June 4, 2010: The U.S. Army is having second thoughts about upgrading all of its M-109 Paladin self-propelled 155mm howitzers. Many army artillery commanders, and the politicians that support them, want a new artillery system to replace the ancient, and seemingly immortal, M-109. But the last two efforts to do this failed. Meanwhile, artillery is not as in demand as it used to be. Smart bombs (including GPS guided 155mm shells and 227mm rockets) have greatly reduced the need for artillery. The artillery community is having a hard time processing all this, and agreeing on what the future will be.
Last year, the U.S. Army cancelled its second attempt (the XM1203 NLOS-C) to replace the half-century old M-109. In the wake of that failure, the army will implement the PIM (Paladin Integrated Management program). That meant the army was going to rebuild many of its existing 900 M109 Paladin self-propelled 155mm howitzers, rather than trying to come up with another new design. But the latest change of direction has PIM being applied to only about half the army's M-109s, making available money for research into a "next generation" artillery system. Some artillery officers, taking into account the new GPS guided munitions, consider PIM the next generation. But others in the artillery consider the M-109 the zombie menace.
PIM will use the same chassis as the M-2 Bradley infantry vehicle, and a new engine control system. Added to that will be the cab and gun mounts from the Paladin. From the XM1203, the automatic rammer, but not the automatic loader, will be used. So troops will still have to manually load the propellant and 90 pound shell, but the semi-automatic rammer will then push the propellant and shell into the firing chamber and close the breech. Automating this part of the process improves accuracy somewhat, because when troops manually shoved (rammed) in the propellant and shell, they often applied too much, or too little, pressure and left the shell out of position by a tiny bit, just enough to hurt accuracy. PIM will get new electronics, and numerous small improvements, many based on user suggestions.
The NLOS-C was to have been the first of the eight MGV (Manned Ground Vehicle) systems to enter service this year as part of the FCS (Future Combat System) program. But the FCS lost its focus, budget discipline and Congressional support. FCS was cancelled last year.
Seven 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 45 ton Crusader 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 incorporated many more new technologies. This included 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 weighed 23 tons, about the same as the M-109. But the NLOS only had 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 carried 24 rounds of 155mm ammo. 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 two years ago 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. PIM will have a crew of four, compared to five in the Paladin M-109 and two in the XM1203.
One of the things that helped kill the NLOS-C was the new GPS guided Excalibur shell. The Excalibur shell entered service two years ago, and changed everything. Excalibur has worked very well 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 or PIM (and less time needed for maintenance), and less time replenishing ammo supplies, and more time being ready for action. Excalibur was so successful, that orders for it were cut. There's so many smart bombs and missiles available these days, that's there not enough work (targets) to go around.
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 PIM versions of the M-109 around until 2050. The M-109 was a solid design, which is pretty clear from how difficult it's been to come up with a replacement. So, in the end, the army replaced the M-109 with another M-109 upgrade. But now, the introduction of PIM is being delayed. Success has produced uncertainty.