Approaching a Problem to Replace a Gun System
Another in a series by Tom Rozman
It was 1987 and the 82nd Airborne Division was running out of replacements for operationally damaged M551 Sheridan Armored Reconnaissance/Airborne Assault Vehicles. Not only were the vehicles being damaged and lost in airborne training operations of the division’s light armored battalion but the remaining inventory was being exhausted by use of the vehicles with add on visual modification kits as VISMODs (abbreviation for visually modified) at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, California. In the latter situation, the vehicles were representing Soviet model armored vehicles in the intense battalion and larger force on force training exercises at the center.
The worsening situation for ability to properly equip the 82nd Airborne Division’s light tank battalion was causing grave concern for the XVIIIth Airborne Corps Commander. With no replacement system on the horizon and no other system in the inventory that could meet the need, the corps commander was in need of a solution. Adding to the challenge was the need to have a chassis that was configured to be able to fly in and be droppable by parachute systems from then existing Air Force transport aircraft airframes. Beyond the M551 chassis, the only other chassis then in the inventory was that of the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier and variants. And this family of vehicles remained in high demand across the Army and overseas. Prospects were bleak given the larger defense budget.
One possibility was a system that was finding its way into the inventory with the Marines and was of interest to the Air Force for some forward deployed tactical security needs. It was the LAV 25 (Light Armored Vehicle 25) a Canadian built six wheeled light armored vehicle.
The Army however, had departed from wheeled armored systems in the 1950 preferring fully tracked systems considering these to have superior tactical mobility while still optimizing on lethality and protection for the systems. Wheeled systems were seen by the majority of the Army community as being too compromised with existing technology for achieving effective to superior lethality and protection on the tactical battlefield—even though wheeled systems offered superior strategic and operational mobility and increasingly capable tactical mobility.
With the Army’s predilection for tracked systems the achievement of a badly needed solution for a major strategic force element, especially given the daunting requirements of the Army’s development/procurement system, seemed beyond reach. One argument in this regard relative to any consideration of a system already in procurement, the LAV 25, being adapted to the 82nd Airborne Division’s need was that the LAV chassis could not handle a large caliber gun system like the Royal Ordnance 105mm L7 Gun.
Occurring at the same time, the Chief of Staff of the Army had chartered a Department of the Army task force, The Department of the Army Armored Family of Vehicles Task Force (AFVTF), to examine how the Army of 1995 and beyond would develop and equip its armored vehicle fleet. The task force was enjoined to consider wheeled as well as tracked systems. Because the Marines had a significant interest in the direction the task force might take, one of the members of the task force would be the executive officer of the 2nd LAV Battalion, U. S. Marine Corps.
Another parallel development was work being done at Watervliet Arsenal, New York on a low recoil 105mm gun system that could employ existing stocks of L7 Gun ammunition. The thought occurred in some minds that the success already achieved with the demonstration work of the prototype gun indicated it could be mounted on the LAV chassis and operate effectively.
The situation was reaching critical mass for the XVIIIth Corps commander. The pieces of a solution seemed to be in place if only the pieces could be pulled together and some Army community support be developed. As a minimum, an on the ground “proof of principle” demonstration seemed a critical step to silence the naysayers and prove what was possible from existing elements in the larger system.
In response to the corps commander’s appeal, the Marine member of the AFVTF and his Army counterpart for the infantry systems being considered by the task force were assigned as action officers to coordinate a proof of principle demonstration for the XVIIIth Airborne Corps commander and other Army and Department of Defense and industry representatives. The site selected for the demonstration was Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, home of the 2nd LAV Battalion. The battalion agreed to make one of its LAV 25 chassis and a tank gunnery range available for the demonstration. Watervliet Arsenal was coordinated with to fabricate a turret mounting for the low recoil gun system in development at the arsenal and an operational prototype gun mounted in the fabricated mounting.
The corps commander and the infantry member of the AFVTF were assuming some risks in the Army community in supporting an initiative that might justify a wheeled combat system being introduced into the Army system and absorbing scarce development and procurement dollars. But, the need was real and at any moment, a serious situation might develop that would elevate the need for a replacement system again, to critical mass. Whatever personal risk accrued—the right thing needed to be pursued. The coordination of the demonstration went forward.
The night before the demonstration, the two AFVTF officers deployed from home station in Virginia the several hours drive to Camp Lejeune. Early the following morning on a bright sunny day, all the elements of the demonstration that had been coming together consolidated on the designated gunnery range. The 2nd Battalion provided LAV 25 had had its weapons station/turret removed and the fabricated Watervliet Arsenal mounting and prototype low recoil 105mm gun installed. All of the parties with an interest were present and cameras and other measuring apparatus were in place to record performance data.
The improvised gun system was positioned in a firing position. It must be mentioned that conventional wisdom argued that the gun when fired would literally lift the light wheeled chassis off the ground. Most critically, some argued that attempting to fire the gun at 90 degrees to the centerline over the vehicle flank would roll the vehicle.
The first part of the demonstration proceeded. In the brightening early morning sunlight, the gun fired demonstration round over the front glacis plate of the LAV. The vehicle barely rocked.
The technicians then reconfigured the mounting to a position that oriented the gun over the flank of the LAV at 90 degrees to the centerline. With some pregnant pause drama the suspense was building for the demonstration firing from this position. The round was loaded into the breach and the block was closed. The gunner fired the gun. The vehicle barely rocked.
The principle had been proven. Despite the risks, the perseverance of several officers at possible risk to their professional situations had demonstrated that a solution was available.
Ultimately the Army would embrace this work in future systems. However, there was a post script that occurred about the same time that delayed some forward movement. The situation in Panama had presented several situations where in urban environments, stacked civilian vehicle across streets had restricted LAV mobility while M113 systems had been able to overcome these obstacles. Consequently the Infantry Commandant at the time, already not a fan of wheeled systems, withdrew his support from any consideration at the time of the Army considering such systems.
As a leadership exercise, it is instructive to note that officers, even when confronted with less than ideal choices on a personal level, may still have to make decisions for the greater good of the service. Several officers demonstrated this decision ability which, in the end, benefitted the service.