Four years ago, the Madrid-based company Escribano Mechanical & Engineering (EM&E) began working on a unique project in our country: the design of guidance kits that could be used in rocket ammunition as well as in howitzers and mortars. Since then, the dozens of people working on the FGK (Fuze Guidance Kit) programme have achieved important advances and passed numerous milestones. For example, on 7 June, at the Torregorda Test Centre (Centro de Ensayos de Torregorda, CET), which is part of INTA (National Institute for Aerospace Technology) and located on the outskirts of the city of Cadiz, we were able to witness the launch of five 155 mm projectiles equipped with five guided fuses. The results of the tests, which were a resounding success, achieving an accuracy that would be impossible to achieve without these kits and demonstrating the reliability of the design, give the promoters of this initiative great hope. If it is completed as the company hopes, it will allow Escribano to compete head-to-head with foreign manufacturers in a segment with a growing demand. Provided, of course, that they manage to produce these kits at an attractive price.
The FGK programme dates back to early 2017. It was born with the intention of developing a guidance kit for howitzers, mortars and rockets that would be competitive, both in terms of precision and price, capable of being exported and whose technological sovereignty would rest entirely in Spain. Unlike what happens with other famous – and very expensive – G-RAMM (Guided – Rocket Artillery Mortar and Missiles) systems, such as the well-known M982 «Excalibur» from BAE Systems and Raytheon, the «Vulcano» from Leonardo or the Russian «Krasnopol», what the company from Alcalá de Henares wanted was to offer an economic alternative that was easy to adapt to the munitions in service. To this end, they set out to design a series of kits that would allow the transformation of ordinary ammunition into guided ammunition.
Of course, nobody claims that this is a novelty, since there are several models of guided fuzes or CCF (Course Correction Fuze) in service, such as the M1156 used by the US Army -whose acquisition has recently been approved by our Army- or the TopGun from Israel Aerospace Industries. However, the possibility of having an entirely Spanish product was and is something new, as are some of the proposed solutions. In addition, the FGK Programme has the advantage of offering, from the same basic technology, two fuse models adapted to:
- Rockets and MLRS: In this case, they can be coupled to rockets of between 120 and 300 mm, such as those used by systems like the now defunct Teruel of our Army (MC25 of 140 mm). Also, to models such as those used by the BM21 Grad or the Brazilian Astros II -perhaps the most interesting for Spain, pending what finally happens with the SILAM programme-. It has four control surfaces, two of which are much smaller, as can be seen in the images.
- 155 mm projectiles and mortars: By means of a standard thread (2-12UNS-1A) it can be integrated in all those 155 mm howitzers that comply with the standards adopted by NATO, as is the case of the ER02 and M107 projectiles manufactured by Expal and used
in the M-109 and SIAC in service with our Armed Forces. Trajectory correction is carried out by means of two fins instead of the usual four.
The development process has been far from straightforward. Along the way, the company’s engineers have had to fine-tune the design of the fuze and control surfaces, as well as all its internal components, including the mechanism that makes detonation possible, a dual guidance system (inertial + GPS) with its corresponding antennas (compatible with GPS, GLONASS and Galileo). Also, of course, the electric motors that make it possible to vary the angle of the fins, the batteries that power them, the processing equipment, the telemetry systems to be able to carry out the various tests, and so on. Most importantly, each component of these kits, especially in the case of those for howitzers, must be capable of operating in extreme conditions, which we will discuss later.
Naturally, the Ministry of Defence soon showed its interest in the FGK Programme. On 1 January 2019, the project would be chosen, after evaluation during the previous year of the proposals received by the Technological Observation and Foresight System (SOPT) of the Subdirectorate General for Planning, Technology and Innovation (SDG PLATIN), as one of the recipients of funds from the COINCIDENTE programme. Of course, the resources offered by the DGAM, which is the body behind this initiative, do not cover the huge R&D expenditure required for a project of this type. However, it does serve as an incentive for Spanish companies, which, due to their limited size and without state support, would find it much more difficult to innovate. This same state support has been evident in the signing of various agreements, such as the one regulating collaboration with INTA for the «development of a high dynamic INS-GPS sensor», of capital importance for the FGK Programme.
Since then, both the model intended for rocket artillery and the one adapted for 155 mm howitzers and mortars have been further improved, and its accuracy and reliability have been tested on several occasions on the firing range, bringing the product closer and closer to the commercialisation phase. On the day when this happens, the State will benefit directly from each export contract in return for the support provided, earning handsome royalties. Until that time, however, there is still a lot of work to be done not only in terms of the maturation of these designs, but also in terms of the parallel programmes that the company has launched and which will benefit directly from the advances in flight control achieved by the FGK programme, such as the guided bombs for small-calibre aircraft, which we will talk about in the future.
Is the FGK Programme necessary?
In recent years, as we have seen in the Donbas War or as can be inferred from the latest Russian acquisitions (Magnolia, Koalitsiya-SV, Lotos…) and the US developments – which we explained here – artillery is increasingly becoming the decisive weapon on the battlefield.
Perhaps the most important advance has less to do with improvements in range and accuracy than with the generalisation of ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and
Reconnaissance) means, especially through drones capable of collecting data on the location of potential targets and transmitting it in real time to both headquarters and units on the ground, acting as real multipliers for the gunners. As Major Juan Ignacio Fernández González explained:
«The use of RPAS in DIV/EC’s IFS (Indirect Fire Systems) allows information to be obtained at the right time and in the right place, thus contributing to the enhancement of long-range and precision fire support capabilities to higher order operational organisations. Its long operating distance and range, much greater than with other means of acquisition such as forward observers and ground-based radar, provides decision-makers with the ability to acquire targets at depth (up to 300 km), with discriminating power and high accuracy (including rockets and missiles), high rates and a variety of munition types».
All this, logically, offers a series of possibilities that did not exist in the past and that, in order to be exploited, require the development of PGMs (Precision-Guided Munitions) or, when this is not possible, of kits that allow the conversion of traditional ammunition into PGMs, as proposed by EM&E through the FGK Programme.
Other reasons also contribute to this new golden age of artillery. As we explained when discussing Multi-Domain Battle and the future battlefield or the USAF’s ABMS system, it may well be that US and European ground forces will be forced to operate in an operational environment where air superiority is no longer possible. This could happen, for example, in the event of a direct confrontation with Russia. In such a case, the superior range of Russian artillery systems could no longer be countered by Western aircraft. They would have to operate at the great disadvantage of being beaten by Russian artillery with no counter-battery capability, being left defenseless and suffering heavy casualties, as happened to Ukrainian forces during the Donbas war. This, which applies to a large-scale confrontation, can be extrapolated to many other smaller scenarios and to players with far fewer resources than the major powers, including, for obvious reasons, their proxies.
Even in scenarios where air superiority can be guaranteed, air-to-ground attacks are not always advisable, if only because of the cost. In the end, the cost of air-launched guided munitions, coupled with the cost per flight hour of the aircraft that must carry them, is higher than that of artillery munitions, especially since ranges have increased steadily in recent decades and it is now possible to strike at distances that were unthinkable just a few years ago. Nor does it seem logical to risk a pilot’s life or unnecessary attrition by exposing an aircraft, or even a UCAV, when the same can be done with a howitzer with some safety.
In conclusion, there is widespread pressure for longer-range and more accurate artillery systems, especially for conventional artillery and rocket artillery, as surface-to-surface missiles follow a different logic due to their cost and strategic nature.
The big problem, when it comes to howitzers, whether self-propelled or towed, or rocket launchers, is that while it is relatively easy to achieve longer ranges, for example by using rocket- assisted ammunition in the case of projectiles or by increasing the calibre, accuracy follows a logic inversely proportional to range, unless some sort of guidance system is used. Consider that the range of the M107 155mm projectiles was a mere 14.5km with the M4A2 «White Bag»
propellant charge, while the M795E1 had a range of 28.5km with the M203A1 charge. At these distances, the accuracy achieved only because of the shape of the projectile itself and the goodness of the tube from which they were fired allowed acceptable accuracies of around 100- 150 metres, which was somewhat in keeping with the lethal radius of the explosive charge. In other words, although there was some unavoidable dispersion, this was more or less acceptable and could be dealt with by firing more shots at the same target to ensure its neutralisation. However, in many cases it still meant that an exaggerated number of munitions had to be used depending on the target to be hit, as can be seen in simulations such as the one we share below.
In recent years, ranges have multiplied. They have done so, however, without the advances in projectile ballistics or the improvement of the tubes running in parallel, preventing a worrying increase in dispersion. For example, Expal’s ER02A1 projectiles with 6 projectile charge modules launched from a 52-calibre SIAC howitzer are capable of hitting targets at ranges of up to 40 km. Germany’s Rheinmetall, together with South Africa’s Denel, is working towards ranges of up to 83 kilometres, for which there is no way of achieving an acceptable CEP (Circle of Probable Error) without some kind of guidance system, as the dispersion between the different impacts is in the order of hundreds of metres and the lethal radius of these munitions is still no more than a few tens. Consider that a commonly used projectile such as the rocket assisted M549A1, with a range of «barely» 30 kilometres if launched from an M198 howitzer, has a CEP of 267 metres, with all that this implies not only in terms of difficulty in causing damage, but also given the possibilities of provoking friendly fire incidents or causing collateral casualties.
Something similar happened, in this case talking about rocket ammunition, with the MC25s used by our Teruels, whose original dispersion was in the order of 800/1,000 metres at distances of less than 25 kilometres. Of course, no one is aiming for direct hits with ammunition of this type, as they are not precision weapons but are designed to inflict damage over wide areas. In fact, their raison d’être is to hit concentrations of unprotected forces such as starting bases, defensive positions, bridgeheads or landing sites, logistics centres, etcetera. It also means neutralising or prohibiting the use of armoured or mechanised forces, hindering or preventing their movement, conducting counter-battery fires, neutralising or preventing the use of anti-tank and anti-aircraft defences, conducting concealment or blanketing fires over large areas of the battlefield, etc. However, a certain degree of precision is also desirable and, in fact, essential, since the ranges are also increasing in the case of rockets. It is not necessary to imagine, if at 16 or 18 kilometres the CEP of the MC25 was close to the one we have explained, what it could be in rockets that have to cover distances four or five times greater, if not ten times greater. In short, there is a significant gap between the need for longer ranges and the benefits they bring if they are not accompanied by commensurate accuracy.
The solution, in all cases, is either to acquire guided ammunition, with its stratospheric cost – which limits its use to high-value targets or exceptional situations – or to acquire PGM kits that partly alleviate the cost problem. Either way, the difference in accuracy between conventional and guided ammunition is abysmal at long ranges, as can be seen below.
This brings us to another issue that also explains the interest of the MALE (Army Logistic Support Command) and the DGAM (Directorate General for Armaments and Material) in this type of project, which we have discussed on numerous occasions: technological sovereignty.
As we know, Spain is a manufacturer of howitzers, such as the SIAC (Integrated Field Artillery System) 155/52 designed and manufactured by GD-SBS. Also of ammunition, thanks to Expal. In this sense, the need to also design fuses that allow optimum use of what we manufacture and maintain in service is obvious. If we add to this the possibility for the Ministry of Defence to benefit directly from each possible order destined for export, there is very little to add.
In the same vein, Spain once had significant experience in the design and manufacture of rockets, at least until the Teruel launchers were decommissioned in 2011. Today, as we know, it is difficult for our Ministry of Defence to embark on such an adventure again, as nothing would justify the investment in a development that has no chance of being sold abroad and of which the Army barely needs a handful of units. With this in mind, the most logical option is to procure a system that is as affordable and modifiable as possible from abroad. More importantly, a system in which we can use our own munitions. We are talking about rockets that, as DG (R) Manfredo Monforte explains, could be manufactured domestically and «based on the «Spanified» rocket, develop fuzes and guidance systems that reduce the dispersion circle and develop rockets on a Spanish industrial base to provide new versions with greater range, power and precision».
This is where EM&E’s FGK Programme comes in. Although it is not the only one in Spain, as companies such as Everis have made their attempts with the Miura system and others such as Expal also have developments underway, it does appear to be the most advanced and the one that has achieved the best data to date in terms of accuracy and range, averaging a CEP of 30 metres for rockets and less than 20 in the case of 155 mm projectiles.
A simple idea, a complex development
As the title of this section states, the idea behind the FGK programme is relatively simple. By replacing the traditional fuze with one equipped with a guidance system and control surfaces,
the projectile, instead of following a ballistic trajectory determined by momentum, mass, aerodynamic characteristics, and external conditions, will be able to correct its course during flight, thereby increasing its accuracy. In this way, once the apogee of the flight phase has been reached and the location and height of the projectile has been determined and the position of the target is known, it is possible for the fins to guide it as close as possible to the target, reducing the CEP significantly and compensating for the deviation caused by wind, among other factors. This is done in this way, starting from the apogee, because the aim is not to increase the range of the ammunition by introducing surfaces that allow the projectiles to «hover», gaining a few hundred metres or a few kilometres compared to those that do not have them, but solely and exclusively to have an impact on accuracy. To do otherwise would require a much more complex and therefore expensive design.
The latter is important, for it is not a matter of turning the shell into a sort of missile, capable of hitting a given target with total accuracy, but of better grouping the shots, reducing dispersion, increasing the probability of entering effectively on the first or second shot. Thereby, reducing collateral damage, the chances of receiving counter-battery fire and the waste of ammunition. In relation to the latter, it is worth mentioning that one of the major problems our military has to contend with is the difficulty of supplying artillery units with the appropriate volume of ammunition. This is done at enormous cost given the volume and weight of the ammunition, so that, to the extent that consumption is reduced through greater effectiveness, significant savings will also be made.
The key factor, however, is price rather than accuracy, as what is sought is an unbeatable option in terms of cost/efficiency. Thus, using kits such as those from Escribano Mechanical & Engineering, it should be possible to adapt conventional ammunition to bring it closer to the characteristics of others designed specifically for the purpose, such as the aforementioned «Excalibur», but at a fraction of the price. As an indication, although the company is reluctant to talk about the cost for reasons of commercial strategy, we have been able to learn that the price of its kits plus the associated ammunition is between 6 and 8 times lower than that of the «Excalibur». These figures are in line with what we see on the international market. For example, in 2018, the Netherlands requested the DSCA to purchase 3,500 M1156 PGK kits for $70 million, which gives a unit cost of around $20,000 per fuze. Last year, the same country asked the same US agency for approval to purchase a batch of 199 «Excalibur» shells for its PzH2000NL, as well as other associated equipment, for $40.5 million, or just over $203,000 per firing. As we can see, although we insist that these are indicative data, as these agreements usually include many complementary factors, we are talking about a cost ten times higher in the case of the «Excalibur», which would be partially reduced if we add to the cost of the M1156 PGK kits the cost of the projectile in which they are embedded. A projectile, by the way, which in the case of Expal’s ER01s can be close to 5,000 euros per shell.
However, if, as we have said, the idea is simple and is inspired by systems that have been in use for some time, such as the JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) kits, which incorporate a GPS
reception system and a tail with movable fins to increase precision, making it a reality is another matter altogether. It is, among many others, for the following reasons:
- Small size: The first challenge has to do with the limited space available inside a fuze of this type. JDAM type kits, as can be seen in the pictures at the end of this section, have a considerable size, in line with the size of the pumps in which they are to be installed. This makes it easier to house the reception and processing equipment, the actuators that move the control surfaces (canards, fins, flaps…), the batteries and the antennas. In the case of the FGK Programme, the kit weighs just 1.5 kg and is around 300 x 100 mm including the control fins, which requires significant miniaturisation.
- Structural strength: In addition to the above, a limited volume means that the components are weaker, as their thickness must be reduced as much as possible. This forces engineers to push the limits, as the kits, in the case of 155 mm projectile fuzes, must overcome forces in excess of 18,000 Gs and velocities of over 950 m/s.
- Need to receive data and process it in real time: The antennas must be able to survive the enormous pressures and speeds that occur inside the tube and then, once in flight, receive data in real time, process it and transform it into commands for the electric motors that move the fins. In addition, a 155 mm ob’s rotates around 200 times per second during flight because of the tube’s grooves, subjecting the whole assembly to significant centrifugal forces. Furthermore, in the case of test fuzes, they must be capable of transmitting various data by telemetry, which is an additional problem.
- Minimise impact on range: Guidance kits, whether for rockets, howitzers or mortar shells, offer some aerodynamic drag, which is greater the larger or more numerous the control surfaces. For this reason, engineers must strike a balance between the need to incorporate larger surfaces (which increases trajectory control) and the need not to compromise the maximum range of the munitions.
With all this in mind, there were many options for the Madrid-based company’s engineers to evaluate, as many as there are types of control technologies, as there are several alternatives. Thus, for example, control systems based on drag brakes have been developed, such as the German TCF (Trajectory Correction Fuze) or the French SPACIDO (Système à Précision Améliorée par CInémomètre DOppler). Israel’s IMI has been working on fuses with spin brake control systems, known as TopGun, and there are even mixed systems that combine both options, something that BAE Bofors has tried. In the case of EM&E’s FGK programme, the option chosen has been to combine a decoupled spin system, which allows the fuse to act independently of the projectile spin, with two movable fins linked to two electric motors that make it possible to control the trajectory.
The same goes for the materials, although in this case, far from esoteric solutions, steel has been chosen for the most part, a material that the company can machine at will. The bow cone, however, is made of a special plastic compound that offers sufficient protection for the other components but does not interfere with data reception. Most of these components are self-produced, from the machining of the individual sections to the wiring and from there to the printed circuit boards. The only major exceptions relate to GPS receivers and telemetry system antennas, as well as batteries and electric motors, as these are much cheaper to buy them on the market than to produce them, which would require setting up new production lines, which makes no sense. Of course, the flight control software is an in-house development.
As we explained at the beginning of the article, the FGK Programme dates back to 2017. Since then, various simulations and laboratory tests have been carried out, as well as firing tests at facilities such as CEDEA (El Arenosillo Experimentation Centre) in Huelva and the Torregorda Test Centre (CET) in Cádiz.
In May of this same year, tests were carried out in El Arenosillo with the MC-25 rocket in which it was demonstrated that the dispersion was consistently reduced from between 800 and 1,000 metres to just 30 metres thanks to the new fuse.
Just a few days earlier, on 28 April, the company’s engineering team was able to present its project to His Majesty the King at the «Álvarez de Sotomayor» Manoeuvres and Shooting Range (Campo de Maniobras y Tiro, CMT), located in Viator, Almería.
In June, at Torregorda, they also managed to demonstrate the good performance of their design on inert 155 mm ER02A1 projectiles, compared to the same howitzers fitted with mechanical fuses, which had been tested shortly before – specifically on 20 May – at the same facilities to compare performance with and without the EM&E kit. Although, as we have said, the accuracy of these projectiles at distances of up to 20 km is in itself acceptable, during the tests, in which targets were marked at 23 km (for the convenience of measuring the drop point with the means available), the use of the trajectory correction fuze improved the accuracy ostensibly.
As usually happens in these cases, the tests were attended by a delegation from the Spanish Army, made up of a major general, several colonels and a commander from both the Artillery and the Engineers. David Galindo, the chief engineer of the FGK Programme, gave us an extensive explanation of how the kit works. He was kind enough to answer some of our questions as they arose, as a way of livening up tests which, as usual, are rather tedious and monotonous.
Returning to the tests, these consisted first of all of a control firing without a guided fuze from the SIAC that the Artillery had provided for this purpose. Subsequently, the rest of the shots were fired at intervals of around 45 minutes, all of them with the EM&E fuse and gradually
increasing the number of propulsion charges until the maximum allowed was reached, as the intention, more than to check accuracy, was to ensure that all the systems survived the flight and functioned correctly. This involved transmitting its position once it had reached the apogee of the trajectory, receiving data from the GPS network, checking the operation of the actuators, etc. All of this was monitored in real time by a helicopter, which flew at a safe distance over the intended point of impact, offshore, to take data on accuracy and verify that the projectiles reached the demarcated areas.
The reason for waiting so long between firings had to do with the work of the engineers. After each test, the engineers had to make a preliminary analysis of the data obtained and ensure that all the subsystems had functioned correctly. In turn, before each firing, the fuses were connected via a data bus to a laptop computer in which a control programme was used to check that each part of the fuses responded as expected. The same operation was used to enter the data from the SIAC fire control system. The latter is something that in the future gunners will be able to do on the fly and in much less time using EPIAFS (Enhanced Portable Inductive Artillery Fuze-Setter) type equipment, but in tests such as these it is advisable to do so without haste.
Once the round of firing was over, the staff at the Torregorda Test Centre had to compile all the information gathered by the various sensors (radar, helicopter-mounted equipment, video cameras, etc.), which they would later make available to the company, but which from the outset pointed to a significant improvement in accuracy. Of course, this cannot be confirmed until tests are carried out at greater distances, precisely where the work of the guidance kits is most noticeable. Be that as it may, the important thing is that the tests were able to rule out some of the engineers’ greatest fears, as the kits were able to withstand without failure forces of over 17,000 Gs, the 18,000 rev/min to which they were subjected during the flight phase and a muzzle velocity of over 950 m/s without stopping transmitting or receiving data and without registering any mishaps.
FGK Programme: looking outwards
As we have already mentioned, EM&E has had its sights set on the export market from the outset. Of course, the company wants the Spanish Ministry of Defence to be the first customer of the FGK Programme, but, even if our Army were to purchase these kits in large quantities – by our standards – the total volume it could buy would still be small. Moreover, there is another important added factor, and that is that this type of product, due to its characteristics, benefits greatly from economies of scale, so the more kits that are manufactured, the lower the unit cost will be, which is why export is once again a necessity.
In terms of the international market, being a totally national development, these kits have the enormous advantage of not having to be subject to the ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations), which involves the US Export Act and controls defence articles and services. As we know, any weapon, weapon system or platform that includes sensitive components of US origin
is subject to these regulations, with the consequent limitations on export and, if applicable, use by the purchaser, something we have seen on numerous occasions. This is a handicap in many cases, as depending on the needs of US foreign policy, exports to certain destinations can be vetoed, sometimes for trivial reasons, and it is enough for a system to contain a US component for the sale to be aborted by Washington’s decision. In the case of Escribano’s guided fuses, they will have total freedom in this regard, while logically complying with Spanish and EU regulations in this respect.
In any case, all indications are that its export will be a success and time can only play in its favour as ranges continue to grow. In a world in which all armies with a minimum of possibilities are doing everything in their power to equip themselves with extended-range projectiles that reach distances double or triple those initially envisaged, and in which rocket artillery is also coming back into fashion, the need for these fuses is obvious. Moreover, as far as we know, there are already several interested customers from the company’s usual markets.
As we have seen, the battlefield is and will increasingly be dominated by artillery exchanges, and at increasing distances. Given the physical limitations that affect the accuracy of projectiles, the only way to achieve acceptable dispersion in the case of both classic artillery and rockets is to acquire guided projectiles or to adapt guidance kits such as the one proposed by EM&E through its FGK Programme to the ammunition in service.
In the case of Spain, given the tradition we have in the manufacture of howitzers and ammunition, it is essential to contribute to the development of nationally manufactured guidance kits to meet the needs of the Armed Forces. It also makes it possible for the Spanish defence industry to remain competitive in an export market that ultimately accounts for 81.3% of the defence sector’s turnover in Spain. Most importantly, we cannot afford to continue to neglect one of the few segments within the defence industry in which we are still autonomous, namely ammunition. This, by the way, is something we have been doing in recent years, with several major closures and sales of facilities.
That said, the FGK Programme promises to square the circle, offering a domestic product, a competitive price and features that do not seem to lag behind those offered by the competition, if the test results confirm. We will have to wait and see.