WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- The U.S. Army signaled its approval of a new experimental 60 mm baseplate for its infantry by awarding a $4.3 million contract to the Watervliet Arsenal to manufacture more than 600 of the newly designed baseplates, an arsenal program manager announced this week.

Edward Davis, the arsenal's program manager for the 60 mm mortar system, said this experimental baseplate, the M8E1, was recently approved for full production by the Army and the contract is valued at $4.3 million.

"We have been working closely with the Army's Benét Laboratories for several years to develop a new lightweight baseplate for the 60 mm mortar system," Davis said. "This baseplate will give the infantryman greater firing capability because it can support the firing of 0 to 4 propellant charges, whereas, the M8 baseplate that it will replace can only support the firing of a charge 0 to 1."

"This multimillion dollar order will add to the Arsenal's current workload more than 9,400 hours of direct labor," Davis said. "Because of the long lead time to procure raw stock material, we don't expect to start manufacturing the baseplates until 2015."

Tom Pond, the arsenal's director of operations, touted this new order because the order is symbolic of the arsenal's ability to respond to new requirements.

"Although the arsenal is often referred to as the nation's cannon factory, the fact that we received this order for a new lightweight baseplate speaks volumes about the manufacturing capability that resides at the arsenal," Pond said. "Our capability, in terms of machinery and workforce skills, allows us to machine something that can fit into a pants pocket or as large as a 16-foot howitzer tube."

"Given the challenges of a declining defense budget has on obtaining new work, any order is great news, especially when it adds more than 9,000 hours of direct labor," Pond said.

The fact that the arsenal received this order also speaks volumes about the synergy achieved by having an Army research and design center, Benét Laboratories, within a five-minute walk of those who will machine the product.

Zachary Jablonka, the Benét Labs program manager for the 60 mm mortar system, said the new baseplate will greatly increase the firing range over the M8 baseplate.

"Even for a small part that weights about five pounds, it took several years of design work and great teamwork between Benét engineers and arsenal machinists to produce the baseplate," Jablonka said. "Not only will the new baseplate increase the range over the former baseplate, it may also reduce the overall weight that an infantryman must carry into combat," Jablonka said.

The current M224A1 60mm mortar system utilizes two baseplates. The M7A1 baseplate, which is used when firing from a fixed position, is heavier, more durable and can support the firing of all charge levels, 0 to 4. The M8 patrol baseplate, which is about a third the weight of the M7A1, is limited to charges 0 and 1. Charge 0 is an igniter charge and has a maximum range of approximately 400 meters.

The new M8E1 baseplate will replace the M8, weighs about half as much as the M7A1 and can support the firing of charges 0 to 4 in limited quantities. This provides the soldier increased capability while on patrol and the option of use in limited, fixed position engagements in place of the M7A1 baseplate.

Once the M8E1 baseplate goes into production, the nomenclature will change to M8A1. The fact that the new baseplate will be about four pounds lighter than the M7A1 may not sound like much, unless you are the infantryman who must carry those extra four pounds over rough terrain, Jablonka said.

The 60 mm mortar system is used primarily by the infantry as an indirect fire weapon when a high-angle trajectory is required to hit enemy troops, materiel, and positions. It has a maximum range of about 3,500 meters.

This order also consists of several close-tolerance machined parts that help secure the baseplate to the barrel.

The Watervliet Arsenal is an Army-owned-and-operated manufacturing facility and is the oldest, continuously active arsenal in the United States having begun operations during the War of 1812. It celebrated its 200th anniversary on July 14, 2013.

The arsenal is relied upon by U.S. and foreign militaries to produce the most advanced, high-tech, high-powered weaponry for cannon, howitzer, and mortar systems. This National Historic Registered Landmark has an annual economic benefit to the local community in excess of $100 million.

Benét Laboratories is a Department of the Army research, development and engineering facility located at the Watervliet Arsenal. It is a part of the Weapons & Software Engineering Center (WSEC), Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center (ARDEC), which is located at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.