A lighter 60mm mortar is gun-up, new tank ammo is loaded but in a tactical pause, and the lightweight .50-caliber machine gun is clearing a considerable jam. Such is the status of three key weapon and munitions programs by the U.S. Army.
The service awarded ATK a $77 million, three-year contract to develop and qualify the M829E4 120mm Advanced Kinetic Energy tactical tank round, a 5th-generation munition meant to be much more lethal against faraway targets with advanced explosive reactive armor.
"This round provides added kill capability without added responsibility," said Craig Aakhus, ATK's engineering director for tank ammo.
But its greatest threat may not be on the battlefield. Congress in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act ordered a cost-benefit analysis of future M1 Abrams munitions "to determine the proper investment to be made in tank munitions, including beyond-line-of-sight technology." The analysis will address predicted operational performance of each munition in close-, mid- and long-range uses, and beyond line of sight, and must include the Advanced Kinetic Energy round, as well as the Mid-Range Munition and Advanced Multipurpose Program.
The analysis was due by April 15, but the Army was allowed to push that back. Service officials did not respond when asked when the new report would be presented.
Jeff Janey, ATK's director for strategy and business development, was confident that the round's "leap ahead in capability" will more than cover its "incremental cost increase."
Since 1980, ATK has developed 10 of the 12 tank rounds and delivered more than 4 million tactical and training rounds to the Army, Marines and allied militaries.
ATK demonstrated in Phase I of testing that the Advanced Kinetic Energy round can meet all threshold requirements. Reliability will be put to the test over the next 31 months, with a critical design review coming about 20 months in. A low-rate initial production of 800 rounds will follow Phase II, with live-fire tests at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz. If all goes according to plan, production of about 4,200 rounds will begin in the summer of 2014.
Still, the armor force of the future remains in a confusing quagmire. On one hand, there is much debate as to where - and in what quantity - tanks fit into future operations. Military and congressional leaders alike have increasingly pushed for an expeditionary Army centered on low-intensity, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, with fewer heavy forces sitting in a peripheral stand-by.
The Combat Vehicle Portfolio review stands as the primary factor for finding the right force. The Army this summer asked Congress to divert $124.5 million slated for a materiel development decision for the Abrams tank until the review is completed, which is expected at any time.
The Army also looks to save money by shutting down tank production lines for the first time since 1941.
Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, at a May 18 Senate subcommittee hearing on defense appropriations, said though shutting down the plant and losing that "expert force" has undeniable costs, budget considerations required it, particularly since the Abrams inventory "is among the most modern of any of our equipment," with an average age of just over two years old, and keeping the plant open with minimum production was not fiscally responsible.
The House Appropriations defense subcommittee didn't agree; it added $272 million to the Army's budget request and ordered the service to buy more tanks. In addition, 120 lawmakers in May signed a bipartisan letter arguing the Army would save more money keeping the production line open rather than closing it and paying the associated costs. It will cost General Dynamics $380 million to shut down the plant and mothball the equipment, and an additional $1.3 billion to restart production, said Mike Cannon, General Dynamics' senior vice president for ground combat systems.
At the proposed end of production in 2013, the Army's tank fleet will include 1,547 M1A2 System Enhance Package tanks, mostly fielded to active units, and 791 M1A1 tanks, all fielded to National Guard units.
The Army in July also asked for an extra $31 million for the Abrams Upgrade Program. The tanks are experiencing greater-than-expected washout rates in regard to gun tubes, engines, transmissions, final drives, high hard armor plates in the sponson area, ammunition doors and rails.
Low-rate initial production of 800 XM806 lightweight .50-caliber machine guns started in February. A pierced primer during limited user testing halted progress, said Lt. Col. Thomas Ryan, product manager of crew-served weapons for Program Executive Office Soldier. Delivery, which was expected by 2014, is now delayed 17 months.
While no one likes a delay, finding this fault early in the process has allowed the Army to build a more reliable and durable weapon, Ryan said. The service dropped an additional $45 million on a re-engineered bolt, adjustments to the fixed head space and new tests. Officials have put 300,000 rounds downrange and the results have been strong.
The XM806 cuts the weight of the 128-pound M2 by half and reduces recoil by 60 percent. It also boasts an effective range of 2,000 meters, 170 better than the M2. The machine gun, which has a manual safety, allows for quick barrel changes that do not require adjustments for head space and timing.
Relief also is on the way for the A-gunner tapped to carry the tripod. The XM205 weighs 13 pounds less than the 44-pound M3 now being carried. The XM205 collapses to less than 50 percent of deployed height.
Trigger pullers aren't the only ones getting some relief. The 1st Special Forces Group in Fort Lewis, Wash., has become the first unit to receive the latest M224A1 60mm Lightweight Company Mortar System. The new mortar knocks 20 percent off its predecessor's 46-pound weight while maintaining its max range, which is better than two miles. This was made possible by cutting out a few components and using a nickel-based super alloy called Inconel to make cannon tubes. The material is lighter, more durable, and needs less maintenance, officials said.
The Army will replace all 1,550 of its 60mm mortars with this new system by 2014, officials said. Ë
Mike Hoffman contributed to this report.