Paladin: What's Right and Wrong With Army Modernization
In 1963, the U.S. Army introduced the M109A1 155mm turreted self-propelled howitzer (SPH), called the Paladin. An artillery piece that could keep up with mobile armored formations and survive counterbattery fire was essential to the Army’s mission of deterring high-end conventional conflict with the Soviet Union. The Paladin has seen service in every American conflict from the Vietnam War to the present. It is currently the primary fire support system for the Army’s Armored Brigade Combat Teams (ABCTs). Also, it is also in service in approximately twenty other countries.
The Paladin was not one of the U.S. Army’s iconic “Big Five” modernization programs. Nevertheless it, along with other major platforms such as the Multiple Launch Rocket System and the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle or Humvee, has defined the character of the Army’s combat capabilities for nearly half a century.
The M109 today is nothing like the system that first saw service in the Army more than fifty years ago. It has been almost continually upgraded. Improvements were made to virtually every Paladin component including the howitzer itself, fire controls, engine and drive train, armor and communications.
Currently, the howitzer is undergoing its sixth major upgrade, which is more of a modernization effort. What was called the Paladin Integrated Management program and is now the M19A7 SPH and M992A3 Carrier Ammunition Tracked vehicle (CAT), is intended to provide major improvements to the system’s mobility, reliability and performance. Both vehicles are essentially being rebuilt, using major components of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle inside a new hull. Commonality of parts between the Paladin and Bradley will improve overall sustainment in the ABCT.
In addition, the M109A7 will incorporate a state-of-the-art digital backbone, enhanced power generation system and electric gun drive and rammer. Notably, several of these new technologies were originally developed under the Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon (NLOS-C) program that was part of the now-canceled Future Combat System.
The Paladin upgrade program is being conducted through a special public-private partnership between Anniston Army Depot and BAE Systems, Inc. Anniston provides most of the skilled labor as well as critical facilities, while BAE Systems is principally responsible for engineering support, components and supply chain management.
This sixth upgrade is unlikely to be the last. According to published reports, the Army is looking to leverage this latest set of improvements to the Paladin as the base for a seventh round of modernization. The newest Paladin variant can support a larger caliber howitzer that will be able to send projectiles out to 70 km, nearly triple the howitzer’s current range. Even greater ranges are possible with the new artillery rounds being developed for the Army, including several by BAE Systems.
The improved Paladin, were it also equipped with a longer-range cannon, could help meet the Army’s critical shortfall in long-range fires. Currently, U.S. and NATO artillery are out-ranged by Russian guns. At 70 km, the Paladin would be able to engage most Russian indirect fire systems, both cannons and rockets. Combined with one of the Army’s modernization priorities, Long Range Precision Fires, the upgraded Paladin could, at a minimum, restore parity with the Russian Army.
To an Army determined to change the way it pursues modernization, the history of the Paladin program is a cautionary tale. Two efforts at replacing the Paladin, the Crusader and NLOS-C, foundered due to a combination of requirements hubris, technology overreach, high costs and changing international threats. Paladin remains and, when upgraded, will operate as an effective part of the ABCT for decades to come.
The Paladin represents both what is right and wrong with the Army’s approach to modernization. What is right about its approach is the ability to continually improve existing platforms and systems. This minimizes technological risk as well as the opportunity costs associated with major changes in equipment.
Through a process of incremental modernization, the Army could soon have a self-propelled howitzer that in virtually all respects is an entirely different system than the one deployed fifty years ago. Add to the new platform the latest artillery projectiles, themselves the product of more than six centuries of incremental advances, and the result is a major new military capability.
What is wrong with Army acquisition is the penchant of that same system, or at least some of its leaders, to become fixated on the goal of inventing something new, even transformational. Sometimes this is a function of requirements in search of capabilities to justify a particular vision of future combat. In other cases, it is a reflection of the mistaken notion that technological change demands a response by the acquisition system. The repeated failures to develop a follow-on to the Paladin were the consequence of these defects in the way the Army thinks about modernization.
Truly revolutionary technological change is a rare event. Exploiting technological advances to create a new weapons system or military platform is even rarer. Many things we consider technological revolutions, such as the mobile phone, are the result of a series of incremental advances that are brought together over time in a new, and yes revolutionary, piece of hardware.
The leadership of the Army’s new Futures Command must guard against taking their organization’s title literally. They will need to draw a clear line between modernization as a leap ahead and the same outcome resulting from continual technological improvements. Which is the future? The answer is both.
Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.