WASHINGTON: Buried in a bleak Army budget is a bright nugget of revolution: a precision-guided grenade launcher called the XM25. In difficult development for over a decade, the XM25 will finally enter limited production in 2017. It will be the first radically new small arms technology since 1943.
“This has the potential to be a huge game changer for infantry combat. Once it gets into the hands of more troops, they can start experimenting and adapting tactics,” military futurist Paul Scharre believes.
Germany fielded the first mass-produced assault rifle, the StG 44, in 1943 putting the power of a (scaled down) machinegun in the hands of a rank-and-file rifleman. The Russians followed with their AK-47, the Americans with the M-16. Against such ever-increasing firepower, the best defense was simply to take cover.
Now the XM25 comes to destroy the value of cover. Built-in targeting lasers, infrared sights and a ballistic computer calculate the exact location of the target so the weapon can fire a projectile precisely past it. The 25mm round — essentially a precision-guided mini-grenade — waits to detonate until it has passed whatever cover the target had and can strafe its unprotected side. It will blow up above a trench or foxhole, on the far side of a wall or barricade.
The Army, typically, calls this the “Counter Defilade Target Engagement System” (CDTE), defilade being a military term of art that boils down to “cover.” Built by OrbitalATK, the XM25 is officially a “new start” program in the fiscal 2017 budget, getting its first significant funding that year: $9.8 million dollars for the first 105 Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) weapons. Annual funding peaks at $32.2 million in 2020.
These are tiny numbers by Pentagon standards, but it’s “a very big deal,” Scharre says.
In the Second World War, “the three most dangerous jobs in the military were bomber crews, submariners, and the infantry,” Scharre notes. “We’ve been able to reduce casualty rates [for the first two], but life in the infantry seems as bloody as it’s ever been.”
“A lot of that has to do with technology,” the futurist says. “We’ve been able to leverage American military technology into building stealth bombers and super sneaky submarines, [and] one of the things that’s been able to make US airpower so amazingly powerful in the last 30 years is the application of precision guided weapons, [but] that hasn’t really been the case on the ground, certainly not on the squad level. People are still shooting at each other with bullets.” The XM25 can change that by bringing Information Age precision to the infantry, just as automatic weapons brought Industrial Age volume.
It’s certainly taken a while to get here. While Iraq and Afghanistan were very much infantry wars, which triggered investment in body armor and armored vehicles to protect soldiers, the infantry’s offensive firepower remained an afterthought. The Army did study replacing the M-4 carbine — an M-16 cut down for urban combat — but ultimately decided the alternatives offered too little improvement for the price. Meanwhile the revolutionary technology that would become the XM25 struggled with cost and weight, especially in the early phases when the Army envisioned issuing every infantryman a double-barreled “Objective Individual Combat Weapon” combining an XM25 and a regular rifle in one 18-pound package.
The XM25 now entering production is 14 lbs and will only go to select soldiers as a specialist weapon. Scharre expects its weight and cost to come down over time.
The XM25 is not the only technology with the potential to put a precision-guided weapon in the infantryman’s hands. “If you want to build a smart firearm, it’s available on the market,” retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former commandant of the Army War College, notes. “There’s an outfit in Austin, Texas called TrackingPoint,” he said, which makes a lightweight gunsight that calculates the trajectory to the target and fires when the gun is in the precisely right position to hit, compensating for any unsteadiness in the hand of the shooter. “You pull the trigger, and you just hold it on the target until the dot turns green and the gun fires by itself.”
With TrackingPoint, “an untrained shooter can hit within a half-inch of his or her aimpoint at 1,000 yards, nearly an order of magnitude more accurate than world-class shooters,” Scharre wrote in a December study for the Center for a New American Security.
There’s also a DARPA project called EXACTO — EXtreme ACcuracy Tasked Ordnance — that developed a laser-guided bullet that can change course in mid-flight. “This allows extreme accuracy at long range, including against moving targets,” Scharre wrote. However, EXACTO has the downside that each individual bullet requires precision-guidance electronics, while TrackingPoint combines a smart gunsight with regular, inexpensive bullets.
Precision-guided bullets like TrackingPoint and EXACTO aren’t quite as revolutionary as precision-guided grenades, since even smart bullets can’t bypass cover the way the XM25 can. Nevertheless they could make better shots out of everyone from elite snipers to supply clerks, giving them a better chance to survive. They could also let troops kill their targets with fewer rounds and fewer chances of shooting innocent civilians, a major concern in modern wars. And they could achieve these real-world results for much less than a new aircraft.
“The problem is we’re in love with Star Wars, but what we need in this nation is Popular Mechanics,” said Scales. “We have all these technologies, they’re there…. There are certainly relatively cheap but technologically sophisticated…. things that the Army could focus on to make us a better army without having to buy a new tank, a new helicopter.”
“If four out of five of all Americans who die at the hands of the enemy are infantrymen, and our vulnerable center of gravity is dead Americans,” said Scales, “then why don’t we, as a national priority, do everything we can to keep ground combat soldiers alive?”