Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include commentary from the Government Accountability Office.
The U.S. Army’s plans to fast-track an advanced howitzer are running into obstacles, according to a new report. The problems with the Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) program include untested ammunition, unproven technologies, and a lack of solid cost estimates. The project’s critical design review – needed to show that the system is ready for production – has already been pushed back a year, to mid-2023.
“ERCA encountered multiple challenges during the past year, including delays in maturing critical technologies,” warned a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. “These issues are likely to lead to schedule delays beyond those we reported last year and may lead to cost growth.”
GAO’s assessment of ERCA came as part of the agency’s annual report on Major Defense Acquisition Programs (MDAP), many of which have been plagued by reliance on immature technologies. But ERCA seems particularly vulnerable to delays.
“This was one of the most ambitious technology development efforts we observed in the programs we assessed,” Shelby Oakley, GAO’s director of contracting and national security acquisitions, told Sandboxx.
ERCA’s difficulties come as the U.S and other nations are putting renewed emphasis on long-range artillery. Though Western artillery became a somewhat neglected combat arm after the Cold War ended, it has garnered fresh attention after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The duel between Russia’s big guns and Ukraine’s Western-supplied cannon suggest future ground battles will be dominated by long-range cannon. And as Ukraine has painfully discovered, whichever side has cannon with superior range can destroy the enemy while remaining safely out of reach of counterbattery fire from hostile artillery.
The army with the best howitzer
ERCA was born in 2018 before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine when the U.S. Army realized that a new generation of Russian and Chinese artillery outranged its existing cannon. A Middle Tier of Acquisition (MTA) program designed for rapid prototyping, ERCA is essentially an upgraded M109A7 Paladin self-propelled 155-millimeter howitzer.
ERCA retains the Paladin chassis, but adds new features such as an autoloader and a longer gun barrel. Perhaps more importantly, the program relies on a new generation of ammunition, especially the XM1113 rocket-assisted projectile. While Russian rockets such as the BM-30 Smerch have a range of 56 miles (90 kilometers), the Paladin has a range of just 14 miles (22 kilometers) with regular high-explosive shells, and 19 miles (30 kilometers) when using rocket-assisted projectiles.
However, ERCA shot XM1113 rounds out to 43 miles (70 kilometers) during tests in 2020, while the autoloader managed to rapidly fire three Excalibur GPS-guided shells during a 2021 demonstration. The Army initially planned to deploy 18 prototypes to an artillery battalion in 2024.
“In July 2021, however, testing revealed that key technologies were not as mature as expected, among other issues,” GAO noted. “Officials subsequently reported that the program cannot meet its goals within the 5-year period established by DOD’s MTA policy and are coordinating with stakeholders to determine the program’s path forward.”
Not yet ready for center stage
While not identifying most of the specific technical issues with ERCA, the GAO report indicates that the project’s technology readiness level (TRL) is still too low. For example, the agency’s July 2021 technology readiness assessment identified “a critical subcomponent of the cannon assembly” as being immature.
“Our prior work on MDAPs has shown that increasing technology readiness levels even one level can take multiple years and becomes more challenging as the technology approaches maturity,” Oakley said. “This year, the ERCA program has dramatically scaled back its goals to mature these technologies from that of an actual system proven through successful mission operations to that of system prototype demonstration in an operational environment.”
Nor is the precise cost of the ERCA program clear. The Army has said an ERCA vehicle might cost less than $6 million apiece. However, “the program still lacks a formal technology risk assessment and a cost estimate based on an independent assessment—key elements of a program’s business case,” GAO found.
The Army has blamed the delays on “COVID-19, prototype manufacturing, and the availability of ammunition for testing.” Whatever the reasons, ERCA’s critical design review – needed to show the system is ready for production – has been postponed to mid-2023.
Further, ERCA has also suffered from problems with other programs, such as the Army’s effort to develop the long-range ammunition the new howitzer needs.
“Test officials stated that the program needs to test ERCA with this ammunition,” the report noted. While the program has yet to establish a specific date for this test, this interdependency further increases the program’s overall schedule risk.”
Teething problems with new technologies and products are inevitable. But as the F-35 fighter has shown, some Pentagon programs have more problems than others. Nonetheless, as the Ukraine war suggests, artillery is re-emerging as the “king of battle.” The U.S. Army needs better big guns as soon as possible.
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