Procurement: Die, Loser, Die

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March 28, 2008: After four years of effort, the U.S. Navy finally managed to cancel a high tech munitions project. This is unusual. For over a decade, the navy kept running into more technical problems developing its new Extended Range Guided Munition (ERGM). This was a 127mm (5 inch) shell for warships (cruisers and destroyers) to use in providing support for ground operations. The rocket boosted ERGM had a range of over a hundred kilometers, and used GPS guidance and small fins to put the shell to within 30 feet of where it is aimed. ERGM carried submunitions for attacking personnel and armored vehicles.

 

Work on the ERGM began in 1996. The new shell was supposed to be ready by 2000. But one technical problem after another kept delaying it.  Even then, many felt that ERGM was  unlikely to prove very practical. In the 1980s, the U.S. Army developed a similar "smart shell" for its 155mm guns. Called the "Copperhead," it eventually entered service, but was so expensive (nearly $300,000 a shell) and specialized (someone had to shine a laser light off the target), that few were used even when they were available (as they were in the 1991 Gulf War.)

 

The ERGM was to cost over $50,000 a shell, and troops on the ground would rather have a $20,000 smart bomb anyway. The biggest problem with ERGM was not going to be making it work. No, the problem would be keeping it working. Each shell had special batteries that had to be replaced every few years, and the electronic and mechanical systems in the shells would have faced their biggest challenge sitting in a bunker, or deep inside a ship for years at a time. Your ordinary 5 inch shell costs about $200 and takes long term storage quite well. But ERGM  acquired a life of its own and resisted many efforts to kill it. Until now.

 

The navy is going to seek a replacement, and that may end up being the U.S. Armys 155mm (six inch) Excalibur GPS guided shell.  This entered service two years ago, and is very popular with the troops. While each Excalibur shell costs over $100,000, it's smaller explosive charge and 24/7 availability, makes it worthwhile to the troops.