Hanwha seeks to participate in Army howitzer programs

By Ethan Sterenfeld / October 28, 2021

Hanwha Defense, a South Korean company that opened its American division in 2018, hopes to demonstrate and offer its technology to the U.S. Army for the Extended Range Cannon Artillery and other self-propelled howitzer programs, according to John Kelly, the president of Hanwha Defense USA.

The Army has upgraded the vehicle for its M109 self-propelled howitzer, but it has not made significant improvements to the gun in a long time, he told Inside Defense Oct. 12 at the Association of the United States Army conference in Washington.

“With the exception of the ERCA program, which is not really a program of record at the moment, they’ve done nothing to the gun,” Kelly said. “They haven’t looked fully, we don’t think, at extended-range artillery capability. They certainly haven’t followed through on automatic ammunition handling capability, the autoloader. And those are capabilities we can bring to the United States Army.”

Hanwha displayed its K9 155 mm self-propelled howitzer at the conference, which is in service with Korea and other countries. Hanwha has developed an autoloader for the K9, a technology that the Army has struggled with for the ERCA program.

“The story we can tell is look, we’ve got this technology, it’s scalable into what you’ve already got,” he said. “You can put this turret on an existing M109. There would be some modification that’s required, of course.”

It might be possible to integrate some of the howitzer’s automation technology onto an existing M109 platform, Kelly said.

The K9 uses a 52-caliber barrel, the same length as a number of truck-mounted howitzers displayed at the conference. This is significantly longer than the 39-caliber barrels on the Army’s M109 self-propelled howitzer and M777 towed howitzer, but shorter than the 58-caliber barrel on the ERCA.

The K9’s 52-caliber barrel has most of the capability of the ERCA’s longer barrel, and it would allow for greater interoperability with allied nations, many of which have adopted 52-caliber 155 mm howitzers, Kelly said.

“The problem is with a 58-caliber system, there’s no one else in the world who has got one,” he said. “Our argument to the Army is we can probably get about as far with a 52-caliber system with enhanced munitions that you can out of your 58-caliber systems.”

ERCA is currently planned as an addition to the Army’s M109 fleet, with the first battery of 18 prototypes set to enter operational testing in fiscal year 2023. The Army has not decided yet how many ERCAs it will buy, or whether it could replace the M109.

“We want the opportunity to compete for this,” Kelly said. “We feel the Army is heading down a road that maybe they haven’t fully considered all the alternatives.”

If Hanwha won a contract to build the ERCA, it would produce the system in the United States, he said.

After the conference, Hanwha planned to take the K9 to Yuma Proving Ground, AZ, to demonstrate its performance and compatibility with American munitions to the Army, Kelly said.

The company sees the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle, the Bradley replacement, as another possible program it can use to establish a foothold in the American combat vehicle market, he said.

Hanwha’s Redback infantry fighting vehicle will serve as the “place of departure” for prime contractor Oshkosh Defense, whose team Hanwha joined for the OMFV program, Kelly said. Hanwha brings its history designing combat vehicles to Oshkosh, which has a strong relationship with the Army but has more expertise in tactical wheeled vehicles.

Why choose to support a U.S. firm’s bid, rather than compete as a prime contractor?

“If you’re a foreign contractor, getting into the U.S. defense market is difficult, so you need to be partnered with one of the primes to do that,” Kelly said. “It’s going to be a stretch for the Army to suddenly outsource a key fighting vehicle straightaway.”

Hanwha is not the only foreign contractor in the competition. Rheinmetall, a German company, is competing for the OMFV as a prime contractor, with American companies as its teammates.

But unlike Hanwha, Rheinmetall is not concerned that being a German company might hold them back in the competition, according to Mike Milner, director of business development at American Rheinmetall Vehicles.

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t” select a German company to build the Bradley replacement, Milner told Inside Defense at the conference.