The U.S. Navy is looking for cheaper ammunition to use in its new 155mm AGS (Advanced Gun System). The problem is escalating costs for each of the GPS guided LRLAP shells the navy developed for the AGS. The navy revealed in early 2016 that the cost per shell had escalated to nearly half a million dollars, which was about ten times what the cost was supposed to be. But by late 2016 the navy revealed that the cost per shell are up to $800,000 and rising. Exactly why the costs had gone so far over budget were not revealed, at least not yet. Unfortunately this sort of thing is quite common in the peacetime military. This is especially true when the item in question depends on new technologies that have no track record.
Getting "smart” shells and missiles to work effectively is nothing new for the military. Noting the success of the American and U.S. Army radio guided bombs during World War II, a similar system for long range rockets was sought after the war. One result was that in the late 1950s the U.S. Army developed the Lacrosse missile. Work on this began with a 1940s U.S. Marine Corps request for a guided missile to hit small targets (like bunkers) on the battlefield. This was tricky back then because the system required a forward observer with a truck full of electronics gear to get the radio controlled missile to where it was supposed to go. The U.S. Army took over development in the 1950s and in 1959 put the system into production even though it still did not work right. The army cancelled the project in 1961 because the guidance system could never be tweaked to work reliably and accurately enough. Over a thousand of these one ton Lacrosse missiles were purchased, at a cost (in current dollars) of over $200,000 each. Lacrosse had a range of 19 kilometers and a 240 kg (540 pound) warhead. One reason for the cancellation was promising work on laser guided bombs, which were cheaper, more accurate and more reliable. These actually entered service in 1968 as the Paveway system and was very successful in Vietnam and ever since.
The army was still determined to have a ground based precision artillery weapon and by the 1970s was hard a work developing the 155mm Copperhead artillery shell. This was ready to go in the 1980. The Copperhead was laser guided. That is, it homed in on laser light that a forward observer was creating by pointing a laser at the target. It was the same technique used with laser guided bombs. But this was expensive technology. Each of the 3,000 Copperhead shells eventually built cost several hundred thousand dollars (the price varied, up to half a million bucks, depending on who was doing the calculating). While a "dumb" artillery shell will land with 75 meters of the aiming point, the Copperhead would land within a meter or two. But so what? It turned out there were many easier, and cheaper, ways to destroy enemy tanks or bunkers. This was demonstrated during the 1991 Gulf War, when a few Copperhead shells were used, successfully, but to reactions of, "whatever."
The U.S. Army persevered and noting the success of the cheaper (than Paveway) GPS guided bombs went and developed a 155mm round, Excalibur, that used GPS and entered service in 2007. Excalibur has a max range of 50 kilometers and will land within a 20 meter (62 foot) circle. In practice, Excalibur will land within a few meters of where it's aimed. Each Excalibur shell carries 9 kg (20 pounds) of explosives and costs under $100,000. Excalibur proved very popular with army troops, but with so many other guided weapons available (especially the GMLRS 227mm GPS guided rocket), not many are used. In Afghanistan 5-10 Excalibur shells were fired a week during peak periods.
Rather than use the proven technology of Excalibur for AGS the navy developed a similar shell, the LRLAP. Although the navy completed successful testing of AGS in 2013 there were already indications that costs were out of control for the ammo. In 2014 the navy asked defense firms to provide similar GPS guided shells for navy 127mm (5 inch) guns. The navy did this because there was no money for more development because of the high costs for LRLAP. The navy now took notice of the fact that there were numerous other GPS guided shell systems available out there for 155mm guns (mostly army artillery) and 120mm mortars. So someone probably has something for navy 127mm guns that can be bought “off the shelf” and immediately put to use. This would make naval gun fire against land targets much more effective and get more out of the limited ammunition supply each ship carries. Even the cost of these smart shells ($100,000 or more each) does not diminish the advantages. So far none of the land based artillery “smart shells” has been accepted by the navy.
Excalibur is the most likely candidate but first the navy would have to pay the costs of redesigning the automated loading system built for the AGS 155mm shell or pay to have Excalibur modified to be the same size and weight as the AGS shell. There’s no getting away from the fact that the navy has to either spend more to get relatively affordable ammo for the AGS, or abandon the AGS altogether. That is increasingly what happens.
The basic problem here is poor management, something the military does not like to discuss openly and in detail. That particular malaise has been around for a long time and was seen frequently before and during World War II. It has gotten worse since then. The basic problem is that the military, and the government in general, cannot attract enough competent program managers to get these projects done on time and on budget. While there are many successful projects, a growing number are mismanaged and spiral out of control because there was no one in charge to make the right decisions at the right time.
This situation made worse by the fact that the 155mm AGS is only used on the new DDG 1000 ("Zumwalt") destroyers and only three of these are being built and each has only two 155mm AGS. There were supposed to be a lot more DDG 1000s, but like the B-2 bomber, the F-22 fighters and the Seawolf class submarines, Crusader self-propelled artillery system and many more, the systems became too expensive and production was cut way back or canceled altogether.
It may be decades before the navy can afford to develop and buy a new surface warship that can handle the larger and heavier 155mm gun. Because only three DDG 1000s are being built for the next decade or so all the navy has to get by with some upgrades on its 62 Burke class destroyers, each armed with one 127mm gun. Buying GPS guided shells for the existing 127mm guns on these destroyers would be such an affordable upgrade.
The AGS used the LRLAP (Long Range Land Attack Projectile) GPS guided shell, which during tests hit land targets 83 kilometers distant. It was only in 2011 that LRLAP, after six years of development, had its first successful test firing. The AGS was designed to fire GPS guided shells up to 190 kilometers. That GPS guidance system enables the shells to land inside a 50 meter (155 foot) circle at that extreme range. The AGS shells carry 11 kg (24 pounds) of explosives. The AGS uses a water cooled barrel, so that it can fire ten rounds a minute for extended periods. Each AGS on the DDG 1000 carries 335 rounds of ammo, which is loaded and fired automatically. The AGS shell was originally supposed to enter service in 2015. That has now been delayed to 2018 and then only on a limited basis because of ammo shortages.
The AGS round succeeded where an earlier project (cancelled in 2005) spent twelve years and two billion dollars in a failed effort to develop a GPS guided round for the 127mm naval gun. This ERGM (extended range guided munition) system never worked reliably and was not any better when used in the larger 155mm AGS. The LRLAP was designed for the unique AGS design and was not transferrable to the older 127mm gun.
So the navy went looking for another solution. Taking note of the success of the 155mm Excalibur, the navy ended up using some of that technology for its AGS. The navy wanted to use AGS on new warship designs, in order to get more effectiveness out of the limited amount of ammo a ship can carry. Accuracy is the key. A "dumb" (unguided) artillery shell will land with 75 meters (or more, depending on range) of the aiming point, while the laser guided Copperhead land within a meter or two GPS guided shells hit within 3-25 meters of the aiming point.
The AGS shell has a longer range because it is fired from a longer barrel using a more powerful propellant charge. AGS rounds are also capable of the same accuracy as Excalibur, but it depends on the quality of the GPS signal in the area. The Excalibur manufacturer developed a 127mm version and this is the one the navy is willing to test. There are several other similar 127mm designs for naval guns and the navy is willing to look at those as well.
Because of all this AGS may never be heavily used for supporting troops ashore. Adding a terminal guidance system to the AGS shell would make it suitable to attacking other ships. Some naval officers have urged the adoption of the army 227mm MLRS rocket but there’s too much support for AGS for that to happen, at least not yet. Meanwhile, Italy has put into service a GPS guided 127mm shell (Volcano) that has a 100 kilometer range and works. The Italian 127mm/64 a bit longer than the U.S. 127mm/54 models, but that would not reduce range of the rocket assisted Volcano shell by much. The 64 means the barrel is 64 times the diameter of the gun or 8.2 meters (or 25 feet) long. The 127/54 barrel is 6.8 meters (21 feet). While there is resistance to buying foreign weapons for U.S. ships there have been several exceptions in the past few decades and Volcano could be another one. The AGS is really too big and power hungry to fit on existing American destroyers and cruisers.
The Excalibur technology could be adapted for use on the 127mm gun most American destroyers carry, as could an even cheaper (and less accurate) technology that uses a larger fuze (the device that is screwed into the front of the shell to handle detonation) containing the GPS receiver and some movable fins to guide the shell. That approach is less accurate this Excalibur remains the leading candidate because the manufacturer has developed a version of the shell with laser as well as GPS guidance. The navy guided shell effort has burned up so much cash, and failed so many times, that growing budget cuts mean if they cannot buy something off the shelf the effort to be halted, for now. Or at least until the Chinese reveal they are working on a similar shell for their warships.