Marines Eye Carl Gustaf to Replace SMAW for Bunker Breaching

U.S. Marines observe a demonstration of the Carl Gustav rocket system during live fire training at Range 7 aboard Camp Hansen, Oct. 25, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Aaron S. Patterson)
Military.com |

The Marine Corps is getting ready to equip every infantry squad with a Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle for added range and firepower.

And further out, officials are weighing the possibility of swapping out the Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon, or SMAW, in combat engineer squads to give troops more options for busting enemy bunkers.

The Corps is planning to collaborate with the Army to purchase the M3E1 Multi-Role Anti-Armor Anti-Personnel Weapons System, or MAAWS, a new version of the 84mm Carl Gustaf made to be lighter, more compact and easier to wield, Chris Woodburn, deputy for the Marine Corps' Maneuver Branch, told Military.com.

While the Army and U.S. Special Operations Command have used previous versions of the Carl Gustaf, it's a new weapons system for the Marine Corps.

Related content:

"Right now, we have a registered capability gap for multiple-effects rocket fire," Woodburn said. "So the Army and SOCOM have the MAAWS, and we are looking to get the resourcing we need to pursue the next iteration of MAAWS."

The service expects to field one of the recoilless rifles per squad, he said. The weapon will not replace any existing elements of the squad, but will function as an additive capability for any squad member to operate.

Teaming up with the Army will allow the Corps to purchase the MAAWS at lower cost, said Kevin Finch, product director for the MAAWS at PM Soldier Weapons at the Army's Picatinny Arsenal.

Finch said he expects the Corps to order about 1,200 of the weapons, a number roughly equivalent to the Army's planned purchase of 1,111 M3E1 rifles.

The Army plan would contract for the weapons this fiscal year and begin fielding around 2023. The Marine Corps could "jump on board" and join the contract by 2019 or 2020, Finch said.

Made by SAAB Bofors Dynamics, the Carl Gustaf is used by the militaries of 40 countries. The MAAWS can fire an array of different rounds, including a high-explosive dual-purpose round; a high-explosive anti-tank round; a high-explosive round; and illumination and smoke rounds, apart from its training rounds.

The SMAW, made by Nammo Talley and first fielded in 1984, fires a high-explosive, dual-purpose round and a high-explosive anti-armor round, and has been used to discharge a novel explosive rocket that included a thermobaric warhead. This last round was used to destroy bunkers during the first and second battles of Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.

The Marine Corps is a primary customer for the SMAW, which is also used by the militaries of Lebanon and Taiwan.

Some within the Corps believe the time has come to embrace the Carl Gustaf, saying the SMAW's capabilities are limited by comparison.

Bunker-Busting Gun

The Marine Corps' current plan keeps the SMAW in place as a capability for combat engineers in support of infantry units.

But the service's future warfighting strategy, Force 2025, includes an initiative to reduce the number of SMAWs in the Corps, Woodburn said. However, there is concern whether the Carl Gustaf is a fit replacement for the task of breaching enemy bunkers.

"That's one of the things we'll have to look at is, are there bunker-busting munitions available for the MAAWS," he said. "If we were going to look at replacing [the SMAW], we would have to do that comparison."

This question is a point of some contention among military weapons experts.

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Christian Wade, the gunner for 2nd Marine Division, out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, said he would like to see the M3E1 fielded to light armored reconnaissance and Marine recon units, as well as combat engineer battalions. Existing test data on the capabilities of the Carl Gustaf are dated, he said, and don't take into account powerful new rounds that have been developed.

Even the requirements are dated, he said. Documents from the 1980s call for a weapon that can destroy a Soviet earth-and-timber bunker.

"We have not yet done a side-by-side, apples-to-apples comparison of the Carl Gustaf and the SMAW," he told Military.com. "You would have to take that requirements document and figure out exactly what they mean by a Soviet earth-and-timber bunker. You have so many different choices, and we'd need to figure out which round is the apples-to-apples comparison of SMAW."

Testing Needed

The SMAW's manufacturer maintains it has the advantage for bunker defeat.

Chad Parkhill, executive vice president of Nammo's Shoulder-Fired Systems business unit, told Military.com in a statement the company believes side-by-side testing shows the SMAW high-explosive dual-purpose, or HEDP, warhead outperforms Carl Gustaf against bunkers.

"We also produce several other variants of SMAW ammunition at our facilities in the U.S. which provide the warfighter performance against other targets, such as vehicles and buildings, that is comparable to Carl Gustaf," he said. "Most importantly, the SMAW weapon system provides this advantage while weighing significantly less."

According to weapons specs, the SMAW weighs 29.5 pounds loaded. The M3E1, which knocks about six pounds off the weight of its predecessor, weighs about 32 pounds loaded.

Finch, the Army's MAAWS product director, said tests conducted by the service in Spring 2016 at its Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland, prove the Carl Gustaf's HEDP round is up to the task of bunker destruction and could destroy a bunker in a single shot up to 70 percent of the time.

"We had bunker pressure as high as 150 [pounds per square inch], and it totally destroyed the bunker," Finch said.

These tests, however, may not meet the Corps' criteria for side-by-side evaluation of the two weapons systems. Woodburn said he wasn't aware of testing proving the Carl Gustaf's bunker-breaching capabilities.

"We haven't seen the data," he said.

A Better Way to Fight?

For Wade, the MAAWS promises Marines an array of powerful new rounds, including some still in development, that match or exceed what the SMAW has to offer.

The MAAWS, unlike the SMAW, has smoke and illumination rounds. And several of its rounds boast an effective range of well over 1,000 meters, where the SMAW maxes out its effective range around 500 meters.

"The high-explosive dual-purpose round for the Carl Gustaf can shoot in excess of 1,000 meters, where the SMAW can shoot 250-300," Wade said. "The most important thing you could say to a Marine about the Carl Gustaf and SMAW is that, by putting a Carl Gustaf in his hand, he could have devastating effects on the enemy, not only outside AK[-47] range but also outside PKM [machine gun] range."

The Kalashnikov PKM, an enemy weapon of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq, has an effective range of between 700 and 1,000 meters.

Including training and practice rounds, there are some 15 different munitions the MAAWs can fire. And there are more in development, Wade said, including an 84mm laser-guided missile.

"There's so many Carl Gustaf rounds that we haven't tested," he said.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.