Raytheon's Excalibur satellite-guided artillery shell appears back on course after a guidance problem sidetracked the program for much of last year.
That's good timing for Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems - the region's biggest employer - as it braces for a billion-dollar decision on who will make the next generation of the precision strike weapon.
A Raytheon official said the company is confident in its new design headed into a competitive "shoot-off" this summer with its rival for the Army program, Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems Inc.
David Brockway, business-development manager for Raytheon's Excalibur program, said the company is confident of its next-generation Excalibur design after conducting a series of test firings.
"We're hitting aim points within a few meters," Brockway said.
"The few-meters miss requirement is critical to avoid collateral damage, to avoid killing civilians - that's the value it brings to the warfighter."
The first-generation Excalibur XM982 guided artillery round was praised by the Army and many analysts for its accuracy.
With a combination of GPS satellite and inertial guidance - hardened to withstand the shock of firing - the 155mm Excalibur can strike from ranges up to about 23 miles to within about 20 feet of its target. That compares with a "miss distance," or margin of error, of up to about 800 feet for unguided artillery shells.
Precision a must
Facing the need to hit small targets while limiting so-called collateral damage and civilian casualties in Iraq, the Army rushed the initial Excalibur 1a version to battle in 2007.
"We are fighting a war where there's not a monolithic enemy out there," said Lt. Col. Mike Milner, product manager for Excalibur at the Army's Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey.
"Very much like Vietnam, they're hidden among the population. When we kill civilians, it's never a good thing," Milner said.
The roughly 6-inch-diameter guided shell was deployed to Paladin self-propelled artillery units in Iraq, where two were fired in a successful July 2007 attack against an al-Qaida leader who was killed, the Army said.
In February 2008, the weapon was deployed to lightweight howitzer units - towed artillery guns - in Afghanistan, where it has since been fired dozens of times by U.S. and Canadian troops.
Acclaim - and initial production contracts - followed.
In June 2008, Excalibur was named among the U.S. Army's 10 Greatest Inventions of the Year for 2007.
In September 2008, Raytheon was awarded an $85.3 million Army contract for Excalibur production, following a $48.4 million production contract awarded in November 2007.
But in November 2008, the Army suspended deliveries of the Excalibur after one of the projectiles delivered for deployment failed during a test.
The flight failure - during which "the projectile flew back toward the firing position," according to a recent Pentagon report - was blamed on a guidance-control unit, known as an inertial measurement unit, made by Honeywell International Inc.
The suspension was lifted and deliveries resumed in August 2009, after Raytheon replaced the inertial guidance unit with a unit from a new supplier.
Shoot-off this summer
In the meantime, the Army announced a competitive bid process for work on the next generation of Excalibur, version 1b, with the main goals of lower cost and greater reliability.
In September 2008, the Army awarded two similar developmental contracts to Raytheon and Alliant Techsystems for the design of the Excalibur 1b.
The two companies are readying their prototypes for a planned shoot-off - a side-by-side live firing - expected this summer, followed by a decision on a long-term production contract.
The stakes are high - the Army plans to buy some 30,000 Excaliburs overall, mostly the next-generation 1b version, under production contracts expected to be worth up to $1.2 billion over the program's life.
While that money would be spread over several years, it would be a welcome piece of Army business for Raytheon Missile Systems, which had sales of $5.6 billion last year.
Last year, the Tucson-based unit of Raytheon Co. saw three key programs canceled - two missile-defense programs and a program related to the Army's canceled Future Combat Systems program.
More flexible, faster
Expectations for the next-generation Excalibur are high as well.
The Army is looking to cut the cost of Excalibur by more than half - from $102,000 per unit to $47,400 - and boost reliability.
Raytheon's Excalibur 1a version is designed to hit within about 33 feet of its target, and it is hitting within about 20 feet, Milner said.
In contrast, unguided artillery shells can land hundreds of feet off target - not very useful for missions such as close support of ground troops.
Such capabilities promise to fundamentally change the way battles are fought with supporting fire, military analysts say.
John Pike, director of Global-security.com, said the Excalibur can replace the use of tanks, which long have been used at shorter ranges for precise support fire.
"You put GPS on the thing, and your howitzer becomes about as precise as your tank. You can throw big bullets at the enemy from 20 miles away - that's amazing," Pike said.
Milner said the Excalibur also would allow commanders to call up long-range, precision fire support at the brigade level, while decisions to call in air support are made at higher levels.
"It allows the field artillery to get into the fight by allowing them to engage key targets precisely," Milner said. "If you want to put a round into a house, you can do that safely, without damaging houses nearby."
Guidance kit in works
The Army is also working on a precision guidance kit for 155mm artillery shells that can improve accuracy to within about 150 feet, Milner noted. Alliant Techsystems is working on the first phase of that program; Raytheon expects to compete for later phases.
In the future, commanders could decide between unguided, kit-guided or Excalibur rounds, depending on the nature of the target and available resources, Milner said.
Brockway said Raytheon's Excalibur 1b design also will meet the Army's reliability requirement of 90 percent. The reliability measure includes the proper functioning of the artillery round and the ability of gun crews to fire it effectively, he noted.
When rushed to battle under the Army's early-fielding order, the Excalibur had to meet a reliability level of just 60 percent, he said.
The reliability level for 76 rounds fired by U.S. Army crews in Iraq as of October was 88 percent; reliability for 38 projectiles fired in Afghanistan up to October was 82 percent, according to a report by the Pentagon's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation.
"We've been investing in the technology to deliver on the order of 95 percent reliability, which is pretty amazing given this is still new technology," Brockway said.
Even when it fails, the latest Excalibur is designed to do no harm, with a system that can send an errant round to a safe impact point, Brockway noted.
An official of Alliant Techsystems said the company's Excalibur 1b program is on track to meet the Army's requirements.
"We think we have a very simple solution that is very precise and reliable, as well as low-cost," Alliant spokeswoman Amanda Covington said.
Upgraded 1a rounds
Meanwhile, Raytheon expects to have the final design for the Excalibur 1a round, the 1a-2, completed this summer, Brockway said.
Besides the new inertial guidance unit, the Excalibur 1a-2 features somewhat greater range and the ability to operate despite GPS jamming.
Milner said the Army is confident the guidance problem was fixed with the replacement component, noting that the problem was isolated to one production lot of projectiles.
Since the fix, the Army has been seeing reliability rates of around 95 percent, Milner said.
Of the 30,000 Excaliburs the Army plans to buy, about 4,500 are expected to be 1a-1 and 1a-2 rounds. The rest will be 1b rounds, which the Army expects to be available for fielding in fiscal 2014, says a Government Accountability Office report.
About 2,000 Excalibur 1a rounds have been delivered or are in final stages of delivery to the U.S. Army, Canada and Australia, Brockway said.
By the numbers
Demonstrated accuracy of the Excalibur guided artillery projectile (distance from target)
Typical accuracy of an unguided 155mm artillery shell
Cost of first-generation Excalibur 1a round, per unit
Cost goal for Excalibur 1b
Approximate cost of unguided 155mm artillery shell, with fuze
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