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Army halts mortar buys, looks to trade up

Nov. 8, 2013 - 02:24PM   |  
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The maker of the Accelerated Precision Mortar Initiative questions the Army's move to stop purchasing the APMI. ATK says the Army could force a capability gap before a new type of mortar is available around 2019.
The maker of the Accelerated Precision Mortar Initiative questions the Army's move to stop purchasing the APMI. ATK says the Army could force a capability gap before a new type of mortar is available around 2019. (Program Executive Office Ammunition)
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The Army has called a check fire on purchases of its popular precision mortar as it targets a new program of record.

Soldiers and industry alike have expressed concern, and it’s not hard to understand why. The Accelerated Precision Mortar Initiative has become a favorite among fighters. The GPS-guided 120mm mortar cartridge provides enhanced reliability on first shot, boasting a 10-meter circular error probability at ranges beyond four miles, a capability that leaves even seasoned mortarmen wide-eyed and smiling.

That means quick defeat with low collateral damage. The current CEP for 120mm mortars at their maximum range is 136 meters, according to Army data.

Col. William Coleman, project manager for Combat Ammunition Systems, doesn’t hesitate to talk about the “great success” the Army has had with APMI, saying he has seen APMI effective as low as 2.2 meters, well beyond sanitized Army data.

So why stop a good thing? There are a few reasons, Coleman said.

The Army purchased 5,480 APMIs in response to an operational needs statement for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. It was a specific buy to meet a specific need. Therefore, the Army must address a number of laws and requirements before making future purchases.

The Army is taking this operational pause to adjust fire. A proposal to obtain a High Explosive Guided Mortar is being staffed at the Pentagon. The range and accuracy of this round would be similar to APMI, Coleman said. But the goal is to increase lethality from 70 percent to 80 percent, and reliability from 90 percent to 92 percent.

If Big Army decides to validate the requirement, HEGM would compete for funds in fiscal 2016. If successful there, delivery would likely occur in fiscal ’19 or ’20.

The maker of APMI questions the wisdom of this approach. Its cartridge is a game-changer. It was named a Top 10 invention by U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Command in 2011.

And its stockpile is dwindling.

“There could be a gap in the inventory that they have already purchased by the time they get deliveries of this High Explosive Guided Mortar,” said Dave Dorman, vice president of business development at ATK, APMI’s manufacturer.

The service has used quite a few in Afghanistan as APMI’s popularity grew, Dorman said. Although troops are leaving that country, there is talk of possibly equipping rapid-reaction forces with the cartridge. That means training rounds will also be needed.

The Army won’t say how many rounds it has left, but Coleman said there is enough stock to bridge the gap between APMI and HEGM. The challenge in his mind is getting HEGM approved — and that will take a different kind of precision.

The new mortar will face a tough budget battle as research, development, test and evaluation funding is shrinking.

The Army could write another operational needs statement if another contingency arises, Coleman said. But the cost of restarting the production line would be significant.

“This is a big concern, something I think about every day,” he said. “The [Program Executive Office] thinks about it. It is a big concern for the Maneuver Center of Excellence.”

The tight budget also is threatening APMI’s big brothers, Excalibur and the Precision Guidance Kit.

Heidi Shyu, the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, told the House Armed Services Committee on Oct. 23 that ongoing budget uncertainty is putting the nation at risk. The long list of programs in danger of cuts or elimination include 1,200 PGK fuzes and 285 Excalibur precision munitions.

Coleman said this dynamic duo, which has “done a fantastic job in combat operations,” could see anywhere from a 10 percent to 25 percent reduction.

Excalibur and PGK continue to draw international attention. Coleman had just completed a live fire exercise with German soldiers at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., when he spoke with Army Times.

The Germans put Excalibur rounds through their PzH 2000 armored howitzer vehicle and hit targets at 43.6 kilometers, which Coleman called “very awesome.”

In comparison, Marines set a record in June 2012 when they hit a target from 36 kilometers in Afghanistan. It was the first time the M777 howitzer had fired Excalibur in combat.

Australia bought a “small quantity” of PGKs for initial qualification and testing, Dorman said. This is noteworthy because countries do not typically sign up for procurement while the item is still in low-rate initial production. Now, Canada and a half-dozen European countries are lining up.

PGK on Oct. 30 received its final lot acceptance for urgent material. It will combine with Excalibur’s initial operational test and evaluation, which is scheduled for the third quarter of fiscal 2014. This approach will save more than $2 million, Coleman said.

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