Army engineers demonstrated a lethal combination of cannon capabilities – extended range, increased rate-of-fire and lethal precision strike – when it fired three GPS-guided Excalibur projectiles in rapid succession during Project Convergence 2021 at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, in October.
The demonstration was the culminating event in a series of live-fire tests involving increasingly mature, complex and capable technologies operating in harmony. Examples of featured systems include Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) technologies, an M109A7 “Paladin Integrated Management (PIM)” chassis, and fully automated ammunition-handling systems.
This latest test capped off a sequence of three autoloader tests that were conducted at Yuma Proving Ground:
- In June of 2019, the Army tested an autoloader with a limited capacity magazine by successively firing a five-round cannon “burst” of mass simulator projectiles using prototype extended range supercharge propellant charges.
- In March of 2021, the Army tested an autoloader with an extended-capacity magazine, demonstrating extended range with significantly increased rate-of-fire and an autoloader that functioned while selecting from a full suite of existing and developing projectiles and charges.
- In October of 2021, the Army again tested an autoloader with Excalibur rounds, which added the tasks of “setting” the Excalibur fuze to enable its precision guidance capabilities. This included the design and integration of an optimized ammo handling system integrated into the M109A7 Paladin chassis that addressed lethality and mobility operational needs.
The ERCA is considered the signature effort within the Army’s top Modernization Priority, Long Range Precision Fires. The Long Range Precision Fires Cross Functional Team has set plans in motion for a two-phased capability improvement by first providing the Soldier a self-propelled howitzer with increased range and lethality, and then providing an increase to rate-of-fire, according to Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Long Range Precision Fires Science and Technology Advisor, Rich Granitzki.
Granitzki is with the DEVCOM Armaments Center, headquartered at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, which has the lead in designing the ERCA system.
The ERCA effort rose to prominence in November 2018 when an earlier variant of the ERCA system fired the XM1113 Rocket Assisted Projectiles to just beyond 70 kilometers at Yuma Proving Ground. They were the farthest-reaching shots ever made by U.S. Army howitzers at the time, and more than double the reach of currently fielded Army artillery systems.
“Back in 2019 we set an aggressive plan to grow the rate-of-fire capabilities with ERCA in a sequence of tests, culminating in what we just demonstrated at Yuma,” said Granitzki.
Data and test results will be formally compiled and delivered to decision makers in the Army to inform decisions that will shape the future fighting force, Granitzki explained.
“We know that the Army has a lot to digest as it shapes the future of artillery in support of multi-domain operations,” said Granitzki. “We are proud to demonstrate these game-changing capabilities working together in a realistic setting to inform those decisions.
“We had relatively few sidesteps, but considering how the pandemic affected the whole world, I’m proud that we stuck with our engineering processes and proved out some concepts that not too long ago were nothing more than calculations and drawings.”
The increased rate of fire allows cannon batteries to deliver greater volumes of fires in short periods of time. This, in combination with the maneuverability of the M109A7 PIM, is important in the presence of counter battery fires. Together, the ability of the system to work with multiple types of ammunition provides the flexibility and maneuverability to support long-range and close-in fights, explained Granitzki.
Also, an autoloader sets the stage for future “optionally manned” artillery battery configurations.
As the name implies, an autoloader is a machine that automates cannon loading tasks that must be performed in a well-orchestrated manner before the cannon is pointed and fired during a fires mission.
A fires mission includes selecting the right type of projectile and fuze to deliver the desired effect to the target and selecting the right propellant to match the required distance. First, the fuze is set. Next, the projectile and charge are loaded into the cannon’s tube, the breech is closed and the cannon is ready to fire.
The challenge for the engineers has been integrating the autoloader to function in harmony with several legacy items, and also new and developing ERCA items. Those items include an upgraded armament that enables a projectile’s velocity to continue increasing inside before exiting, and a sliding block breech built to withstand the immense pressure of the new “Supercharge” extended range propelling charge.
The armament, fitted on an M109A7 “Paladin Integrated Management” chassis, forms the XM1299 self-propelled ERCA system, which has been formally transitioned to Project Manager Self Propelled Howitzer Systems.
The XM1113 Rocket Assist Projectile and XM659 Stub Charge have also transitioned from science and technology development projects and are now managed by Project Manager Combat Ammunition Systems. PM CAS is part of the Joint Program Executive Office Armaments and Ammunition, which is headquartered at Picatinny Arsenal.