Although there have been significant improvements to artillery systems since the Chinese first developed paper and bamboo cannons more than 1,000 years ago, it may be the little tweaks to a fielded weapon system that will change the history of warfare given today's era of declining defense budgets.
Since 1813, the Watervliet Arsenal has dealt with countless ebbs and flows of declining defense budgets that have led to production contracts being canceled, reduced, or simply not ordered. And given the fact that the Army does not have any new major weapon program starts involving the production of howitzer and tank cannons planned for the next decade, the arsenal now finds itself looking more and more at how it can incrementally modify the current fielded systems to bring workload to the Army's manufacturing center at Watervliet.
In the 2015 Army Posture Statement provided to Congress, Army Secretary John M. McHugh discussed the fiscal challenges today's Army faces.
McHugh said the decreases to the Army budget over the past several years have had significant impacts on modernization as the Army ended 20 programs, delayed 125 and restructured 124. The Army's procurement budget dropped from $21.3 billion in 2011 to $13.9 billion by 2015.
A declining budget also goes beyond procurement and modernization as the Army has drawn down its active military force from 580,000 in 2012 to 490,000 by the end of this month. A simple calculus from this reduction is clear - a smaller force means fewer combat maneuver units, which in turn means a greatly diminished need for large numbers of tank and artillery cannon systems - systems the arsenal manufactures.
This effort, seeking work that will incrementally upgrade current systems, may be just what McHugh meant when he spoke earlier this month at the American Enterprise Institute.
"We understood that sometimes good enough is good enough and we recognized that the affordable way for us in the future was to build something in a fashion that incrementally, from generation to generation, you could add on and adapt to whatever the new realities of the day may be," McHugh said.
Therefore, the arsenal and the Army's Benét Laboratories, which is the Army's large caliber research and design center located on the arsenal, have set out to do what has been done in other fiscally uncertain times for the last 202 years - product improvement.
Through the years, the arsenal and Benét Labs have learned the value of looking at how to improve a product as soon as that product has been fielded. Not only does this make good fiscal sense as the product improvements often translate into more workload, but Soldiers also benefit from the improvements as weapon systems become safer and or more lethal.
For example, a few years ago the arsenal received an Army contract for about $14 million to replace more than 400 breechblocks for the Army's lightweight 105mm howitzer system - the M119A2 towed howitzer.
Jeanne Brooks, a mechanical engineer with Benét Laboratories, said arsenal and Benét Lab engineers supported and monitored user feedback on the cannon for more than 10 years in search of improvement opportunities. In essence, Benét engineers and arsenal machinists never stopped trying to perfect the breechblock both for functionality and for producibility.
They proposed to the Army's Program Manager for Towed Artillery Systems, who is charged with fielding and maintaining the howitzer, a redesign that would not only improve Soldiers' safety, but would also reduce potential downtime.
The arsenal still manufactures the upgraded breechblocks.
Today, the arsenal, with the support of the Army's Program Manager for Self-Propelled Howitzer Systems, is reintroducing a bore protection coating for the self-propelled howitzer's M284A2 cannon tube that will dramatically extend the life of those tubes, said John Askew, deputy director of Benét Labs.
"We introduced chrome plating into the manufacturing process nearly 40 years ago," Askew said. "But what is different today is that we are moving to a full-bore chroming process, versus chroming just the powder chamber for the 155mm howitzer tube used on today's Paladin howitzer."
What is great about chrome plating is that because its thermal resistance is superior to gun steel, it will provide a thermal barrier to today's 155mm tubes, thereby, extending the wear life of those tubes by up to 50 percent, Askew said. This is especially important given the Army's desire to develop new ammunition propellants that will extend the range of current munitions, a process that adds a significant increase to bore temperature.
Askew said that there are other positive points to using chrome, some of which will be favored by Soldiers.
"One of the great consequences to going to full-bore chrome is that artillerymen worldwide will find that it will be easier to maintain their howitzer tubes," Askew said. "The rifling in howitzer tubes has a tendency to retain erosive residue from live firing. The chrome plating makes it easier to remove that residue."
The arsenal has received this year's orders totaling more than $20 million to supply the Army with full-bore chrome 155mm howitzer tubes. The first delivery will be in October 2015.
The arsenal is simply, to use McHugh's words, adapting to the new realities of the day.
Source: US Army
Date: Sep 30, 2015