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The Future Gets Mugged By Reality
by James Dunnigan
February 24, 2009

The U.S. Army continues of have doubts about when to use the new XM1203 NLOS-C self-propelled howitzer to replace the half century old M-109. The NLOS-C will be the first of the eight MGV (Manned Ground Vehicle) systems to enter service as part of the FCS (Future Combat System) program. A variant of the NLOS-C is armed with a 120mm mortar.

The new FCS brigades have fewer troops (2,500) than the current (and newly implanted) combat brigades (3,500 troops). The FCS brigades depend on automation and more electronics to make up for manpower. If that worked, many in the army believed that the NLOS-C would quickly replace the M-109, especially in the newly reorganized Brigade Combat Teams. But there is resistance to this vision of the future, resistance based on some very practical considerations.

Six years ago, the prototype NLOS-C was cobbled together in six months, after the new (and very high tech and high priced) Crusader SP artillery system was cancelled. The current self-propelled system, the M-109, is a fifty year old design. Although the M-109 has been frequently updated, the NLOS-C incorporates many new technologies. This includes an auto-loader (from the Crusader) and a more modern 155mm gun  and an APC chassis with a hybrid-electric engine (to reduce fuel consumption.) This all weighs 23 tons, about the same as the M-109. But the NLOS only has a two man crew, compared to five in the M-109.

 The final version of the NLOS-C will be heavier (about 27 tons), because more defensive systems have been added, to reflect experience in Iraq. The NLOC-C also got a lot of new electronics. The vehicle carries 24 rounds of 155mm ammo.

Congress originally demanded that NLOS-C be in service by 2008, but it appears that 4-5 years from now seems more likely. Field testing (operating as one would in combat), begins this year with the six prototypes. One problem the brass are already concerned about is the ability of the two man crew to hold up during 24/7 operations. The M-109, with a five man crew, has enough people to take care of maintenance, standing guard and, basically, always having one or two people rested and alert. Not so easy when you only have two guys. One solution is to have two or more crews per vehicle, as combat aircraft (and some warships) have done for years. The off-duty crews would be back with the support troops. The army also wants to test various bits of new equipment. One of the most important items to test is the new GPS guided Excalibur shell.

The Excalibur shell entered service last year, and changed everything. Excalibur appears to work in combat, and this is radically changing the way artillery operates. Excalibur means 80-90 percent less ammo has to be fired, meaning less wear and tear on NLOS-C (and less time needed for maintenance), and less time replenishing ammo supplies, and more time being ready for action. The NLOS-C uses GPS and networked computers to take care of navigation, fire control and communicating with its customers (the infantry and armored vehicles of the combat brigade it supports). Each battery (4-6 guns) has several support vehicles with ammo resupply, maintenance and such. Thus while each NLOS-C only has a crew of two, there are additional support personnel available to help with maintenance. This is another new development, a crew too small to do all its own maintenance, that will require a lot of testing.

But if the new self-propelled gun works out, the M-109s may disappear a lot more quickly. Currently, the army plans to keep M109s around until 2050, just in case. You never know, and it pays to be careful.

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