PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. — The need for faster and more accurate weapon systems continues to be a driving force in the research and development community supporting the warfighters. A notable outcome of this drive is an advanced mortar firing system called the Weaponized Universal Lightweight Fire Control, or WULF.
When used with 60mm and 81mm mortars, WULF provides accurate weapon location in both azimuth and elevation, allowing for more precise and faster targeting than current traditional methods. This is achieved by using lightweight pointing device unit capable of holding a gun tube alignment of about 1/6 of a degree or about 3 mils.
The digital firing system allows for faster emplacement times, first round effects, and significantly reduces the time between rounds fired. Moreover, WULF weighs only 10 pounds and is designed for easy and efficient mobility.
WULF achieves its level of precision with a collection of sensors and advanced algorithms that allow the pointing device and fire control to indicate the precise orientation of the gun tube. This capability is comparable to the fire control systems used on larger caliber mortar platforms, such as the M150 Mortar Fire Control System – Dismounted.
PROGRAM OF RECORD
In September 2016, the WULF system was transitioned to Product Manager Guided Precision Munitions and Mortar Systems (PdM GPM2S) as a program of record and is currently part of its planning for future fielding.
“WULF is a breakthrough in mortar fire control technology that provides lightweight mortars the same speed and accuracy in fires that Battalion mortars have enjoyed for the last two decades, at a much lower cost and weight,” said Lt. Col. Anthony Gibbs, the PdM GPM2S. “It’s also a great example of a government-developed solution that provides our mortarmen with unmatched capability.”
Gibbs’ organization is part of the larger Program Executive Office Ammunition, which is based at Picatinny Arsenal, where WULF was developed by the Fire Control Systems & Technology Directorate of the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, or ARDEC.
By achieving program of record status, the WULF system is officially in the Future Years Defense Program. WULF begins Low Rate Production in Fiscal Year 2021 and will begin fielding in FY22. The WULF system is estimated to cost about $15,000 per gun, considerably less compared to existing Mortar Fire Control Systems.
The methodical march for WULF, from initial idea to anticipated field delivery, required time, hard work, and perseverance.
In 2010, WULF was the brainchild of Michael Wright, an engineer within the Mortar & Common Fire Control Systems Division, Fire Control Systems & Technology Directorate at ARDEC. Wright’s vision was to construct a man portable fire control system.
For assistance, he turned to the Collaboration Innovation Lab at ARDEC. The lab, whose charter includes maintaining an inventory of state of the art technologies, was fertile breeding ground for the new technology that Wright envisioned.
“Mike was able to come in the lab and just play with some of the state of the art MEMS-based sensors I had collected,” recalls Ralph Tillinghast, director of the innovation lab. MEMS stands for micro-electro-mechanical systems, which are notable for their small size.
Wright and the team behind the WULF initiative were recognized in 2015, when it took first place in the ARDEC-sponsored Science and Technology Networking Day. The annual event showcases notable work by ARDEC’s workforce and seeks to foster collaboration across ARDEC, its sister laboratories and key stakeholders. This year’s S&T Networking Day will take place in May.
With resources from the innovation lab, Wright could start building a prototype system.
By applying his ingenuity and due diligence to advance his idea, Wright built a man-portable fire control system using the state-of-the art MEMS-based sensors from the innovation lab. The suite of sensors consisted of an electronic magnetic compass, a microcomputer, and a liquid crystal display.
Thus, the basic WULF system was born. Wright had help from other engineers, including mechanical engineer Steve Sadowski, who handled the mechanical housing design.
The housing design connects to the dovetail on the existing mortar bi-pod, enabling WULF to be moved on and off the weapon platform without tools or modifications to the weapon system. Based on these findings and obvious benefits to the warfighter, the initial WULF system was submitted as a 2011 proposal seeking seedling innovation funding.
With the ARDEC’s Science and Technology funding, which is provided by the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology.
CLOSING CAPABILITY GAPS
WULF fulfills two Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE) TRADOC Capability Manager Infantry Brigade Combat Team capability gaps.
The approval and funding of this proposal made it possible to acquire higher-quality sensors, and gave Wright the resources to expand his team, as well as the additional time needed to further develop the WULF concept.
With significant support from software engineer Brian Nixon on the Fire Control Software development, WULF reached solid 6.2 maturity, a technology development benchmark.
“With the funding, Steve, Brian, and a few others could really start getting this thing built,” Wright said.
Reaching a higher level of development made it possible for WULF to be transitioned to a full science and technology program in FY12, using technology developed during the seedling phase.
Collaboration with a sister Army laboratory gave momentum to further WULF development. Wright and his team were able to identify recent SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) technology.
It was sponsored by Frank Tucker at the Army Research Laboratory — Human Research and Engineering Directorate (ARL-HRED), which used similar MEMS-based sensors, but also added an overlaid optical component.
This optical addition and algorithms developed as part of the SBIR by Inertial Labs, made it possible for the pointing device to meet the accuracy requirements, and to be expanded for use on tactical weapon systems.
With this new advanced sensor suite, the system reached an internal technology development benchmark and was successfully live-fired on both 60mm and 81mm platforms.
“It was very satisfying to witness the system in operation. At one live fire, I could watch the output data and tell the gun crew within a few feet where the round would splash,” recalled Wright.
As WULF continued to mature, it also collected endorsements from PdM-GPM2S, PEO-Ammo, & MCoE, along with interest from the United States Marine Corps.
To further optimize the WULF system, the pointing device was further refined under a cost-sharing development with the Army Research Laboratory in FY12. “This concept is one of those leap-ahead innovations our warfighters need to stay ahead of the game,” Tillinghast noted.
With growing support and continued development, the WULF system (pointing device, supporting hardware, and fire control software) attained continued maturity and was demonstrated in a relevant environment at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, 29 Palms, California, and simulated test sites, achieving Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 6.
WULF’s total estimated development cost to reach TRL 6, an internal benchmark, was about $2.1 million. WULF was the first project to meet all cost, schedule, and performance objectives through the ARDEC Science and technology investment office project process.
The technology successfully transitioned to PdM GPM2S as part of it’s the planning cycle for a Program Objective Memorandum, which is a recommendation to the Office of the Secretary of Defense concerning how they plan to allocate resources for a program.
WULF is undergoing further develop-ment to meet a planned fielded schedule in FY21/FY22. ARDEC was granted patent number US9,593,913 B1 for technologies used in the WULF system on March 14, 2017.
“This project is a total home run for Army science and technology as it utilized all facets (of Science & Technology funding) to transition needed capability to the product manager that will ultimately provide the warfighter with increased capability,” said Joseph Pelino, ARDEC’s Director of Technology.
The Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities for decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the Joint Warfighter and the nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Material Command.