U.S. Army artillery experts said Friday they hope to demonstrate a working version of the sophisticated autoloader being designed for the Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) by the end of this year.
On Friday, Army leaders attended the latest demonstration at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, for the ERCA, which launched a rocket-assisted 155mm round and an Excalibur precision-guided round out to 65 kilometers -- about twice as far as traditional 155mm artillery.
Army leaders are confident they will field the ERCA's systems to a battalion in 2023. That will include a M109A7 Paladin Integrated Management (PIM) howitzer chassis mounted with a 58-caliber length gun tube that fires the new XM1113 rocket-assisted projectile.
"This provides a significantly longer-range capability, so it enables commanders to attack and fight differently," Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Martin told defense reporters during a telephonic round-table discussion after the demonstration.
"Our adversaries are artillery-centered formations ... so we are never going to have the same number of cannons as they do, but what we will have is overmatch in terms of range, accuracy and lethality," he said.
Army modernization officials hope to take ERCA to the next level by installing a new autoloader being developed during the second phase of the program.
"The autoloader will give us the ability to fire at a rate of six-to-10 rounds per minute and deliver that volume of fire to create the effect of mass in large-scale ground combat," said Brig. Gen. John Rafferty Jr., director of the Long Range Precision Fires Cross Functional Team at Army Futures Command. "In the year and a half that I have been doing this job, it has matured significantly."
The autoloader is currently being developed in a laboratory setting at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, but Army officials plan to demonstrate the working system in December.
"It will demonstrate its ability to take the XM113 off the ready rack in the howitzer, load it into the breech, go grab a supercharged propellent, put that behind it ... and allow the crew to fire the howitzer," Rafferty said. "The other thing it's got to do, is it has to fuse it and then set the fuse. Right now, it takes two cannoneers and a sergeant watching them to do that, so it is not a simple machine."
If all goes well, the Army plans to demonstrate the autoloader in the howitzer in 2021, Rafferty said.
For the first phase of the ERCA program, BAE Systems is contracted to build the 18 ERCA systems that will be fielded in 2023, he added.
The Army plans to hold an industry day for ERCA's second phase -- which will include the autoloader -- in the next three-to-four months in preparation for a separate competition, Rafferty said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.