December 21, 2007: The U.S. Army is buying 18 of the new (still
in development) NLOS-C self-propelled howitzers, for $28 million each.
Basically, the army is buying
prototypes. Congress has ordered that the NLOS-C be deployed by 2010. These 18 vehicles will be used for training
and testing, so that mass production of a much cheaper NLOS-C can begin in
As a replacement for 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
Congress originally demanded that
NLOS-C be in service by 2008, but now 2010 or '11 seems more likely. Production
of the final version was supposed to begin next year, but that appears to be
delayed because of development problems. The manufacturer says otherwise, but
not the troops who have actually used the NLOS-C.
Meanwhile, the new Excalibur GPS guided
shell, which entered service in the past 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, resulting
in 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