WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- The U.S. Army awarded a $12.5 million contract this month to the Watervliet Arsenal to manufacture howitzer tubes and subassemblies for the Army's lightweight 155mm howitzer, the M777.

"This is great news for the Arsenal in that this multimillion dollar order will ensure work for more than 24 workers for the next year," said Ray Gaston, director of planning and production. "We are also hopeful the Army will provide us a follow-on order sometime early next year."

Although the Arsenal's business model has changed in the last few years from a focus on cannon tube production to the production of mortar tubes, the larger caliber weapon systems truly have a significant effect on workload, which means more direct labor hours.

According to Gaston, a 155mm howitzer cannon may take nearly 600 hours to manufacture, whereas a mortar tube requires about 70 hours to manufacture.

Orders for mortars have greatly increased since 2007 due directly to the type of ground combat that our military is doing in Afghanistan. The Watervliet Arsenal has manufactured various parts - from tubes to base plates - for more than 2,000 mortar systems in the last 12 months.

Given the long lead time to procure the forgings for the tubes, Gaston said he expects the first delivery to the Army will occur next June.

The Arsenal had previously worked with BAE Systems to manufacture tubes and subassemblies for the M777 that went into full production in 2005. The M777 replaced the M198, 155mm towed howitzer system.

This is the third multimillion dollar contract awarded by the Army to the Arsenal in recent months. Last July, the Army awarded a $14 million contract for breech blocks for the 105mm howitzer system and then last month, the Arsenal made its first shipment of new lightweight 60mm mortar barrels as part of a new $9.5 million contract with the Army.

According to BAE Systems:

The revolutionary M777, weighing in at less than 4200kg (about 9259 pounds) is the world's first artillery weapon to make widespread use of titanium and aluminum alloys, resulting in a howitzer which is half the weight of conventional 155mm systems.

The M777 can fire the "smart" Excalibur round, co-developed by Global Combat Systems up to 40 km (25 miles) accurately enough to target individual rooms within a building, reducing the chance of innocent casualties and allowing supporting fire to be brought down much closer to friendly troops.

It can hurl a standard 43.5 kg shell almost 30 km (21 miles) at 2.5 times the speed of sound. The projectile takes just over a minute to fly this distance and reaches a maximum height of 12km. The shell reaches its maximum speed of 2900 kph (1800 mph) by the time it exits the muzzle of the gun.