Army’s artillery replacement project – valued at just shy of $500 million – has taken a step forward with the announcement of the intention to purchase 155mm M777 towed howitzers from BAE Systems.
2nd Nov 2009
Army’s artillery replacement project – valued at just shy of $500 million – has taken a step forward with the announcement of the intention to purchase 155mm M777 towed howitzers from BAE Systems. Announced on October 20, the procurement of 35 of these weapons has been regarded as inevitable since they are the only product available on the market that meet Army’s stringent weight requirements. Specifically the capability of Chinook CH-47s drove the weight requirement because of the need for the guns to be helicopter transportable.
The Ministerial media release explained that Army will acquire 4 batteries of these guns and since the number 35 is not neatly divisible by 4 it is clear that some will be used for training purposes. The purchase is through the US Foreign Military Sales System. For a classic piece of artillery the M777 is an excellent product and has earned good operational reviews from Afghanistan, where the US Marine Corps and Army, as well by the Canadians, have deployed it. The gun is a technological success story and since being initially ordered in 1997 to replace the US inventory of M198 guns has seen a steady increase in orders.
The low weight of the M777 – about half that of a conventional 155mm howitzer – is explained by the extensive use of titanium in its construction. This is easy to say but involves complex manufacturing techniques. The downside is that the gun is relatively expensive but since it has no direct competitor its cost does not seem to have affected its appeal.
The M777 can fire a standard projectile about 25 km and the Excalibur base-bleed shell to 40km with a claimed accuracy of less than 10m. The rate of fire is a standard 2 rounds per minute, though a burst capability of 5 rounds in the same time is possible. As well as the excellent physics of the gun, it comes with a digital fire control system, which contributes to its performance.
While the purchase of the M777 seems to have been straightforward the same cannot be said for the Self-Propelled Howitzer (SPH) element of Land 17. The acquisition of an SPH system makes sense because such a system offers crews a level of protection and allows the gun to keep up with fast moving armoured forces, amongst other benefits. Despite this, Australia does not have a tradition of operating self-propelled systems and the last time such modern technology was used was in the 1950s.
Army originally considered a number of SPH systems – wheeled as well as tracked. However, operational experience – especially in Afghanistan – led to a change in specification which effectively ruled out anything other than tracked solutions, mainly because of dramatically increased crew protection requirements. This left 2 competitors in the race: Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) with the Panzerhaubitze (PzH) 2000 and Samsung Techwin with the AS-9, an updated version of the K-9. KMW teamed with BAE Systems to provide through-life support and Samsung teamed with Raytheon in a move designed to minimize risk, especially when it comes to integrating the SPHs into the wider Army command and control network. The logic is that Raytheon will also be the sole-source provider of advanced field artillery tactical data system (AFATDS) to be acquired as another element in Land 17.
As can be expected in the penultimate stage of an Australian competition, both solutions are broadly similar, even though each claims to out-perform the other. KMW are very keen to emphasise that they are the only combat-proven solution and point to their international sales record. Raytheon emphasise the extent to which their solution is tailored to meet Army’s demanding requirements and point to their strong Australian industry package. It seems fair to assume that the Raytheon solution is cheaper because the parent South Korean SPH is in series production, while the PzH2000 is not.
The Department of Defence is being extremely guarded about any information connected with the project and the level of secrecy in turn is leading to speculation that something very strange is going on. Firstly, rather than moving quickly to announce a preferred bidder, the Department arranged a type of run off with a further offer definition and refinement phase. The problem is that only one team – Raytheon/Samsung – participated. KMW in consultation with BAE Systems decided not to sign the study contract because of valid concerns about intellectual property issues, amongst other things. The KMW offer is still valid, and remains so until mid-next year, exactly the same as for the AS-9. However in response to an inquiry from APDR about whether both bidders were still actively participating, the Department responded bizarrely:
Because of the commercially sensitive nature of the information under evaluation, details cannot be released publicly until the process is complete and Government has considered the outcome.
The growing suspicion is that the competitive, balanced and fair evaluation process is not giving Army the result that some of their senior officers want.