Yesterday, I spent the day at the Aberdeen Test Center, firing the Army’s latest batch of small arms and observing a demonstration of that wicked looking thing above: the XM-25 weapons system.
Here's the story I wrote for Military.com about the new weapon:
ABERDEEN TEST CENTER, Md. -- The Army is set to send its high-tech "counter defilade" weapon to the war zone in the next few months, the first real-world deployment for the much-anticipated XM-25 Individual Airburst Weapon.
Officials announced May 5 that a group of Army Special Forces Soldiers will take the weapon with them to Afghanistan sometime this summer.
During live-fire demo here, Soldiers shot the Heckler & Koch-made XM-25's high-explosive rounds through the window of a simulated building, showering "enemy" mannequins inside with lethal metal fragments.
Afghanistan veterans who fired the weapon for the first time this week predicted it would be a "game changing" weapon, a gun that can engage Taliban insurgents using distant ridge-tops, thick mud walls and tree lines as cover.
"It brings, right now, organic to the squad, the capability to defeat targets that we're seeing everyday in Afghanistan -- targets that we can't currently hit," said Col. Doug Tamilio, project manager for Soldier weapons with the Army's Program Executive Office Soldier. "It will save Soldiers' lives, because now they can take out those targets."
While labeled a grenade launcher, the XM-25 is much more than that, Army officials say. It's a precision direct, and indirect, fire weapon system that combines an array of sophisticated sensors, lasers and optics with a microchip-embedded 25mm high explosive round.
Tamilio pointed to the example of the Taliban attack on Combat Outpost Keating last October in eastern Afghanistan where some 300 Taliban insurgents swarmed a remote American base, killing eight Soldiers and wounding 22. The XM-25's long-range, precision fire could have tipped the firefight in the Army's favor, he said, because Soldiers could have targeted insurgents firing down on the base from distant ridgelines with high explosive rounds.
Firefights in Afghanistan take place at much greater ranges than in Iraq, typically beyond 300 meters. At that range, even skilled marksmen are hard-pressed to hit a fleeting target ducking behind cover -- a bullet is only lethal if it hits the head or vital organs, which equates to about a six-inch-wide zone from the forehead to the groin, Tamilio said.
With the XM-25, Soldiers don't have to actually hit that vital area to dispatch the enemy, they only have to aim the launcher's air burst fragmentation warhead nearby. The warhead's blast is equivalent to a hand grenade. The enormous firepower advantage is obvious -- Soldiers don't have to get within throwing distance, they can drop the 25mm rounds directly into an enemy's lap from up to 700 meters away, officials say.
"In the last area we were in, there were a lot of rolling hills, so maybe three or four hilltops away there are [insurgents] setting up on an outpost. … All they have to do to keep you from hitting them in a direct fire engagement is to get behind that hill," said Army Sgt. Christopher Shupe, who recently returned from a combat tour in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division.
"When you have something that you can set the distance where it explodes -- that takes their defenses away -- it's essentially like carrying a mortar tube, but it's in a rifle format and it's something that any Soldier can use," he said.
Even if troops are patrolling within range of the mortar tubes located back at their base, it can take up to ten minutes to call in a fire mission, said Lt. Col. Christopher Lehner, program manager for individual Soldier weapons at PEO-Soldier. Calling in artillery or airstrikes takes even longer. It took 65 minutes for Apaches to arrive over COP Keating, he said.
"With XM-25, in under five seconds I could lase, put the reticule on target, and pull the trigger," Lehner explained. "At 400 meters, it takes another two seconds to get there and explode." The weapon's ease of use is a huge advantage, he added.
The XM-25 gunner aims the weapon's laser rangefinder at the wall or window behind where the enemy is hiding. The distance to the target is displayed on an optical lens with cross hairs that automatically account for air pressure, temperature and the ballistics of the 25mm round.
When the Soldier pulls the trigger, that data is fed into the warhead that then detonates either above or behind the enemy. The 25mm round actually has two warheads that provide more explosive than the current 40mm grenade launcher, Lehner said. He expects it to force the Taliban to change their tactics.
That precision firepower will come at a high price: It's projected to run $25,000 per weapon. Yet, in Afghanistan today, Soldiers are forced to use much more costly systems like Hellfire missiles fired from Apache attack helicopters to hit a distant and embedded enemy with pinpoint accuracy, Lehner said.
The Army plans to spend $34 million on further development in 2011 with a production start slated for 2012, according to service budget documents. The service had planned to buy 12,500 XM-25s, but a final decision is awaiting a program review by senior Army officials.
Officials said today that the XM-25 is a specialized weapon that will be doled out selectively. "It's potentially an arms room weapon, where you go in and say I'm going on this type of mission, I therefore need this type of capability," said Brig. Gen. Pete Fuller, the commander of PEO Soldier. "So, you take [the XM-25] versus something else."
The XM-25 weighs 14 pounds with a four round magazine. But Soldiers here said the XM-25 will provide such increased lethality that the extra weight doesn't bother them.
"I'd carry it as an extra weapon," Shupe said, in addition to his M-4 carbine.
-- Greg Grant