AAI sets sights on military contract Cockeysville firm seeks to develop new standard-issue rifle

May be worth $500 million

Weapon could raise troops' firepower, give better accuracy

August 11, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Imagine a rifle that shoots around corners to wipe out an enemy sniper or kill a machine gunner hiding in a foxhole by exploding a warhead over his head.

Though that may sound like something out of some Hollywood action blockbuster, such a weapon is actually being developed by engineers at AAI Corp. in Cockeysville.

Applying laser technology and the advances in electronics that created such weapons as the "smart bomb," AAI is in the early stages of developing a new combat rifle that the military believes could be the most revolutionary change in the history of the firearm.

Technically called the Objective Individual Combat Weapon, the new rifle is being designed to give ground troops more firepower and significantly increase their chances of hitting a target under the stress of combat.

The military is looking at AAI's design, along with a competing model being developed by Alliant Techsystems in Hopkins, Minn., as the replacement for the M-16, the standard issue rifle since the days of the Vietnam War.

It will be used by the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy and the Coast Guard, according to Vernon E. Shisler, program manager at the Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.

"It will be more lethal than the M-16," said Shisler. "It will give soldiers the ability to hit targets they can't hit today. It's an advancement in technology that is far above anything out there."

More importantly for AAI, the rifle has the potential of providing a big economic boost to the company, which has eliminated 2,500 jobs, or more than 70 percent of its work force since Pentagon spending began declining in the late 1980s.

Christopher J. Yaniger, director of business development for AAI, said the rifle has the potential to bring in $500 million in new business over the life of the contract. And that does not account for foreign sales and orders from law enforcement agencies.

Yaniger said the rifle could be one of the largest programs at AAI's York Road complex.

To date, AAI has received about $10 million for the engineering and development of the weapon, and there is strong support for the project from the military, said Shisler, the Army program manager. "The money is there," he said. "The program is funded through the year 1999, which includes the development of demonstration weapons and testing by soldiers in the field."

An indication of the Army's support for the weapon was illustrated recently when it provided additional funds to accommodate changes to allow AAI and Alliant to build demonstration models, Shisler said. "The two companies have taken different approaches," said Shisler.

In the beginning there were three industry teams vying for the contract. Olin Corp. of Norwalk, Conn., was eliminated earlier.

The winner of the contract is expected to be named sometime next spring. AAI is the prime contractor. Its subcontractors are: Dyna East, King of Prussia, Pa., grenade design; FN Manufacturing Inc., Columbia, S.C., rifle parts; Hughes Electro-Optics Systems, El Segundo, Calif., laser system; Olin Ordnance, Downey Calif, ammunition; Omega Training Group, Columbus, Ga., user consultant.

The AAI design blends two weapons into one, according to F. Steve Brown, the company's business development manager of ordnance. He said it has two barrels -- one that fires bullets, 30 rounds to a magazine, similar to those used in the M-16, while the other packs six 20 mm grenades.

Yaniger said the rifle portion of the weapon is used for close-in targets, while the grenade launcher is designed to strike targets nearly 1,000 yards away.

The weapon directs a laser beam to a target to determine the exact distance. That information is automatically calculated by the weapon and when a grenade is fired it is timed to explode at the target, sending hundreds of deadly fragments in all directions.

Yaniger said that if the target was inside a building, the soldier could set the timing so that the grenade would explode just after passing though a window to hit the subject hiding behind a wall.

If the target had taken cover in a foxhole, the grenade would explode overhead.

The weapon would also come with an infrared sight system to detect targets in darkness or concealed by a smoke screen.

Through the use of an electronic "heads-up" display mounted on a helmet, Brown said, soldiers would be able to see a target, aim and fire without ever exposing themselves to enemy fire. The heads-up display is like a tiny television screen, in front of one eye, that provides a picture of anything within the rifle's sights.

"The soldier could take the weapon, stick it around the corner and, through his heads-up display, see what the weapon sees without putting his head out around the corner," said Yaniger.

AAI's Brown said that the technology is similar to that on larger weapons, such as tanks. The miniaturization of electronics, he said, is making it possible to apply the technology to smaller weapons.

AAI's version of the new combat rifle is shorter than the M-16, but at 11 pounds, it weighs slightly more.

GIs will have to wait sometime before earning their qualification medals on the new weapon. It is not scheduled to be standard issue until 2005, said Shisler.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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