Friday, March 9, 2007

Not the 'Son of Crusader,' but so what?

I think David Axe is a fantastic journalist, but his recent assessment of the Army's proposed Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon (NLOS-C) failed to address some critical questions about the system's efficacy.

I'll complete agree with the notion that the NLOS-C is many ways is a step up from the ill-fated XM2001 Crusader both in terms of design and technology. I'm also impressed with the Army's decision to adapt the Navy's Advanced Gun System instead of building a new barrel from the ground up. Leveraging the AGS and FCS's investment in an electric-hybrid engine has undoubtedly saved the Army time and research cash. Setting aside the fact that NLOS-C can not hit the field until its Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) radio is ready, I'm still left asking myself "Where's the need?"

The NLOS-C will definitely have advantages over the Army's current M109A6. The AGS will allow the NLOS-C to fire a handful of shells in a quick succession and have them all land on target simultaneously, also know as a Multiple Rounds Single Impact (MSRI) fire mission. In theory, NLOS-C will also only require 2 men to operate and will weigh in at 23-25 tons, as opposed to the M109A6's 4-man crew and 32 ton weight.

The NLOS-C will also take advantage of the XM892 Excalibur, a a revolutionary artillery round that integrates fin-stabilized GPS guidance into an extended-range base-bleed design. There are also plans to include a small radar sensor on the NLOS-C that will allow it to track shells all the way to impact.

The problem is that many of these advantages seem to justify the cost of the NLOS-C at first, but do not hold up under further scrutiny. The first issue is the vehicle's misleading name. There is nothing about the NLOS-C chassis or cannon that allows for its 'non-line of sight' capability. The NLOS function of the NLOS-C is contained entirely in its magazine of GPS-guided Excalibur rounds. Since the Army and Marines intend to use the Excalibur in all of their 155mm howitzers, one of the vehicle's selling points is actually a bit overblown.

The Army should be familiar with this criticism because it was one that the Secretary of Defense's Program Analysis and Evaluation directorate levied against the Crusader.

NLOS-C advocates also argue that a new self-propelled howitzer (SPH) is desperately needed because the M109 is 40 years old. The M109 chassis design may be 40 years old, but the A6 design is only dates back to the Reagan build-up in the 1980s. In fact, most of the current A6 fleet is less than 10 years old and the Army even intends to keep A6 in the inventory for another 10-15 years (only the 15 FCS-equipped brigades will get the NLOS-C, the other 30 or so will be stuck with this supposed 'dinosaur').

Personally, I'm also concerned about how the Army is keeping the NLOS-C so light. They've cut 2.5 tons off of its cross weight by reducing its magazine by a third, but it isn't clear where the other 3-5 tons went. When critics said the Crusader's 60 tons was too much, the Army reacted by stripping down its armor and I'm afraid they followed the same strategy with NLOS-C. I don't see why weight has been such a big issue since the Rumsfeldian era. SPHs can't be deployed by C-130s because Army doctrine prohibits the deployment of artillery in units smaller than a six-gun battery.

In the end, the only advantage that the NLOS-C has to offer is its advanced rapid-fire barrel. I'm not saying MRSI isn't a great capability. I'm just wondering if it isn't smarter to retrofit the A6 chassis with the AGS barrel since we are planning to keep them in the force for another decade. I can see a need for the new barrel, but is there a pressing need for a new SPH chassis? Deferring procurement of a new SPH for a few more years would free up Army R&D cash for other more important Army programs (like a replacement for the HMMWV) or the truly revolutionary pieces of FCS (like the Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System).

What's really ironic about the NLOS-C is that it really smacks of an Air Force affliction known as 'pilot-centric thinking.' When evaluating a system pilots (or in this case, drivers) tend to focus on improving the element that they directly control, the vehicle. This has become problematic in recent years because it has become far cheaper to create smarter, faster and better munitions than to build a smarter, faster and better vehicles. In the same way that the JDAM closed gap in the relative value between old bombers (B-52s) and new bombers (B-2s), the Excalibur is going to close the gap between the Paladin and the NLOS-C.


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J. said...

I was in a 155mm howitzer bn for a short spell, I think they had the M109A5s. I understand your point about questioning the need to modernize the system (especially due to the criteria of deploying in batteries, which I did not know), but I suggest that this modernization may still be very beneficial.

Although the M109A6 is pretty good (and heavy), the individual costs of smart munitions may be prohibitive at some point. The JDAMs are not new munitions, as I understand it, but a mod kit to old iron bombs that makes them smart. With arty fires still being conducted in large numbers, I would think that we would want a system that uses older (cheaper) munitions when possible while improving their survivability and effectiveness and decreasing the personnel required to run it.

Robot Economist said...

J - You make a fair point, but I think you've hit upon the crux of my concerns: Has the Army considered the relative costs and benefits of other options?

Let's look at our options based on Army indirect fire options based on either deployed systems or technology demonstrators:

1. Paladin armed with dumb shells.
2. Paladin armed with Excalibur shells.
3. NLOS-C armed with dumb shells.
4. NLOS-C armed with Excaliburs shells.
5. Abandon the SPH concept in favor of a new indirect fire concept.

The Army should take a step back from its NLOS-C and Excalibur plans evaluate each one of these options in turn.

I don't mean to single out the arty camp. There are many aspects of Future Combat Systems that were pushed out the door without even a simple cost-benefit analysis.

FCS's shortcomings make the Army's understanding of transformation look like 'doing the same thing except with more PGMs and better C2 systems.'