WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- The last surviving member from a family of warriors that never experienced the heat of battle will return home to the Watervliet Arsenal early next year under a military escort provided by the New York Army National Guard.

The Soldiers, who will be on an official mission, will travel to Vermont and secure the warrior. With all due caution, they will bring this survivor back to the Arsenal where it will spend its last days.

Of all the splendor of what might have been, an experimental lightweight 155mm howitzer, which was designed, engineered, and manufactured at the Watervliet Arsenal, will once again stand proud when these Guard Soldiers claim, "End of Mission."

It is the last of its kind.

After the battlefield success against Iraqi forces during the early 1990s, came about a drive by Army leaders to "lighten the load" of combat systems so that the military might more quickly deploy to combat zones. In essence, 60-ton weapon systems take a lot of logistical effort to move from stateside locations to such places as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those who were responsible for the Army's acquisition of field artillery systems turned to defense contractors, as well as to its sole Army-owned large caliber manufacturer, the Watervliet Arsenal, to field lighter artillery systems.

According to Paul Koelbel, who was on the development team with Lockheed Martin Defense Systems at the time and who is now an engineer with the Army's Benet Laboratory, some of the challenges to this redesign were how to maintain the weapon's capabilities in regards to type of munitions fired, number of rounds per minute fired, and the weapons maximum effective range in light of a significant reduction of weight.

"We wanted to lower the weight by nearly 40 percent and do so without any loss to firepower of the conventional towed 155mm howitzers of the time," Koelbel said.

When Lockheed Martin came to Benet in 1995 with not much more than a desire to design and test fire a new lightweight 155mm howitzer within 12 months, there were some who thought that this might be a bridge to far.

But Robert Mysliwiec, team leader at Benet, said that the leadership at Benet and the manufacturing center at the Arsenal welcomed the challenge.

"Trying to reduce the weight from more than 16,000 pounds to less than 9,000 pounds, and do so within 12 months was both exciting as well as stressful," Mysliwiec said.

"By 1995, there was a heated race by at least four defense contractors to design, develop, and test a new lightweight artillery system and the Watervliet Arsenal was in the thick of it thanks to the unique capabilities that reside at this post," Mysliwiec added.

The Army's Benet Laboratory, which is a premier future weapons research and design facility, is collocated with the Watervliet Arsenal's manufacturing center. Together, these two Army facilities can rapidly take a concept through prototype development to full production within a five minute walk of each other.

Koelbel said that only two prototype howitzers were tested by Lockheed in the deserts of Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., in 1996. Although this gun was nearly 40 percent lighter than the 155mm towed howitzers that were in the Army's inventory at that time, the Army did not select this gun system for fielding.

Instead of destroying this last experimental gun, the General Dynamics test range facility in Jericho, Vt., is donating the gun, at no cost, to the Watervliet Arsenal in hopes that the gun will help tell the story of artillery warfare. General Dynamics acquired the gun when the Lockheed Martin operation was sold in 1997.

Although workers at Benet Labs and the Watervliet Arsenal were initially saddened by Lockheed's setback, they still came out winners. BAE Systems won the competition to replace the former M198 155mm howitzer with an M777 155mm lightweight howitzer. The Arsenal manufactures the barrels and other subassemblies for BAE's M777 howitzer for the Marines and the Army.

Although Benet is located on the Arsenal, it falls under the command of the U.S. Army Armaments Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC). Their research and design capability is often leveraged by the Arsenal to improve production methods and products.