PICATINNY ARSENAL, NJ. – Inside a section of a cavernous building in use to assemble a complex and sophisticated military vehicle, a stripped-down chassis awaits a series of extensive modifications and upgrades.
Just outside the building, punctuating its presence with a diesel engine rumble, is a much more complete version of the vehicle. Inside, an operator slowly raises and lowers a cannon tube that will eventually fire an artillery projectile to ranges much farther than could be previously achieved.
More than a dozen prototypes of the Extended Range Cannon Artillery system will eventually be assembled at this small U.S. Army installation in northern New Jersey, yet the significance of the work here extends far beyond its confines.
The advanced artillery system, commonly known as ERCA, is considered the signature effort within the Army’s top Modernization Priority: Long Range Precision Fires. With its longer cannon barrel and other key enhancements, ERCA is expected to greatly extend the strike range of precision artillery with improved projectiles and more powerful propellant.
ERCA is a 155mm self-propelled howitzer that is being integrated into the existing M109A7 Paladin Integrated Management or PIM. Testing has shown that it can reach a target much farther than existing 155mm artillery, an achievement that has infused Army leaders with enthusiasm.
“It's a fabulous addition to our capabilities,” said Brig Gen. William T. Boruff, the former Joint Program Executive Officer Armaments and Ammunition, now retired. “We're going to have a cannon that can range 70 kilometers with the Excalibur round and we're hitting point targets with accuracy at 70 kilometers.”
At a “christening ceremony” last year to officially introduce ERCA into the Army via an operational artillery battalion, Brig. Gen. Glenn A. Dean III, Program Executive Officer, Ground Combat Systems, said, "This is an exciting day for the artillery and artillery men everywhere."
In the past, 155mm artillery rounds were commonly viewed as mostly area weapons, whose suppressive fires allowed troops to maneuver during combat. More recently, however, the availability of precision-guided rounds, which can strike to within one-meter of a specific target 30 kilometers away, provides commanders more options and flexibility on the battlefield.
The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Armaments Center at Picatinny Arsenal is taking the lead in designing ERCA. As a subordinate center to the larger DEVCOM organization, the Armaments Center is part of the Army Futures Command.
In 2015, the Armaments Center launched ERCA as a science and technology effort to address a growing need to extend artillery range. The development of ERCA gained considerable impetus in 2019, when the need to deliver long-range precision fires became a priority within the Army Modernization Strategy.
Thus, the combination of evolving technology, more robust funding and priority status set the stage for the ongoing assembly of ERCA systems, known officially as mid-tier acquisition prototypes. The middle tier of acquisition pathway is used to rapidly develop fieldable prototypes within an acquisition program to demonstrate new capabilities, and/or rapidly field production quantities of systems with proven technologies that require minimal development.
The Armaments Center’s involvement in assembling so many ERCA prototypes is a departure of sorts from its typical role of research and development. The usual pattern is to mature a technology on behalf of a customer organization within the Army, which later accepts the transfer of the project. The receiving organization will typically seek out a defense contractor for mass production.
“Earlier on, the Armaments Center was asked to assemble only three prototypes,” said Joseph P. Troll, the Armament Lead for ERCA. “Then we were going to mature the technology to hit the street, and have additional contractors come in and bid on the technology to build this.”
However, as the Armaments Center proceeded to assemble ERCA prototypes, a key event was looming. By the end of Fiscal Year 2023, the Army anticipates receiving a battalion of ERCA prototypes to begin an operational assessment.
The initial request to the Armaments Center for three ERCA prototypes then grew to seven. As soon as it became evident that the Armaments Center could handle additional numbers, Troll said, a later request came in: “Can you actually build a battalion?”
“We have a lot of outstanding partners working with us on the assembly, including various Army organizations, the industrial base, industry and government partners,” Troll explained.
“But within DEVCOM, the Armaments Center and GVSC (Ground Vehicle Systems Center), we're really achieving this extended range technology holistically in house, which is a win for the Army because it's cost beneficial. It allows us to move at a pace that has really never been seen before in other programs”
The Armaments Center’s ability to do the work, however, does not reflect the difficulty and complexity of that work: stripping down an M109 Paladin, then methodically assembling a much more robust and lethal 155mm howitzer that would then become a functional ERCA system.
Within the Armaments Center, at least 300 people are involved with some aspect of the project across 20 different integrated product teams, or IPTs. In addition to internal collaboration, there is the constant coordination with other Army organizations and industry partners. The process can be compared to a sophisticated watch piece with highly synchronized mechanical movements.
“It is very detail oriented,” Troll said of the ERCA project. “In order to be successful, we created multiple teams to manage every aspect. We've got a family of IPTs that manage everything from our modifications to our vendors, to our fire control software and everything else that's on ERCA.”
The advantages of a tightly focused in-house effort saves valuable time, solving problems quickly and avoiding overreliance on outside contractors during the testing and assembly stage.
“We're really moving quickly,” said Troll. “Anytime there's an issue, or any troubleshooting that occurs, the teams here on standby are ready to go. It really allows us to be adaptable and move quickly in an ever changing environment.
“ERCA truly is an example of a signature modernization system and follows the Army’s strategy of constantly looking for cost savings at the component, subsystem, and assembly line level,” Troll added. “Part of how we do that is that each organization or contractor isn’t developing something outside of the purview of another organization, and then trying to put it all together at the end. Our integrated, simultaneous, and concurrent approach is what speeds up our development”
From Troll’s perspective, the Armaments Center gained valuable experience now being applied to the multi-ERCA effort with its previous involvement in upgrading the M119 105mm towed artillery system. Several hundred howitzers received upgraded fire-control and recoil systems.
“Normally, the Armaments Center isn't the type of organization where you would do a complete overhaul of an entire fleet of weapon systems,” Troll noted. “But the M119 was unique because we had the folks developing those technologies here in-house. It made sense to have them be the installers of that technology so that we can move quickly to support that effort.”
The experience with the M119 underscored the value of having the varied areas of expertise clustered in a relatively compact area.
“We don't have to go travel three, four hours, wherever it is, in different areas in the country in order to go troubleshoot these new prototypes,” Troll explained. “We just walk next door. You plug it in and you're ready to go. By the afternoon, you have your answer. Those successes and lessons from M119 were transitioned over to ERCA. It really has panned out.
“A lot of the same folks that work on ERCA here today are the same folks that did that effort many years ago,” Troll said of the M119 retrofit. “They had that battle rhythm already going, and it was already established, so we just carried it over to support ERCA.”
The Armaments Center is finishing up its set of ERCA testing prototypes that have been delivered for testing and evaluation at various locations within the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command. Those prototypes will return to Picatinny Arsenal for upgrades and retrofit before issuance to operational units.
The current assembly of the first battalion of ERCAs is benefitting from the information gained with the first testing prototypes. The eventual battalion fleet is in a “test-fix-test” mode as the system elements (weapon, propellant, and projectiles) are concurrently developed. The current assembly effort is underway to meet the timeline for the FY23 operational assessment.
Robert Legemaat, the Integration and Demonstration IPT Lead, said the ongoing challenges of ERCA integration include coordinating with all the project teams to make sure that the correct configurations of the vehicles are being captured. Also, that when testing occurs, that the proper configuration of the vehicles are being met for each specific test.
In addition, there is the tedious process of producing all the detailed documentation of the end configuration. That process is necessary to ensure that, when ERCA is eventually transitioned to private industry for production, the industry partner will have all the information required to produce ERCAs in a traditional manufacturing setting.
“It’s challenging,” Legemaat said. “There are a lot of late nights and early mornings to accommodate this. At the end of the day, as long as we get a good product to the Soldier that we can validate and meet our deadlines, then it's worth it.”