under development to reach the field, but it hasn’t quite made it over the finish line yet, garnering a B+.
STRATEGIC MID-RANGE FIRES SYSTEM
As its name suggests, the Strategic Mid-Range Fires System occupies a spot between the Precision Strike Missile with a range of about 500 kilometers and the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon at some 2,800 kilometers.
The system “rapidly progressed from a blank piece of paper in July 2020, to the soldiers’ hands in just over two years,” Lt. Gen. Robert Rasch, director of the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office, said in an Army press release.
Known as the Mid-Range Capability when former Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville made his 24-by-23 declaration in 2021, it is part of the Army’s campaign to transform itself into a fighting force that can make an impact in a fight in the Indo-Pacific through long-range fires, a July Congressional Research Service report on the program penned by military ground forces specialist Andrew Feickert said.
The system — also known as the Typhon Missile System — leverages existing Navy Raytheon-produced SM-6 missiles and Raytheon-produced Tomahawk cruise missiles that are modified for ground launches, the report said.
The lead contractor Lockheed Martin delivered the first of four batteries in December 2022, and the Army plans to field it by the end of fiscal year 2023, with the remaining three batteries delivered through 2026.
The Army successfully demonstrated an SM-6 missile launch — and later a Tomahawk missile launch — from the prototype system, “confirming the full operational capability of the system,” an Army release said.
Plans so far call for four batteries, which include four launchers, an operations center and a number of support vehicles and trailers.
Undersecretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo in an interview called the Strategic Mid-Range Fires System part of the Army’s “linchpin force” of the future. It will potentially be called upon to strike ships at sea from its ground-based position, he said. — Stew Magnuson
This program would have an A+ if the Army could have confirmed by press time that the first battery had been deployed as planned. But numerous spokespeople couldn’t provide an answer, so it earns an A.
NEXT GENERATION SQUAD WEAPON
One key Army modernization effort will enhance soldier lethality. The Next Generation Squad Weapons consist of the XM7 Rifle and XM250 Automatic Rifle utilizing a common 6.8mm ammunition, along with the XM157 Fire Control system.
The new 6.8mm projectile for the weapon is credited with outperforming the current 5.56mm, providing enhanced capabilities over the M4A1 carbine and M249 squad automatic weapon being replaced in the Army’s “close combat” formations.
The XM157 Fire Control, manufactured by Vortex Optics, is replacing the M68 Close Combat Optic and the M150 Rifle Combat Optic.
Initial deliveries of prototype weapons were made in May 2020 and January 2021 during the program competition phase, with those weapons providing early feedback to the Army through summer 2021. Industry proposals were submitted in October 2021, with the contract award to Sig Sauer in April 2022.
By early 2023, the company had delivered the Production Qualification Test package for both weapons, providing additional soldier experience on the prototype systems.
Jason St. John, senior director of government products at Sig Sauer, said the early testing identified three focus areas as the NGSW prototypes matured — dispersion, toxic fumes and reliability — crediting advances in each area to cooperation between industry and government.
“Projectile powder and primer development have to catch up with the capabilities of [the] new 6.8mm hybrid case,” he explained. “And once the contract award was made, we could work with the propellant manufacturers and others on optimized blends to get the most out of the propellant rather than looking backwards into legacy powders and propellants for small arms cartridges.”
A spokesperson for Program Executive Office Soldier is already calling the rifle “the most lethal small arms weapon system in the world.”
Limited user tests are planned for the first quarter of 2024 and first unit equipped in the second quarter, the spokesperson said.
—Scott R. Gourley
With the test and evaluation phase completed and the bugs worked out by the fiscal year 2023 deadline, the program receives an A grade.
Topics: Army News