By John B. Snyder, Watervliet ArsenalSeptember 12, 2017
WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- Solid proof that the Army has "shovel-ready" programs that can quickly enhance Soldier readiness and lethality can be found at an Army-owned arsenal in upstate New York.
For more than 200 years, the Watervliet Arsenal's workforce has prided itself on its ability to rapidly design, develop, and field the latest weapon technologies in support of the nation's troops. To many, this might imply that the Arsenal is always looking forward for new capability. But they may be wrong.
Due to the Arsenal's depth of personal machining experience and extensive collection of historical weapons records, sometimes the Arsenal's planners look backward or in today's example, back at least 25 years in an effort to enhance the future lethality and survivability of U.S. troops.
Today, Arsenal production planners and general foremen are working hard to start a prototype production line for what the Army now calls the Mobile Protected Firepower, or MPF, gun system. The key, or let's say the lethal part of this system is the 105mm cannon with complete breech mechanism.
And that is where the Arsenal comes in.
In 1992, the Arsenal was visited by a Navy team that was searching to identify the best practices in the defense manufacturing industry. One of the highlights and a best practice identified in the Navy's report is the XM35 cannon or what today is known as the 105mm gun for the MPF.
The Army and Arsenal goals for the XM35 gun in the 1990s were to improve on the M68 gun's performance on a proposed Armored Gun System by reducing the weight and recoil impulse; improve front gun installation for easier maintenance; and to accommodate an autoloading system that was then under development. Additionally, all modifications must ensure that accuracy was not degraded and that all then current 105mm ammunition could be used.
The M68 gun system was used on the Army's M60 tanks and an updated version can be found today on the Stryker's Mobile Gun System.
But according to a 1993 Army War College paper titled ,"The Armored Gun System -- An Acquisition Streamlining Model for the Army?," by then Lt. Col. James Wank, the concept for a new armored gun system with the XM35 tube actually dates back to the 1970s.
According to Wank, the Armored Gun System, or AGS, can trace its roots to the development of a Mission Needs Statement in 1981 for a Mobile Protected Gun System or MPGS. After years of disenchantment with the Army's 105mm Sheridan Gun System in Vietnam, the MPGS was believed to be the right system to replace the Sheridan for infantry and airborne roles. The Sheridan was the only rapidly deployable, air-droppable armored combat vehicle in the Army inventory.
Wank added that the Sheridan's performance during the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 was dubious at best, which created the energy to quickly field the AGS. Due to this urgent need to put the AGS into Soldiers' hands, the Army Acquisition Executive approved the acquisition strategy proposed by the program manager that would have an initial fielding of the system in 1997.
Nevertheless, the Pentagon's leadership killed the AGS program in 1996 and redirected the funding for other priorities. In that same year, the Army retired the Sheridan system. And so, what was once one of the Army's and the Arsenal's Best Practices was moved off of the Arsenal's production line and into historical files.
The ending of the MPGS and the AGS systems may be due to the consequences of the "tyranny of time." In essence, the longer a proposed future weapon system languishes between the points for a request for proposal to source selection to low-rate production, the more challenges -- such as other funding priorities and loss of political pressure -- have time to build that may eventually overcome the program.
Fast forward to today, and one would find that Arsenal's manufacturing leaders well understand that the essence of time is not a friend when it comes to new weapons development and therefore, are exerting significant energy to rapidly support the proposed MPF gun system.
"With the exception of the development of the Bunker Buster Bomb in 1991, there has been no other new weapon system since Vietnam that we have moved toward prototype development as fast as we are planning for the Mobile Protected Firepower gun system," said John Zayhowski, the Arsenal's chief of manufacturing. "Not only do we know the MPF system is an Army priority today, we also know from our history that time is not on our side."
Zayhowski said that to move the MPF program quickly to prototype development, he tapped into the experiences of well-tenured machinists who are still active on the production floors, as well as to Arsenal retirees who once worked on the AGS program in the 1980s and 1990s.
Ryan Scrum, who is the Arsenal's general foreman for tube production, said that what has been a big help in shaving time off of a proposed prototype production schedule is that the 105mm tube is nearly identical to the tube the Arsenal machined for the AGS program in the 1990s.
"We pulled the technical data package for the 1990-era AGS program and gathered a team of machining experts here to determine the degree of difficulty in developing the MPF gun," Scrum said. "What we discovered is that we currently have in production 105mm tubes for the Stryker gun system that are very similar to the proposed MPF gun tube. And so, we already have the processes and the procedures fairly proven out before we begin prototype development."
In addition to the development of the 105mm tube, there is significant work required in the manufacturing of the breech mechanism that is made up of such parts as the breech block and breech ring. The Arsenal's part of the MPF gun system involves 165 unique parts, said Scott Huber, the Arsenal's general foreman for minor and major components.
"What most people may not know that in every gun system there are hundreds of parts that must meet tight machining tolerances that are measured in the hundredths and thousandths of an inch," Huber said. "But where we (the Arsenal) have a significant advantage in the quick production of a MPF prototype is that we have extensive experience on our production floors machining similar parts, such as breech rings and blocks, for other weapons programs."
Another advantage the Arsenal has in the rapid design and production of a prototype for the MPF gun system is that it has retained many of the special tools and fixtures required for this gun system, Huber said. Not only will having these special tool on hand save money, it will also shave time off of prototype development.
"One of the great advantages of the Army coming to our Army-owned and operated manufacturing center is that we retain all of the technical data and special tooling for every production line and prototype program that we have had since the Korean War," Huber said. "We have learned that sometimes our future is tied to our past."
The Arsenal leadership believe they will have the first prototype ready for testing within the next 18 months.
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. The arsenal is a subordinate command to TACOM Life Cycle Management Command and the Army Materiel Command.