August 21, 2009: The U.S. Army appears to have lost its second replacement vehicle for the half-century old M-109 self-propelled 155mm howitzer. The new XM1203 NLOS-C self-propelled 155mm howitzer has been, well, if not cancelled, then suspended.
The NLOS-C was to have been the first of the eight MGV (Manned Ground Vehicle) systems to enter service as part of the FCS (Future Combat System) program. But the FCS lost its focus, budget discipline and Congressional support. It was recently cancelled.
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 Crusader got the chop. This 45 ton vehicle used an autoloader and an engine similar to the one used in the M-1 tank. It was deemed too heavy and too expensive, and in 2002 it was cancelled. The NLOS-C used the Crusader autoloader and some of its electronic components.
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 was to be heavier (about 27 tons), because more defensive systems were added, to reflect experience in Iraq. The NLOC-C also got a lot of new electronics. The vehicle carries 24 rounds of 155mm ammo. One new item, the hybrid-electric power pack, is considered too expensive, and an untried (in combat) element. Congress originally demanded that NLOS-C be in service by 2008, but development needed a few more years. Field testing (operating as one would in combat), began last year with the six prototypes.
One problem the brass were concerned about was 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 was 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 on the NLOS-C.
One of the things that probably killed the NLOS-C was 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 SP artillery like NLOS-C (and less time needed for maintenance), and less time replenishing ammo supplies, and more time being ready for action.
In the current war on terror, even the M-109 has not been used much. The lighter, towed, M777 has proved more useful, especially when using the Excalibur shell. Currently, the army plans to keep M109s around until 2050, just in case. You never know, and it pays to be careful. Meanwhile, the army is planning to make a third attempt at a M-109 replacement. This will also borrow from Crusader and NLOS-C, and might even succeed. Eventually.