The U.S. Army is poised to see its dream of fielding an auto-loading, self-propelled howitzer become a reality nearly two decades after the Pentagon killed the service's futuristic Crusader program.
The Army spent about $2 billion on Crusader -- a 155mm howitzer equipped with an auto-loader capable of a sustained rate of fire that far outmatched the manually loaded M109 Paladin -- before then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld killed the program in 2002, according to press reports. The heavily armored system weighed about 40 tons and relied on a separate ammunition vehicle.
Seventeen years later, the service is developing the Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA), an upgrade for the self-propelled M109A7 Paladin that's being designed to shoot out to 70 kilometers with a sustained rate of fire of six-to-10 rounds per minute.
ERCA is one of the programs under the Army's long-range precision fires effort, its top modernization priority.
Extending the Paladin's range from 30 kilometers to 70 kilometers involves replacing the Paladin's 39-caliber gun tube with a much longer tube, as well as using the XM1113 Next Generation Rocket-Assisted Projectile and an extended-range propelling charge.
"Caliber length is expressed in multiples of bore diameter, so 155mm is about six inches; 39 calibers of length is about 20 feet long. We are going to replace that 39-caliber gun tube with a 58-caliber gun tube that is about 30 feet long," Col. John Rafferty, director of the Long-Range Precision Fires Cross Functional Team, told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday.
"That system of an upgraded turret and gun tube, and new projectile that can withstand greater muzzle velocities and chamber pressures, and new propellent that will generate those muzzle velocities that we need, and a modernized course-correcting fuse will get us the accuracy we need at 70 kilometers," he explained.
Rafferty said he is confident the Army can deliver the first battalion's worth of ERCA systems in 2023, but he worries that adding a new auto-loader to the ERCA just a year later may be difficult to achieve.
The service is scheduled to field a battalion with the autoloader-equipped ERCA in 2024.
"In large-scale ground combat operations, which is really what we anticipate the challenge being, we need volume of fire against these targets," he said.
Rafferty, however, stressed that the Army has a "long way to go for 2024 in getting the autoloader right."
"It's important to remember that we don't have one now, so we shouldn't kid ourselves in thinking this is going to be an easy challenge to overcome," he said.
The Crusader was equipped with an autoloader, but it wasn't designed to handle modern artillery shells with sophisticated fuzes.
"There were autoloaders designed for previous failed programs, but those autoloaders didn't set fuses. It didn't set complicated fuzes like GPS coordinate-seeking fuzes," Rafferty said. "And it didn't handle a super charge that is a little bit more complicated."
The Army is currently looking at some industry options as well as a new government design, he said, adding that the service needs to pick a design early so "we can focus on solving the autoloader problem rather than considering options down the road."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.