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Army's Bright Acquisition Spot: Howitzer Upgrades

The U.S. Army is moving forward with plans to develop upgraded versions of the M109 self-propelled howitzer in one of the service's few bright acquisition spots.

The Army is "fully committed" to the M109 Paladin Integrated Management, or PIM, program, Army Secretary John McHugh said on Thursday during a hearing of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

"We need a new self-propelled artillery howitzer to keep up with our formations and so we're going forward," he said in response to a question from Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., whose district includes Fort Sill, which houses the Army and Marine Corps' field artillery schools.

McHugh acknowledged the service's troubled acquisition history, including many failed attempts to replace its Cold War-era fleets of vehicles and helicopters. Most recently, it scrapped the Ground Combat Vehicle, designed to replace the Bradley fighting vehicle, due in part to automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

But the secretary said the M109 development program is moving forward, albeit slowly. BAE Systems Land & Armaments LP, part of the U.S. subsidiary of the London-based defense contractor, received a contract potentially worth almost $700 million for initial production of the vehicles.

"We really have no particular challenges at this point," McHugh said of the acquisition effort.

The Army plans to spend almost $8 billion to buy 582 of the more advanced tracked vehicles, designed to support soldiers in heavy brigades with a cannon capable of firing 155mm precision-guided projectiles, according to Pentagon budget documents. The systems, which are being built in York, Pa., and Elgin, Okla., will include a new chassis, engine, transmission, suspension, steering system, and armor, according to the contractor.

The secretary said the service expects to receive its first delivery of about 66 vehicles under low-rate initial production in mid-2015 and get approval to begin full-rate production in 2017.

"These are long timelines," McHugh said. "They're frustrating. But when you're developing something important as this -- and it really is a generational change -- time's kind of an unavoidable factor."

Associate Editor Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@monster.com.

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