By Debralee BestMarch 27, 2019
ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. - "Historically we're the Army's artillery builder," said Natalie Stevens, XM35 lead mechanical engineer, Rock Island Arsenal - Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center (RIA-JMTC).
RIA-JMTC has been the original equipment manufacturer for a majority of artillery pieces in the Army's arsenal. Recently, manufacturing of artillery has declined, but with work beginning on a new program, RIA-JMTC is returning to that market.
"It's definitely, I think, one of our niche markets that we want to continue to be in and continue to be a competitive part of," added Stevens. "It really plays to a lot of our precision machining strengths. A lot of the work they do down in the crane way with cylinders and rods, long cylinders and long rods, that's a core part of our business that's kind of fallen off a bit, but it's a good opportunity to get back into that."
The XM35 is a prototype 155 mm artillery weapon system, consisting of the cradle, the cannon and the recoil system, designed for a lighter, tracked vehicle. The design originates from an initial prototype designed and completed by RIA-JMTC and Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center Watervliet Arsenal, Watervliet, New York, in the 1990s, which was cancelled for unknown reasons.
"The Army thinks that this lighter tracked vehicle is filling a gap in capabilities that they see and actually they kind of talk about wanting a vehicle that's smaller, that can be transported more easily, but tracked and armored, I think to do more urban combat," said Stevens. "They have howitzers that you can use at a great distance, but this is a tank mount so you can go more directly to the fight. They've identified it as a gap in their capabilities and I think that's why it's getting such high visibility within the Army itself. It's something that's been identified as needed to continue to support the Warfighter."
"It's a unique system," said Caleb Conley, XM35 program manager, RIA-JMTC. "It would potentially get Rock Island Arsenal back into full-rate production for artillery systems which is something we have not done since the M119 (howitzer) which ended in 2012."
Today's program is once again partnering Rock Island and Watervliet.
"We are producing XM35 cradles with the recoil systems. They will then be shipped to Benet Laboratories in New York," said Conley. "Watervliet, in parallel, is creating the breach block assemblies, the cannon tubes and a couple other components and moving them over to Benet Labs as well. They will then be built into the top level, complete weapon system and sent out to the appropriate creative partners for testing."
This program is expected to run approximately one year after the first delivery this summer with an estimated $7 to $10 million in revenue. The program could expand into long term production increasing to a three to five year timeframe and revenue to $15 to $50 million.
The program uses a majority of RIA-JMTC's manufacturing capabilities increasing employee's skills and expertise to execute readiness and modernization requirements and the ability to surge to support national security requirements in the future.
"We make springs for it here in house, custom springs. It touches plating, there is a lot of chrome plating. There's a lot of welding. There's over half a dozen recoil related components that will be running through the recoil," said Conley. "There's general assembly. It runs across every type of machine we have here from the gantry mills, the bridge mills, to the waterjets to weld to really, really small machines that are making parts that are the size of a small one or two inch pin."
Stevens is very excited about this program and it really proves to her the sustainability of artillery.
"We had a colonel, three or four colonels ago that basically just said, sorry to break it to you, Natalie, but artillery is dying and it's all going to be drones or computer guided," she said. "But I think this shows there is still a role for it because that's a lot of Rock Island's history: production of artillery mounts. I think it's great for us to continue to have a viable business in that."