Project Manager Soldier Weapons
By the time you read this, the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System with its uncannily accurate airburst ammo will undoubtedly have drawn its first blood in Afghanistan. This sci-fi looking individual armament, initially the “grenade gun” upper half of the ill-fated Objective Individual Combat Weapon, has been in combat operational test mode for several months now with selected elements of US Special Operations Command.
It‘s the hottest new man portable grenade launcher anywhere, boasting indirect fire capabilities with “smart” ammo that can kill enemies smugly squatting behind walls and boulders, until now unreachable by squad level weapons.
At their recent press briefing and live fire event at historic Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, top officials of PM Soldier Weapons told Small Arms Defense Journal and reporters for other military and defense industry publications how the XM25’s unique capabilities would have been of particular value to defenders in the now-famous “Keating” firefight.
Among many lessons learned in the near-annihilation of this small, fortified camp in what’s formally known as the Battle of Kamdesh, Afghanistan, they said, is the need for unit level indirect fire capability that is highly flexible and immediately available.
Combat Outpost Keating
More than 300 Taliban fighters launched a surprise attack on Keating in the predawn darkness of October 3, 2009, saturating the small base with mortar rounds, RPGs and heavy small arms fire.
They quickly breached the perimeter, routed the panicked Afghan Army detachment and nearly overran the American soldiers of Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment.
Bad weather and slow response from artillery and air support assets combined to give the enemy special advantages in their initial assault from the high ground “bowl” around the camp, leaving the defenders below with little more than basic individual and crew-served weapons to fight back with.
Their direct fire arms and single shot M203 grenade launchers were of limited value against battle-seasoned attackers who skillfully used abundant cover from boulders and depressions in the surrounding rough terrain and defensive positions inside the wire.
Relief came slowly but soon built to a decisive level as artillery, helicopter gunships, jet fighters and bombers combined to rout the enemy.
When the smoke cleared an estimated 150 Taliban were dead at the cost of 30 U.S. troopers killed or wounded.
Richard Audette, Deputy PMSW, responding during the press conference at Aberdeen, to implied criticism in a reporter’s question noting the projected $25,000 cost per XM25, called it a bargain compared to far more expensive weaponry wielded by external support elements like those that turned the tide at Keating.
“They were hitting the attackers with Apache gunships, Hellfire missiles and Excaliber artillery rounds,” he said, “far more costly, cumbersome, and slow to arrive.”
“The XM25,” he emphasized, “is an immediately available, squad level weapon that pays for itself, but more importantly it saves solders’ lives because it can take out those defilade (behind cover) targets.”
Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Lehner, Product Manager Individual Weapons, underscored the XM25‘s remarkably fast target engagement capability against fleetingly-glimpsed targets.
“In under five seconds I can lase for range, get my adjusted reticle on target and pull the trigger,” he said. “At four hundred meters it takes another two seconds to get there and explode. Seven hundred meters another second or so. It really doesn’t give the Taliban a lot of time to reposition himself.”
Then, adding his perspective on the XM25‘s $25,000 price tag, Lehner invited a comparison to the total cost of the current, less capable combination of weapon and accessories.
“Add up the cost of an M4 carbine with M203 grenade launcher, STORM laser rangefinder, plus night vision and aiming modules,” he said, noting that the XM25 fully integrates these components with the added benefit of a ballistic computer and airbursting ammunition.
SADJ has been closely following the sixteen year saga of this 100 million dollar engineering marvel and we are pleased to know that it has finally made its way into the hands of the snake-eating fraternity. If all goes well, we’re told, it will be available in limited quantities for muddy-boots grunts in the 2013-14 time frame.
Lehner explained that the plan for fielding this exotic grenade launcher was under development but not to expect it to become a standard squad weapon. “It’s potentially an arms room weapon,” he said, “like a shotgun or other specialized weapon that you’d draw for certain missions where you need the (XM25’s) unique capability.”
While the wizardry embodied in the XM25 is spectacular, there are several other developments from the dedicated team at Program Manager Soldier Weapons that also deserve special recognition.
Mulberry Point Range
PM Soldier Weapons had wisely set aside several consecutive days for hands-on demos for congressional and military VIPs, efficiently utilizing the considerable time and expense required for such things. These focused opportunities gave a wide variety of purse-keepers and decision-makers the chance to see for themselves what was in the weapons development pipeline.
Press day was a continuation of the process, with PMSW hoping that knowledgeable reporters would convey to the public how America’s defenders were armed. More than a dozen reps turned up, from outlets ranging in credibility and seriousness from USA Today to Army Times, with Small Arms Defense Journal in there on the right side of the scale.
After the obligatory meet, greet and ground rules briefing, Aberdeen Test Center’s Mulberry Point Small Arms Range went hot with a HE (high explosive) demo shot from the XM25. Safety concerns kept us inside the ballistic glass windowed observation building. (continued on page 69)
We could see the gunner just outside the thick glass window and his actions were explained in real time by Lieutenant Colonel Lehner. Using the weapon’s highly sophisticated fire control system with on-board laser rangefinder, he said, the shooter gets exact distance to the front wall of a simulated building with an open window.
With the simple push of a button he adds a meter to the range and the chambered “smart” round is electronically programmed with the precise distance from launch to detonation point. In this case right through the window and inside the room.
The fire control’s ballistic computer calculates angle of elevation based on range and displays a red dot in the electro-optical sight with the correct aiming point. Windage can be programmed as well.
When the round was fired, a computer chip in the 40mm HE warhead counted revolutions in flight and initiated detonation at approximately the center of the “room,” showering it with lethal fragments. A remote video camera linked to a large screen in the observation building provided dramatic evidence of the effectiveness of this programmable airburst weapon’s precision lethality.
Then, we were herded outside to observe a series of live fire demonstrations of selected current weaponry, starting with the lock-busting 12 gauge M26 Modular Accessory Shotgun System and moving down the firing line to see grenade launchers, machine guns, sniper rifles and the new “dazzling” laser on a hulking armored vehicle.
While highly reliable and very accurate, a standard 7.62mm M240B medium machine gun weighs a hefty 27 pounds, making it a burden for dismounted troops on the move.
PM Crew Served Weapons has responded with the M240L (Light), incorporating a titanium receiver and other refinements to drop 5.7 pounds without sacrificing combat performance.
Further weight reduction is realized when pairing it with the new M192 Lightweight Ground Mount tripod, boasting better stability and an improved traversing and elevating mechanism at a weight saving of six pounds.
Old Warhorse Returns
Soldiers and Marines of a certain age (including a few of us at SADJ) should take special pleasure in seeing the honored return of the post-WW2 generation’s venerable M14 rifles.
This hard-hitting, long reaching 7.62x51mm NATO caliber battle rifle was pushed aside by the pipsqueak 5.56mm M16 in the Vietnam War when it was deemed that an “assault rifle,” characterized by light weight and high volume of fire, was better for jungle fighting.
But now that the battlefields are in Iraq and Afghanistan – mostly treeless, arid plains and mountains – the M16 and its little brother M4 are noticeably lacking in necessary range (maximum approximately 500 meters) and knockdown power.
Spurred by urgent Operational Need Statements from combat units, the Army started pulling mothballed M14s out of storage, adding day scopes, and rushing them off to CENTCOM’s AO for use by “Squad Designated Marksmen.”
This eminently practical solution has since been kicked up a notch at PM Soldier Weapons by creation of the Enhanced Battle Rifle, a classic M14 retro-fitted at the Army’s Rock Island Arsenal with a modern chassis stock and capable of mounting a full range of day and night sights. More than 5,000 have been fielded so far and 1,700 more are in the pipeline.
LTC Lehner says that the EBR’s dramatically increased effective range, as much as 800 meters in capable hands, has forced the Taliban to “change its tactics,” backing way off when initiating an attack.
More Sniper Stuff
The 7.62mm M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System (SASS) from Knight’s Armament – apparently just about everything it needs to be already – will be outfitted with a collapsible buttstock, deemed better for close quarter engagements.
The awesomely powerful .50 caliber Barrett M107 Semi-Automatic Long Range Sniper Rifle is going to lose a little weight, get a specially designed suppressor and a new protective exterior coating.