Earlier this month, U.S. Brigadier General John Rafferty, the head of the Long-Range Precision Fires Cross-Functional Team, and Program Manager for Armored Fighting Vehicles Colonel Timothy Fuller briefed reporters about the efforts that are being undertaken to scale down the autoloader for the new Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA). The service announced that it has awarded five companies with contracts to look for alternate ways to accelerate the weapon’s rate of fire.
The SPARTN (Special Program Awards for Required Technology Needs) Fire Faster project is one of three lines of effort where the Army is now working to increase its weapons’ rate of fire. SPARTN SIBR (Small Business Innovation Research-based) has become the contracting mechanism used to launch the program.
“SPARTN SBIR has just proven to be a great way of doing business, working with small businesses resulting in some very promising innovative solutions to our challenge of how to improve the rate of fire for ERCA, the Extended Range Cannon Artillery,” said Col. Fuller during the April 15 call.
The five small businesses that will continue with the program were chosen from a larger pool generated from a solicitation posted last year. These include Austin, Texas-based ARM Automation; CR Tactical in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; San Diego, California-based Dynovas; H.A. Eckhart in Lansing, Michigan; and another Pittsburgh-based company, RE2 Robotics.
“It’s just pretty interesting that these selectees range from California to Pennsylvania, from Texas to Michigan,” said Gen. Rafferty. “And if you looked at the initial 80 or 90 that were considered going into this, it really ranged the whole United States. And so, it’s really a tribute to this approach of casting a wide net and framing the problem so that we really capture the imagination of these small business and innovators that really, I mean, this is what they do is solve hard problems and we’re glad to have them on our team.”
The goal is to provide “good options” by the second quarter of next year.
Automating the Autoloader
According to Fuller, part of the efforts will include taking a basic Paladin M109A7 self-propelled howitzer and essentially automating everything inside of the cab. The end plan is now to have the various options available for operational testing in 2023, with the final autoloader capability to be added to the platform by sometime in 2024. Yet, to get there, compromises have had to be made.
Brig. Gen. Rafferty explained that the autoloader, first designed to carry thirty-one rounds, would be too large for the vehicle, and as such has been scaled down to carry twenty-three rounds. “Scaling down to that 23 round, reduced capacity is the sweet spot for weight, center of gravity, and onboard kills,” he added.
Part of the tradeoff could be a reduced number of soldiers required per Howitzer, including at the resupply stage.
“Certainly the hopes of automating some of the tasks that are done by the cannoneers will give us the ability to reduce some of the crew on the Howitzer platform because we obviously want to manage the [sic] reduce the risk to the force, but we transfer some of that workload someplace else,” said Gen. Rafferty. “If we’re going to consume more ammunition, then maybe we need more of those cannoneers working in the ammunition field.”
The new platform could also be used with a variety of currently field munitions.
“One of the great things about the platform that we’re developing is that it can shoot the currently fielded munitions,” said Gen. Rafferty. “So the current high explosive rounds that are shot by our Paladin and PIM fleet and M777 fleet. All our 155mm cannons, those HE rounds, high explosive rounds, can be fired by the ERCA platform. And those are relatively low cost. I don’t like to call them dumb rounds, but some people do. But then the round specifically developed, the rocket-assisted projectiles, specifically to get out to that 70 kilometer range is definitely more expensive than those, but worth the investment.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.