BAE Systems has been given the green light and a hefty check by the Army to upgrade the final lot of M109 Paladin self-propelled guns to the modern A7 configuration, a move that all but clears the vehicle for full-rate production, according to a company executive.
The Army on Dec. 21 awarded BAE a $227 million contract for 228 sets of M109A7 Paladins and M992A3 ammunition carriers under the Paladin Integrated Management (PIM) program. According to BAE, the contract for low-rate initial production (LRIP) year three is worth a total $413 million. The contract carries full-rate production options that if exercised would bring the total cumulative value to $1.7 billion.
To date, BAE has delivered 38 howitzers and 26 ammo carriers to the Army, according to Adam Zarfoss, the company’s vice president and general manager of U.S. combat vehicles. Most of those vehicles are in production qualification and verification testing in preparation for initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E), which is expected to wrap up in March 2018.
The company is not significantly increasing production capacity because its current York, Pa., manufacturing facility and others can support the workload, Zarfoss said. BAE is achieving efficiencies associated with building and/or upgrading multiple vehicles for the Army’s armored brigade combat teams (ABCTs), including the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and M113 replacement Armored Multipurpose Vehicle (AMPV).
“From a factory perspective, we don’t anticipate a whole lot of changes to the assembly line because we originally scaled it to support full-rate production requirements,” Zarfoss said in an interview. “We are adding some capacity here in terms of some new machining equipment, mainly [to become] more efficient and helping us prepare for not just PIM LRIP, but some other programs within the ABCT.”
So far a single brigade – the same one that has been testing the vehicles at Fort Riley, Kan. – has new M109A7s. That brigade is expected to begin operational tests of the howitzer in early 2018.
“We have heard, but don’t know it for a fact that that will be the first unit equipped, out at Fort Riley,” Zarfoss said.
It is unusual to declare full-rate production before operational testing is complete. The Army got around that milestone requirement by hitching full-rate production options to the final LRIP contract. The first year awarded under the contract is the third and final LRIP option.
The first award is for 48 howitzer-ammo carrier sets, Zarfoss said. Those vehicles will officially be classified as low-rate production units. The first option on the new contract will be the first year of full-rate production, which will be decided on after IOT&E, Zarfoss said.
The M109A7 is an upgrade of the M109A6 Paladin Self-Propelled Howitzer. It uses the existing main armament and cab structure of the M109A6, but replaces the vehicle’s chassis structure with a new design that increases survivability and allows for the integration of drive-train and suspension components common to the Bradley.
That commonality, which also extends to the AMPV, cuts the vehicle’s logistics tail and simplifies maintenance, Zarfoss said. Bradley components including the engine and transmission were repurposed for Paladin.
“It was a purposeful effort on our part to enhance commonality within the formation and provide that kind of growth potential we need for the fleet,” Zarfoss said. “You can have one torsion bar that can go either in to a Bradley or a howitzer so you don’t have to carry two different types. You can train your mechanics to work on this engine and it will be the same engine they have for the Bradley or for the PIM or for AMPV that’s coming online.”
PIM and the A7 configurations also integrate a significant boost in onboard power to support future growth, including the eventual addition of a larger main cannon that should result from the Army’s extended-range cannon programs. The Army will purchase and integrate that cannon under a separate contract.
“The PIM program provides significant growth potential for the Army, whether it’s all the additional onboard or the ability to carry more weight, or the enhanced gun drive,” Zarfoss said. “We’re pretty well positioned to except that. … This positions us for that additional growth, whether that is additional cannon weight, heavier loads or higher electrical payload, we are well positioned for the future.”
The M109A7 also leverages technologies from previous design programs, such as a 600-volt on-board power generation, distribution, and management system, coupled with a high-voltage electric gun drive and projectile ramming systems. The state-of-the-art digital backbone and power generation capability provides significant growth potential for future payloads, and will accommodate existing battlefield network requirements.
Also included in the A7 upgrades are scalable, tailorable armor and survivability enhancements. Though the Army has no requirement for active protection systems on the vehicle, “there is more than sufficient electrical power and weight carrying capacity to do that should the Army desire,” Zarfoss said.
Some changes were made to the vehicle after the Defense Department Inspector General in 2016 found deficiencies with the crew cab fire suppression system. Those problems have been addressed by rearranging the fire extinguisher bottles and the sensors that control them inside the cab, Zarfoss said.
“My understanding is the system meets the requirements as stated with the tweaks we made … not major changes, just moving some sensors around,” he said. “That was identified along with an issue around some breach parts."