Precisification of Small Arms Fire
8 February 2011
There was an interesting item on GlobalSecurity.org, apparently derived from the Army News Service, Army wants 36 more ‘Punisher’ weapons in 2012. The “Punisher” is the name that has been informally adopted for the XM25 Individual Airburst Weapon System. The XM25 is an airburst grenade launcher with Non-Line of Sight (NLOS) capabilities both for firing and for the programmable airburst of the grenade. This weapons system represents the use of precision weapons technology in small arms. The soldiers who actually have tested this weapons system in combat were so pleased with its performance that they requested that they be able to retain the prototype and continue using it.
Too many weapons systems are enormous projects that are driven by the employment that they create in a congressman’s district. When a prototype is received as enthusiastically as the XM25 by the soldiers who would actually use the weapons system in theater, this is a powerful vote of confidence. One wonders why this weapons system is not being moved into production when the initial reports on the prototype are so favorable. I’m sure there’s story behind it. There always is.
Many precision weapons systems have not only been expensive boondoggles, but have also had long and troubled histories of development. The reception of the XM25 prototype, however, shows how powerful precision technologies can be when designers and producers get it right. There will always be a question of killing badly designed weapons systems before good money is thrown after bad, and this is sometimes a difficult call to make. The M247 Sergeant York was eventually axed after a long and troubled history, but US and allied troops put up with the sub-par performance of the M-16 for decades before the design was refined to a robust and reliable iteration.
Several precision weapons systems were part of the Future Combat Systems Manned Ground Vehicles program, and many of the elements of this program were problematic to the point of calling all such efforts into question. All of these systems, however, were quite large. None of them were precision weapons systems intended to be carried by the individual soldier. If just the right elements can be brought together for a NLOS cannon or mortar, one suspects they will be as popular with troops as the XM25. But if weapons systems favored for political reasons are advanced through the procurement process, soldiers will be stuck with ineffective weapons that they don’t like using.
The experience of the XM25 demonstrates the need for in-theater testing of prototypes. If every defense contractor was required to produce a workable prototype that was then handed over to troops for testing, and only those weapons systems entered production that received the best reviews from soldiers engaged in actual combat operations, the level of waste would decline and the efficacy of weapons systems would be improved. If a contractor cannot build a reasonably effective prototype on the basis of ordered specifications and current technology, then this is a good argument against sinking a lot of funds into the development of a pie-in-the-sky project.
With strategic weapons systems this approach would perhaps be inapplicable, but as regards tactical weapons systems I can’t imagine a better approach. If the technology is not there at present to build a working prototype that can be tested under combat conditions, then it is probably better to wait, and to undertake another project later, once the technology has matured, than to continue to pursue a dead end. During the period of time during which a problematic project is under development, a good idea — a better idea — can be designed, built, and tested in rapid succession, proving itself on its own merits in the only context that counts.
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Note added 08 October 2011: A recent article from the Army News Service, XM25 feedback demonstrates lethality, adds to the positive anecdotal reports of the efficacy of this weapons system.
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