Digging In Useless Against New High-Tech Army Rifle


Ever since the Vietnam War, the American infantryman’s most valued tool and trusted friend has been the M-16, a lightweight but lethal rifle that can spew devastating torrents of high-speed fire.

Soon the Army will be giving the foot soldier a new battlefield companion, a high-tech weapon designed to revolutionize the timeless tactics of combat by giving U.S. troops the ability, in effect, to shoot around corners.

The new weapon, which looks like a steroid-fed prop from a sci-fi movie, uses lasers to guide smart shells that explode in the air above concealed enemy soldiers, spraying them with deadly metal fragments. The air-burst shells effectively eliminate the protection provided by the boulders, trenches and walls that have hidden soldiers for centuries.


It “leaves no place to hide,” said Vernon Shisler, a manager of the Army’s development program at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.

When it is put in the hands of soldiers several years from now, the Objective Individual Combat Weapon will give U.S. light infantry and Special Forces the kind of decisive high-tech edge that already has been built into American tanks, aircraft and artillery, according to its advocates. They say that the weapon will be especially well suited for the urban battlefields of the future, in places like Somalia and Chechnya, where cover is plentiful.

Yet big challenges remain: The rifle is a heavy 18.6 pounds, versus 8.5 pounds for the M-16. It is not clear whether its complex, miniature works can stand up to weather, dirt and battlefield handling. And the price is steep: an estimated $10,000 to $12,000 per weapon, versus about $586 for the M-16.

Moreover, ordinary foot soldiers must undergo more training to operate the rifle. Soldiers who conducted the first field test of the weapon trained for 30 days, and at least a few said that they still had problems mastering the laser aiming device.

The trade-off between simplicity and sophistication reflects one of the biggest challenges facing U.S. military planners. High-tech weapon systems can give U.S. forces a decisive edge but only if they are simple enough and reliable enough to work when they are needed most. And at a time when recruiting quality personnel is becoming increasingly difficult, the complexity of modern weaponry mandates ever-smarter and better-trained soldiers.

The new firearm is, in effect, two weapons in one. It has one barrel that shoots a 5.56-millimeter shell and is intended to be used like an M-16 for close-range fighting. Sitting atop that barrel is a second that fires 20-millimeter air-burst shells. The larger shells function like small grenades, spraying deadly shrapnel for several feet in every direction.


The weapon’s most revolutionary feature is the way it uses a laser and computer to get at enemies who are concealed up to 3,280 feet away. That’s nearly two-thirds of a mile and about twice the effective range of the M-16.

Infantry forces have long had weapons, including mortars, hand grenades and grenade-launchers, that spray shrapnel to get around barriers. But their targeting is not as precise as the new rifle’s. And their shells explode when they strike the ground or solid objects, which means that much of the shrapnel can burrow harmlessly into the dirt.

To use the 20-millimeter gun, the soldier peers through a telescopic sight and lines up a red dot over the target. The rifle calculates the distance to the target, gauges the effect of air density and picks the point where the muzzle should aim.

This information is transmitted to an electronic fuse built into the shell. The gun displays a second red dot in the telescopic sight to show where the rifle should now be pointed. The soldier aims at the dot and pulls the trigger.

The 20-caliber shell will kill or seriously injure an enemy within about 17 feet of the burst, civilian weapon experts believe.

The rifle has been designed to use sensors that intensify low light and others that track heat so it can be used at night.


Based on preliminary tests, the Army believes that the rifle will give soldiers about five times the ability to incapacitate the enemy that they have now with the closest equivalent weapon, an M-16 mounted with an M-203 grenade launcher.

Indeed, development of the weapon has alarmed arms control advocates, who are already warning that it will cause civilian carnage in the developing countries when guerrillas get hold of American models or knockoffs.

“This is going to be a real danger in urban settings, where there’s fighting going on with civilians all around,” said Michael T. Klare, a small-arms expert and board member of the Arms Control Assn. “And you can bet this will fall into the hands of some pretty bad people.”

French and Australian armed forces already are trying to develop their own versions. Army officials predict that other nations and groups, including potential enemies, are likely to have a version of the rifle within two years of the time the American model is available.

The rifle has been in development since the mid-1980s, when planning was begun by a team headed by retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who is now director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He then was assistant commandant of the Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Ga.

McCaffrey said in an interview that the weapon marks the most dramatic change in light weapons since 1863, when Union forces moved from single-shot weapons to the Spencer carbine, a repeating rifle, at Gettysburg.


While subsequent rifles became more powerful, “we haven’t really made a big leap since then” because of the way foot soldiers can scurry to cover after the opening shots of a skirmish and slow any advance, said McCaffrey, who led small units in Vietnam and commanded the 24th Infantry Division in the Persian Gulf War.

A 100-man infantry company may fire 50,000 rounds of ammunition during the first few hours of a battle. But most of that will be expended as suppressive fire, just “to keep people under cover,” McCaffrey said. With its ability to accurately get at hidden troops, the new weapon “really represents revolutionary change.”

Army officials note, too, that, since soldiers will be firing the new rifle at immobile enemies, they can remain stationary themselves, which makes for greater precision.

The basic laser and computer technology in the new weapon has been around for years. It has been used in various forms in larger weapons, such as the M-1 tank. In the Persian Gulf War, American tanks used such targeting systems to blow away the Soviet-built Iraqi tanks before enemy tank crews knew they were nearby.

But this technology has not been developed for use in the infantry’s “personal” weapons until now because of the difficulty of cramming it into such a small space. Miniaturization is actually the big technical advance, according to its developers.

And how would the other side respond?

Enemy troops no longer would be able to hover at the edge of cover but would be forced to fire from further behind walls, where they are not within the air-burst shell’s “blast radius.” Or they could try to hide themselves better, so U.S. forces could not find them.


“It will reduce their options,” said Col. Frank Stone, director of combat development at the Infantry School.

The rifle, being built by Alliant Techsystems of Hopkins, Minn., is to be issued to some units in 2007. The rifle initially is to be given only to some members of each nine-man infantry squad. Advocates contend that eventually it will be used by most members.

Yet even the weapon’s most passionate supporters acknowledge that several hurdles must be cleared before the weapon is in wide use.

The rifle must be slimmed down to 14 or perhaps even 12 pounds. It must prove itself durable and reliable. And it must win the acceptance of infantrymen who are leery of changes in the tools on which their lives may depend.

In the late 1960s, when the Army began replacing the heavier, larger-caliber M-14 with the M-16, some officers and soldiers strongly resisted the change.

Some officers complained privately that then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara “was sending American boys into danger with plastic guns,” said Dr. Jack Atwater, a military historian and curator of the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum.


Only in 1967, after bugs were worked out, did the M-16 begin to win the acceptance it has today.

In its first reviews from foot soldiers, the new rifle has drawn high praise for its concept.

But infantry scouts from Ft. Lewis, Wash., who tested it this fall at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., also complained that it was too bulky and heavy and, so far, not sufficiently durable.

The scouts, from the 20th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division, said that the laser equipment shut down temporarily when it overheated, and technicians were forced to use ice packs to bring the temperature down.

“It’s a great concept, but I’m not sure it’s very durable yet,” said 1st Lt. Joshua Norbury, 25, of Ruidoso, N.M. “It needs some more development.”

“I’m not sure a smaller person could stand up and hold it steady,” said Spc. Daniel Reid, 23, of Chico, Calif.


Sgt. Roy Lightfoot, 23, of Bowling Green, Ky., noted that soldiers would need to carry a handful of replacement batteries into battle to keep the laser equipment running.

Yet advocates say that these technical issues will be overcome with further development and predict that soldiers will demand the new weapon when they see what it can do.

The Army is “a pretty conservative institution,” said McCaffrey. “If left to our own devices, we might still be carrying musket and bayonet.”

But he recalled that infantrymen were happy to carry heavier weapons in the Persian Gulf War. They will not hesitate “to carry something big and bulky if they think it’ll keep them alive.”


Two Weapons in One

The Army’s Objective Individual Combat Weapon can attack targets at greater distances and pinpoint precise target distance with a computerized laser range finder. Actually two weapons in one, the OICW’s 20mm configuration fires “air-bursting” bullets designed to fragment over enemies hiding under cover. The weapons will be produced at $10,000 to $12,000 each and will be ready for use by some units in 2007.


Sources: Department of Defense, Federation of American Scientists, Army Times


This story has been edited to reflect a correction to the original published text. At Gettysburg, Union forces moved from single-shot weapons to the Spencer carbine, not Sharps carbine.


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