US Army Brig. Gen. David Bassett visited this remote desert artillery range to see something that has become increasingly rare in Army acquisition circles: a major developmental program that looks like it’s going to work.
Although the system isn’t entirely new, the decades-old Paladin 155mm mobile howitzer system has undergone such a radical upgrade that “it’s managed essentially as a new program” Bassett said, in between outgoing rounds at the test range.
With wholesale replacements of the electronics gear and firing drive, and increased maneuverability, speed and crew protection, the new Paladin “is going to be the leader” of the platforms in the Armor Brigade Combat Team (ABCT), he said, “and the other programs are going to be struggling to keep up with where it has now gone.”
Beginning in August, the old Paladin chassis will begin to be shipped to the Anniston Army Depot, Ala., where they’ll be stripped of usable parts for the new system. The same engine, transmission, drives and tracks used on the most recently upgraded M2/M3 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles will be incorporated onto the new vehicle.
The new Paladin also brings back the electric gun drive system from the Non-Line of Sight cannon canceled in 2009 as part of the scrapped $20 billion Future Combat Systems program. NLOS replaces the old hydraulic firing system.
Once those parts are harvested, the new Bradley chassis built at BAE Systems’ facility in York, Pa., will be sent to a new production facility the company is building in Eglin, Okla., for final assembly.
Using existing parts on new systems is a production method the Army is also employing on its Stryker V-Hull program — also at Anniston — and Bassett said “the idea of leveraging both our organic base and our commercial base together for a platform is really kind of the new normal. Most of the programs we run right now leverage both of those capacities.”
While weighing about 10,000 pounds heavier than its predecessor, the new Paladin — at 78,000 pounds — has been built with the capacity to grow to about 110,000 pounds while traveling at about 38 mph. That is actually faster than the previous model while being more maneuverable than the current Bradley, according to Adam Zarfoss, director of artillery programs at BAE.
The added speed and maneuverability “allows us to stay in pace with the rest of the ABCT” for the first time, said Lt. Col. Michael Zahuranic, the Army’s product manager for Self Propelled Howitzer Systems.
With the cancellation earlier this year of the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle program, which would have eventually replaced the Bradley, Bassett said the Army is going back and reworking its Bradley modernization plans.
Once the current Bradley upgrade program is competed, “we have a decision to make” he said. “Do you produce another substantial upgrade to the Bradley platform, or do you once again go after a new vehicle platform to get after the requirements that the infantry fighting vehicle needs to meet?
“A lot of what we’re doing now is trying to understand the limits of what you can do on a Bradley, and then what more do you gain if you go to a new start vehicle,” he said. “So there’s a fair amount of [science and technology] investment that’s focused on answering exactly that question.”
In terms of the service’s overall ground vehicle plan, “really, it’s about what’s the future of Bradley and the future infantry fighting vehicle, what’s the future of the Abrams tank and where do we go in terms of the Stryker fleet; [those] are the big questions we have to answer,” he added.
In October, BAE was awarded a contract worth up to $688 million to produce up to 66 vehicle sets, which includes the Paladin.
Overall, the Army plans to buy 551 new Paladins by 2027, with the first models starting production by March. The low-rate initial production award calls for BAE to deliver 66 Paladins along with their ammunition carrier vehicles, also based on the Bradley chassis, which will roll off the assembly line at a rate of three per month. The schedule calls for the work in Anniston to begin in May and York in June.
The fiscal 2015 Pentagon budget request asked for $330 million to continue the research, development, and procurement of the program.
As there are more Paladins now than will be broken down and used for the new system, Zahuranic said there are talks about selling those excess systems to allies.
With the automatic budget cuts mandated by sequestration scheduled to come back in fiscal 2016, however, all modernization plans come with an asterisk.
Bassett acknowledged the difficulty of sustaining momentum on modernization programs, since the new fiscal realities “require a substantial amount of savings from sequestration to be put into force structure instead of modernization … but even if sequestration is not applied, I’m not sure how much of the savings are going to go to modernization.”
As Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno has said time and again over the past two years, his priorities are buying back force structure and readiness, which will have to come at the expense of investing in new equipment. ■