Weapons: Land 17’s shifting landscape | ADM Sep 08

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With potential options for the Land 17 Artillery Replacement project now extended to include an all-Lightweight Towed 155mm capability, some serious consideration about the real value of introducing tracked self propelled artillery may now be on the cards.

Tom Muir Canberra

The message of 17 July was blunt.

The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress that Australia had requested a possible sale of 57 M777A2 155mm Light-Weight Howitzers, 57 AN/VRC-91F Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio Systems (SINCGARS), integration, spare and repair parts, support and test equipment, publications and technical documentation, maintenance, personnel training and training equipment, US Government and contractor engineering and logistics support services, and other related elements of logistics support.

The estimated cost was $248 million.

In support of this FMS request the statement said the proposed sale would greatly contribute to Australia’s military capability by making it a more sustainable coalition force to support the Global War on Terror.

“Australia will use these new M777A2 155mm Howitzers to protect its deployed troops, and give them the ability to operate in hazardous conditions.

"Australia currently operates the 100mm Hamel Howitzer and the 155mm M198 Howitzer and will have no difficulty absorbing these howitzers into its armed forces.”

Aside from the Heinz connotation, which might suggest a varied mix of artillery, the figure of 57 is interesting.

The ITR for LW155 sought a minimum of 18 LW155 up to a maximum of 35.

The exact quantity of systems to be acquired was to be confirmed in a subsequent RFT.

But in the absence of any other than the M777A2 as a candidate for the L17 LW155 requirement - the Singapore Technologies Pegasus was deemed too heavy for CH-47D air mobility - there was no point in issuing an RFT since an FMS case was already in train, or seeking a commercial deal with M777 manufacturer BAE Systems.

The DMO’s Stephen Gumley recently opined at Senate hearings that the US FMS scheme was a sound choice for buying military off the shelf systems.

There appears to have been an increase in potential numbers sought for both self-propelled and lightweight towed artillery systems.

When the project received First Pass approval in February 2006 it was to explore the acquisition of not less than two batteries (12) of protected self-propelled howitzers (SPH), and not more than four batteries (24) of lightweight towed howitzers (LWT).

Industry was subsequently informed that the requirement was for a minimum of 18 SPH and up to 35 LWTs.

The RFT for the SPH, released late last year sought an SPH Capability of 18, 24 or 30 systems.

And concurrent with the release of the LWT ITR an FMS case was initiated, which we now know covers a possible requirement for 57 systems.

Where will it end?

We suspect that many were surprised at the number of LWT systems sought under the FMS case.

Was this a hedge in case the costly SP capability fell over in the White Paper?

SP artillery will undoubtedly be more expensive to acquire and to maintain over their 30-odd year life of type.

And ‘sustainment’ appears to be the main focus for budget ‘savings’ by the DMO.

The outcome of last September’s RFT, for the supply of the SPH capability, is currently a run-off between the two tracked heavyweights, the Samsung Techwin AS-9, and the Krauss Maffei Wegmann (KMW) PzH 2000.

The former is teamed with Raytheon Australia and the latter with BAE Systems Australia.

Which leads to the question: do we really need heavy, tracked, self propelled artillery when much lighter and less costly towed systems, capable of firing the same smart ammunition, are available?

The short answer is that we do, although whether we can afford them is another matter.

Once in theatre, the SP provides mobile indirect fire protection to combat teams on the ground with considerable protection for its crew (four in the case of the AS-9).

However, in relatively fast-moving counter insurgency operations, against a foe seemingly well versed in asymmetric warfare, we suspect that close air support from armed helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, may be more usually employed.

While LWTs have the advantage of air-mobility for ready deployment by CH-47s in theatre, they then require some immediate manhandling on the ground to establish their firing positions, a situation we understand can be aided with the use of Army quad-bikes.

But once they have fired, the LWTs need to be shifted to a new location to avoid counter fire although we suspect this may be more of an issue when operating in close proximity to insurgent forces.

The Canadians use a cargo/crane variant of their new militarized Mercedes-Benz Actros trucks, known as Armoured Heavy Support Vehicles, for towing the M777 LWT and its basic ammunition load.

But the answer for us could lie in the HMT Supacat Portee, the purpose-built 8x6 version of the Supacat high mobility cross country vehicle which carries the M777A2 on the rear of the vehicle.

The Supacat HMT family is entering service with US and British forces in two and three axle configurations, and as the ‘Nary’ for Australian special forces use.

Unfortunately when the Supacat Portee was first mooted as a possibility for M777 mobility, it was discounted as introducing unwanted complexity to the L17 program, which now boasts a range of complications including the late introduction of protective measures that effectively forced the wheeled SP contenders out of the running.

Perhaps Thales will now spruik their Bushmaster ute, in crewcab configuration, for the role of tractor and limber.

The ASLAV would do a better job cross country but its rear ramp precludes its use as a gun tractor.

White paper wash-up

We suspect the White Paper wash-up may see the ADF re-equipped with 3 batteries (18) SPH155s, and then as many LWT155s as deemed necessary for a full complement of deployable batteries, (say 3 SPH and 4 LWT) plus sufficient LWTs for 2-4 training batteries and whatever can be afforded, or is required, for the Reserves.

The ADF would then have deployable 155mm indirect fire capabilities comprising:

• three full batteries of self-propelled 155mm howitzers for the 8/12 Mdm Regt to support medium combined arms teams, and

• four batteries of lightweight towed 155mm howitzers in the 4 Fd Regt to support light combined arms teams.

• Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

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