August 16, 2007: The U.S. Army
is not so sure the new NLOS-C self-propelled howitzer will 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. The 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.
The prototype of the 155mm
NLOS-C, fired several thousand rounds in three years of field tests. The system
was cobbled together in six months, after the new 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 (the M-777, a towed, British designed
system) 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 defense systems have been
added, to reflect experience in Iraq. be a ton or two lighter. The M777
howitzer will not be used in the NLOC-C, but an even lighter (by at least half
a ton) 155mm gun.
Congress originally demanded
that NLOS-C be in service by 2008, but now 2010 or '11 seems more likely.
Production of the final version begins next year, but the first 18, to be
produced at the rate of six a year for the next three years, will mainly be for
additional field testing. If that goes really well, the testing might involve
operation in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Meanwhile, the new Excalibur
GPS guided shell, which entered service this year, could change 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.