Starship Troopers Meets G.I. Joe

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For once it seems the Army is actually turning fiction into science.

After nearly a decade in the shadows -- with billions spent on earlier versions long since abandoned -- the Army is moving quickly to field a revolutionary new weapon to Joes a lot sooner than anyone had ever imagined.

It's a weapon that can take out a bad guy behind a wall, beyond a hill or below a trench, and do it more accurately and with less collateral damage than anything on the battlefield today, officials say. It's called the XM25 Individual Air Burst Weapon, and by next month the service will have three prototypes of the precision-guided 25mm rifle ready for testing.

"We've done a lot of testing with this, and what we're seeing is the estimated increase in effectiveness is six times what we'd be getting with a 5.56mm carbine or a grenade launcher," said Rich Audette, Army Deputy Project Manager for Soldier weapons.

"What we're talking about is a true 'leap ahead' in lethality, here. This is a huge step," Audette added during a phone interview with Military.com from his office at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey.

Born of the much-maligned and highly-controversial Objective Individual Combat Weapon -- a 1990s program that sought a "leap ahead" battle rifle that combined a counter-defilade weapon with a carbine -- the XM25 only recently gained new momentum after the Army formalized a requirement and released a contract in June for a series of test weapons.

Current infantry weapons can shoot at or through an obstacle concealing enemy threats, but the Army has been trying for years to come up with a weapon for engaging targets behind barriers without resorting to mortars, rockets or grenades -- all of which risk greater collateral damage. After fits and starts using a 20mm rifle housed in a bulky, overweight, complicated shell, technology finally caught up to shave the XM25 from 21 pounds to a little more than 12 pounds.

If the XM25 does what its developers hope, it will be able to fire an air-bursting round at a target from 16 meters away out to 600 meters with a highly accurate, 360-degree explosive radius.

The XM25 is about as long as a collapsed M4, weighs about as much as an M16 with an M203 grenade launcher attached and has about as much kick as a 12-gauge shotgun, said Barb Muldowney, Army deputy program manager for infantry combat weapons.

The semi-auto XM25 comes with a four-round magazine, though testers are looking at whether to increase the capacity to as much as 10 rounds.

Brains are what really makes this Buck Rogers gun work -- it has them. The weapon combines a thermal optic, day-sight, laser range finder, compass and IR illuminator with a fire-control system that wirelessly transmits the exact range of the target into the 25mm round's fuse before firing.

A Soldier can aim the XM25 at a wall concealing a sniper, for example, but "dial in" or adjust the distance by an additional meter above the target. When fired, the Alliant Teksystems-built round will explode above the enemy's position, essentially going around the obstruction, Muldowney said.

"It's so accurate, that when I laze to that target I'm going to be able to explode that round close enough that I'm going to get it," Audette added.

The service hopes to field several types of 25mm rounds for the XM25 -- for breaching doors, piercing armor, even non-lethal air burst and impact rounds, and an anti-personnel round.

Testers at Picatinny plan to put the XM25 through its paces over the next several months, certifying it as safe for a Soldier to operate and tinkering with the weapon's effectiveness and durability.

The weapon costs about $25,000 each, but experts were quick to point out that a fully-loaded M4 for optics and pointers costs pretty close to $30,000. Each ATK-made 25mm round costs about $25.

As Heckler and Koch, makers of the weapon itself, and L3 Communications -- which makes the fire control system -- crank out more weapons, the Army plans to push them out to the field for testing beginning in March 2009. That could include the first use of such a weapon in combat, Cline said.

If all goes according to plan, Soldiers might have their first XM25s in hand by 2014, far sooner than the Army's small arms community had predicted even last year.

The program "came very close to ending," Audette explained. "But the Army took a look at all the work that was done -- and the testing that projected the kind of lethality increase that we could get -- and they said 'we've got to do this.' "

-- Christian

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