U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground’s (YPG) position at the forefront of Army modernization efforts is well-known, and extends far beyond the developmental testing of equipment like the Extended Range Cannon Artillery.
One recent example of YPG shaping the future force through testing of equipment is the XM204 interim wide area top attack munition.
The phase of testing that just ended at YPG will allow the munition to enter limited initial production for government testing, which will occur here.
“Contractor System Verification Testing is the capstone for this test phase,” said Lt. Col. Isaac Cuthbertson, Product Manager for Terrain-Shaping Obstacles. “The XM204 is in support of an operational needs statement directly from U.S. Army Europe, thus managing the schedule is key to the program.”
The XM204 is part of a new generation of terrain shaping obstacles able to target and deter tracked vehicles operated by a near-peer adversary in open terrain. This eliminates the old method of hand emplacing land mines.
“Any time a commander wants to influence enemy forces’ ability to maneuver in an area without natural obstacles like a river or mountain, you can either build obstacles or emplace lethal obstacles,” explained Cuthbertson.
In the case of a small element of Soldiers facing the threat of being outnumbered and outmaneuvered by an adversary with heavy tracked vehicles, the portable and easily-emplaced XM204 can help them hold their own until reinforcements arrive. The size of a large suitcase, the launcher module bears four top attack munitions that, when triggered, launches a top attack submunition into the air. The submunition tracks and identifies threat vehicles and then fires an armor-piercing slug at the target.
“It can ‘hear’ tracked vehicles and feel them coming,” said Steve Patane, YPG test officer. “When it does, it uses a mechanism that starts tracking the vehicle. When the threat-tracked vehicle is a certain distance away, the XM204 will shoot a submunition into the air to fire the warhead down at the target within its zone of authority.”
The ruggedized launcher module has a mechanism to indicate whether the system is armed or not. It also has a self-destruct switch with different timed settings to prevent the possibility of the system lying dormant and dangerous years or decades after the end of a conflict, as happened with previous US and foreign land mines.
The launcher’s large carrying handle came as a result of combat engineer feedback during a Soldier touchpoint at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
“We ended up redesigning the box because of direct feedback from the Soldiers so they could pick up the box in their full gear,” said Cuthbertson. “The butterfly design for the battery box came from the same Soldier touch point.”
YPG is the ideal place to conduct rapid testing of this vitally important munition. In addition to having wide open spaces far from any populated areas, decades of institutional knowledge, and a full complement of realistic threat target vehicles at hand, the post’s test site is highly instrumented and designed specifically for this type of testing. Built in the mid-1990s, the site is intricately networked with fiber optic cable and hard power lines, without which noisy generators could interfere with the testing.
“This test site is a phenomenal range for us because it gives us an opportunity to run vehicles through a relevant environment for this particular system,” said Cuthbertson. “The threat representative vehicles give us the best data and best idea of how the system will perform in a real-world situation.”
For the evaluation, YPG’s vehicle operators drive vehicles such as main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles across the test track at various speeds. The course allows tracked vehicles easy maneuverability to turn around in. Sensors on the XM204 use an algorithm to deploy the munitions at the most favorable time depending on the size and speed of the threat vehicle within its zone of authority. Most of the current testing involved testing the accuracy of the munition’s sensors, and in these portions human drivers operate the vehicle. Rather than detonate the XM204’s high explosive (HE) top attack rounds, the XM204’s on-board sensors use a camera reticle to take a photo at what would normally be the point of deployment.
“The camera aim point gives us an idea of where the munition would hit if it actually launched,” said Cuthbertson. “During the times we tested the HE rounds, we used remote-controlled vehicles.”
One main battle tank in the test fleet, for instance, has multiple impacts from previous test fires of predecessor munitions while the vehicle was being autonomously controlled.
“Putting steel on target speaks well for our program,” Cuthbertson said with a smile.
The Army first issued system requirements for the XM204 in early 2020, and kept testing throughout the COVID pandemic with individuals at the program office in New Jersey able to oversee testing with video, screen-sharing of real-time data, and teleconferencing. Much of the XM204’s abilities are derived from previous systems like the XM1100 Scorpion that were tested at YPG in years past.
“We’re able to go relatively fast because we are leveraging the technology and investments from predecessor programs,” said Cuthbertson. “That enables us to keep our schedule a lot shorter than the typical Army program of record.”
Testers ultimately intend to use legacy systems such as the Volcano mine dispenser to complement the XM204.
“This will allow us to take the legacy Volcano system canisters and connect them to a new base plate that we are developing,” said Cuthbertson. “The XM343 base plate can connect to the XM204 to fire the bottom-attack mines from the legacy Volcano system.”