WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. (January 2017) -- After eight years of hard work trying to finalize the largest single contract in decades, the Watervliet Arsenal has finally received a $47 million contract to manufacture 145 howitzer cannon systems as part of a $737 million foreign military sales contract that BAE Systems has with the Indian government.
Under the contract, the arsenal will manufacture M776 155-mm tubes and associated parts for BAE that will become an integral part of the M777A2 lightweight howitzer system that India will purchase from BAE.
The U.S. Department of Defense and the Indian Ministry of Defence signed a Letter of Offer and Acceptance on November 30, making India the third U.S. ally to purchase the M777A2 howitzer system. The other two countries are Australia and Canada.
The size and importance of this order cannot be overstated, by the arsenal or by the Army.
"By far, this is the largest foreign military sales of the 155-mm towed howitzer system that we have on record," said David Wong, the Army's program manager for foreign military sales of towed artillery systems. "And, there may be an opportunity for follow-on orders."
Long-time arsenal budget analyst Joseph Bell took Wong's statement a step further by saying, "In the more than 30 years that I have been at the arsenal, there has not been a single contract for 'any' product line larger than this India order. This is huge."
Arsenal Deputy Commander Joseph Turcotte added, "That in an era of declining defense budgets, this order comes at the right time for the arsenal as manufacturing requirements have dramatically weakened since the withdrawal of combat troops out of Iraq in 2010."
The decline in workload has unintended consequences that go beyond the most obvious, which is the reduction of the arsenal workforce to compensate for a reduced workload, Turcotte said. An order of this magnitude should allow the arsenal to justify the full retention of the workforce through 2020, as well as set the conditions for machining excellence for generations to come.
"In order for the arsenal to retain its worldwide status as a center of technical excellence for large caliber weapons manufacturing, we must maintain a highly trained workforce that can execute all critical manufacturing skill sets at any point in time," Turcotte said. "In recent years, it has been very challenging trying to maintain a high level of expertise in all core critical manufacturing skill sets and so, this is the best possible type of work to receive."
Tom Pond, the arsenal's director of operations, said the effects of this order will not only allow the retention of critical skills, but will also grow the skill base here.
"Right now, a significant number of our machinists and machine tool operators have not had the benefit of working in more than a few critical skill areas during their careers because the contracts have not been very large or as challenging," Pond said. "This order will bring us about 106,000 direct labor hours, which will exercise every critical cannon manufacturing skill set at Watervliet. In addition to the direct labor hours, thousands of hours of indirect labor will also be supported."
Additionally, this order goes far beyond the manufacturing of howitzer tubes. The order will require the arsenal to manufacture other parts to the howitzer system, such as breech blocks, muzzle brakes, and breech rings. Each of the sub-parts to the order will require extremely tight machining tolerances that will be measured in thousandths of an inch.
Nevertheless, as great as this order is for the arsenal, it will not solve all the ills of an uncertain and declining defense budget, Turcotte said.
"As large as this order is, it will only help us fill the gap in workload requirements to sustain our current workforce through 2020," Turcotte said. "But many of us here are hopeful that this order will put us (arsenal) on the world stage for military weapons manufacturing, which may lead to other foreign military sales."
The arsenal will deliver 73 cannon systems in fiscal year 2019 and 72 systems in fiscal year 2020. The fiscal year begins on October 1 of the previous year.
According to BAE, the M777 howitzer is highly portable by land, sea and air, and the system features a minimal logistical footprint alongside maximum reliability. This means that it can be frequently moved and re-deployed, maximizing survivability, without encountering the IED risks that self-propelled systems face. The weapon can strike over extended distances, regardless of terrain and obstacles. It is compatible with all standard ammo types, as well as advanced rounds such as BONUS and EXCALIBUR. Its strengths have been proven in battle, particularly in Afghanistan where it has been in service since 2006. Over 40,000 rounds fired have proven its simple, dependable operation, even in harsh desert climates. The maximum range unassisted is 24.7 km and maximum assisted range is 30+ km.