Army tests high-tech rifle with 2 barrels, laser-guided shells

Critics call it too bulky at 18.6 pounds, question circuitry's durability

January 02, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Ever since the Vietnam War, the American infantryman's most valued tool and trusted friend has been the M-16, a lightweight but lethal rifle that can spew out devastating torrents of high-speed fire.

Soon the Army will be giving the foot soldier a new battlefield companion, a high-tech weapon designed to revolutionize the timeless tactics of combat by giving U.S. troops the ability, in effect, to shoot around corners.

The new weapon, which looks like a steroid-fed prop from a sci-fi movie, uses lasers to guide smart shells that explode in the air above concealed enemy soldiers, spraying them with deadly metal fragments.

The airburst shells effectively eliminate the protection provided by the boulders, trenches and walls that have hidden soldiers for centuries.

It "leaves no place to hide," said Vernon Shisler, a manager of the Army's development program at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.

When it is put in the hands of soldiers several years from now, the Objective Individual Combat Weapon will give U.S. light infantry and Special Forces the kind of decisive, high-tech edge that has been built into American tanks, aircraft and artillery, according to its advocates.

They say the weapon will be especially well-suited to the urban battlefields of the future, in places such as Somalia and Chechnya, where cover is plentiful.

Yet challenges remain: The rifle weighs 18.6 pounds, vs. 8.5 pounds for the M-16. It is not clear whether its complex, miniaturized circuitry can stand up to weather, dirt and battlefield handling. And the price is steep: an estimated $10,000 to $12,000 per weapon, compared with $586 for the M-16.

Moreover, ordinary foot soldiers must undergo more training to operate the rifle. Soldiers who conducted the first field test of the weapon trained for 30 days, and at least a few said they still had problems mastering the laser aiming device.

The trade-off between simplicity and sophistication reflects one of the biggest challenges facing U.S. military planners. High-tech weapon systems can give U.S. forces a decisive edge, but only if they are simple enough and reliable enough to work when they are needed most.

And at a time when recruiting quality personnel is increasingly difficult, the complexity of modern weaponry demands ever-smarter and better-trained soldiers.

The new firearm is two weapons in one. It has one barrel that shoots a 5.56 mm slug and is intended to be used like an M-16 for close-range fighting.

Sitting atop that barrel is a second that fires 20 mm airburst shells. The larger shells function like small grenades, spraying shrapnel in every direction.

The weapon's most revolutionary feature is the way it uses a laser and computer to get at enemies who are concealed up to 3,280 feet away. That's nearly two-thirds of a mile and about twice the effective range of the M-16.

The rifle has been designed to use sensors that intensify low light and others that track heat so it can be used at night.

Based on preliminary tests, the Army believes the rifle will give soldiers about five times the ability to incapacitate the enemy that they have now with the closest equivalent weapon, an M-16 mounted with an M-203 grenade launcher.

Development of the weapon has alarmed arms-control advocates, who are warning that it will cause civilian carnage in developing countries when guerrillas get hold of American models or knockoffs.

"This is going to be a real danger in urban settings, where there's fighting going on with civilians all around," said Michael T. Klare, a small-arms expert and board member of the Arms Control Association.

"And you can bet this will fall into the hands of some pretty bad people."

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French and Australian armed forces are trying to develop their own versions. Army officials predict that other nations and groups, including potential enemies, are likely to have a version of the rifle within two years of the time the U.S. model is available.

The rifle has been in development since the mid-1980s, when planning was begun by a team headed by retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, now director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Then, he was assistant commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga.

A 100-man infantry company might fire 50,000 rounds of ammunition during the first few hours of a battle. But most of that will be expended as suppressive fire, just "to keep people under cover," McCaffrey said. With its ability to accurately get at hidden troops, the new weapon "really represents revolutionary change."

Army officials note, too, that, since soldiers will be firing the new rifle at immobile enemies, they can remain stationary themselves, which makes for greater precision.

The basic laser and computer technology in the new weapon has been around for years. It has been used in various forms in larger weapons, such as the M-1 tank.

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