Army Defends New Airburst Weapon Targeted by Pentagon Critics

A soldier aims an XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement weapon system at Aberdeen Test Center, Md. Army photo
A soldier aims an XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement weapon system at Aberdeen Test Center, Md. Army photo

Army weapons officials are planning a late-September response to Pentagon investigators' recent criticisms of the XM25 as the service wrestles with how this high-tech but heavy 25mm airburst weapon will fit into combat formations.

In late August, the Pentagon's Inspector General released a scathing audit of the XM25 program, criticizing the service for repeatedly delaying the weapon's initial production decision and failing to justify a basis of issue plan.

Nicknamed "the Punisher" and designed by Orbital ATK Inc. and Heckler & Koch, the XM25 is a shoulder-fired weapon featuring a target acquisition/fire control system that allows soldiers to identify a target, determine the range and program the 25mm ammunition to explode above or near enemy fighters out to 600 meters.

But the sophisticated weapon has been plagued by two years of program delays after a 2013 malfunction that inflicted minor injuries to a soldier during its second round of operational testing in Afghanistan.

The double feed and an unintentional primer ignition of one of the 25mm high explosive rounds prompted the Army to halt the operational testing and pull all prototypes from theater.

In the wake of the audit's public release, Military.com requested a program update from Project Manager Soldier Weapons and received the following email response:

"The Army is in the process of reviewing the Department of Defense Inspector General report, 'XM25 Schedule Delays, Cost Increases and Performance Problems Continue, and Procurement Quantity Not Justified' dated 29 August 2016, and has until 29 September 2016 to provide its final feedback and comments," according to Debra Dawson, spokeswoman for Program Executive Office Soldier, the command that oversees PM Soldier Weapons.

"The Army, working closely with the system's prime contractor, has previously addressed the safety issues on the XM25 through engineering design changes and improvements to the system. User feedback of the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE) System has been positive. Its revolutionary target acquisition and fire control system, previously unavailable in the infantry soldier's arsenal, will allow the warfighter to engage enemy targets under cover effectively."

The audit, which was heavily redacted, maintains that delays in the program's development caused costs to climb between February 2013 and March 2016, but it failed to specify any actual dollar amounts.

But according to budget documents, the Army has spent at least $33 million on the program and related efforts in the two-year period through fiscal 2016, which ends Oct. 1.

In fiscal 2017, the Army plans to procure a total of 105 XM25s at a unit cost of $93,000 each, budget documents show. That's more than double the $41,000 unit cost in the December 2014 contract award.

Going forward, the Army expects to spend at least $132 million on the program in the five-year period from fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2021, budget documents show.

Army leaders are still wrestling with how to field the XM25 to infantry and other combat units.

"The Army has not made a final decision on final distribution of the XM25," according to Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, director of the Army Capabilities and Integration Center and deputy commanding general of Futures at Training and Doctrine Command.

"One XM25 for each deployed squad is part of the discussion, but fiscal constraints may alter that distribution."

Part of the problem comes down to weight. The five-shot XM25 weighs about 14 pounds unloaded. Combined with a basic load of 36 rounds of 25mm ammunition, the weight jumps to about 35 pounds for a soldier to carry, sources familiar with the weapon maintain.

By comparison, an M4 carbine weighs about 7.5 pounds unloaded. Add seven 30-round magazines of 5.56mm ammo, an M68 Close Combat Optic, an AN/PEQ laser/infrared aiming device and a weapon light, and the load increases to about 16 pounds.

Grenadiers carry an M320 grenade launcher attached to an M4. The M320 and a basic load of 36 rounds of 40mm grenades increases the load to about 38 pounds.

Critics of the XM25 have said that the system is too heavy for the soldier to carry along with an M4 and basic load of 210 rounds of 5.56mm ammunition, a combination that would weigh in at about 51 pounds.

The IG audit pointed out that McMaster voiced concerns about the XM25 in 2013 when he was commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia.

"The General's concerns included the unproven lethality of the XM25 system, the weight of the system, and the risks of limiting soldiers' capabilities when carrying the XM25 system. Specifically, the Commanding General was concerned that a soldier would have to turn in his or her rifle to carry the XM25."

McMaster stated that without a rifle:

--The soldier is unable to perform required tasks in many squad battle drills;

-- The XM25 basic load of 36 rounds is depleted quickly in a direct-fire engagement; and

-- The soldier has a reduced capacity to engage targets at close range.

Since then, however, McMaster said he has changed his mind about the XM25.

"My initial assessment from 2013 did not reflect 30 additional months of testing and improvements to the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System," McMaster told Military.com in an email.

"The Army has worked closely with the system's prime contractor to address the safety issues on the XM25 through engineering design changes and improvements to the system. Prototypes employed during two Forward Operational Assessments allowed the Army to learn from and correct system shortcomings, and feedback has been positive."

The XM25 is not a simple grenade launcher, McMaster maintains. The sight has an integrated day/thermal sight, a laser range finder, and a ballistic computer working in unison to allow the shooter to effectively engage enemy targets under cover.

The weapon is semi-automatic with a five-round magazine that ensures effective fires and rapid re-engagement, as necessary, in all operational environments -- jungle, urban, day/night, woodland, subterranean and desert, McMaster said.

"Worldwide urbanization, coupled with the extensive proliferation of rocket propelled grenades and machine guns, allowed our enemies to exploit our desire to end engagements with minimal collateral damage," McMaster said.

"The XM25 provides an innovative capability that mitigates this vulnerability and minimizes operational risks facing our soldiers, limiting collateral damage in the surrounding area while allowing our dismounted squads to decisively end firefights."

-- Brendan McGarry contributed to this report.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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