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Fine-Tuning of Army’s New Rifle to Continue Until 2004 


by Harold Kennedy 

U.S. infantry soldiers–the "grunts" who fight the nation’s ground wars–are beginning to receive a new generation of powerful and versatile weapons designed to help them in non-traditional missions, such as peacekeeping and anti-terrorism.

The contract–for the program-definition and risk-reduction (PDRR) phase of the weapon’s development–requires the contractors, over the next four years, to resolve design problems that turned up in 1999, during tests at Aberdeen. Under the terms of the contract, the design issues must be settled before the OICW enters the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase in 2004. EMD is the final step before full production, now scheduled for 2009. Originally, it had been scheduled for 2005.

The contractor team includes Alliant Techsystems Integrated Defense Company, of Hopkins, Minn.; Brashear Ltd., of Pittsburgh; Heckler & Koch (HK) Gmbh, of Oberndorf, Germany; Octec, of Bracknell, in the United Kingdom, and Dynamit Nobel AG, of Cologne, Germany.

The OICW is the latest in a long line of hand-held firearms dating back to the 1300s. Smooth-bore muskets were deadly when fired at masses of troops, but inaccurate when fired at individual targets. Rifles, which came along in the 1700s, had spiraling grooves inside their barrels, forcing bullets to follow a more precise trajectory. In the 20th century, automatic weapons and rifle-mounted grenade launchers further increased infantry firepower.

The OICW boosts that firepower even higher, according to Army officials. In 1999, Maj. Gen. Carl Ernst–then commanding general of the Army Infantry Center and commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga.–described it as "the first revolutionary capability provided to the infantry soldier since the musket."

Like the M16 and the M4–with an attached M203–the OICW can fire both rifle bullets and launch grenades. The OICW fires the same 5.56 mm kinetic-energy round as the M16 and the M4, but it spits out a 20 mm high-explosive, air-bursting grenade, compared to the standard, 40 mm, ground-impact version launched by the M203.

The M16 is the standard combat rifle issued to U.S. troops since the Vietnam War. The M4–in use since 1994–is a shorter version of the M16, with a collapsible buttstock. The M203, another Vietnam-era weapon, attaches to both the M16 and the M4.

The OICW is "five times more effective" than the older weapons, according to Alliant business development manager Tom Bierman. When fired at 300 meters, "10 percent of the [M203] 40 mm rounds have a probability of incapacitating their targets," Bierman asserted in a phone interview. At the same distance, 50 percent of the [OICW] 20 mm rounds had that probability, he said.

A key reason for the increased effectiveness has to do with the OICW’s air-bursting grenade, Bierman said. The M203’s grenade goes off when it hits something, he said. The OICW’s grenade, on the other hand, is timed to explode in the air above or behind its target.

Air Bursts
This "air-burst" capability enables shooters to hit enemy targets hiding in foxholes and trenches or behind walls and trees, explained Jim Schatz, senior marketing and customer service representative for HK’s U.S. subsidiary, based in Sterling, Va. HK is the subcontractor responsible for the design and manufacture of the weapon itself.

Even if the 20 mm round doesn’t disable its target, it will make him take cover, said Schatz.

Despite its fearsome impact, the OICW is easy to shoot, said Rich Audette, deputy small arms product manager at the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal, N.J. He has fired the weapon many times, he said.

"When you’re firing a 20 mm round, you’d think that it would kick like a mule," said Audette. "But it really doesn’t. It’s really a honey of a gun to shoot."

The recoil–the backward force of a weapon when it is discharged–is "less than a 12-gauge shotgun, less than an M14 rifle," said Bierman.

Before it is fielded, the Army wants the OICW’s grenade launcher to have a range of 1,000 meters, more than twice that of the M203, said Schatz.

To enable the grenade to hit targets at such distances, Bierman explained, the OICW relies upon an electronic fire-control system with a laser range finder that pinpoints the precise target range at which the round will burst and automatically relays that information to the round’s detonating fuze.

The fire-control system–made by Brashear–"actually counts the number of turns" that the spinning round makes in the air after it is fired," said Bierman. "It also calculates the number of turns that it must make to reach its target." When it reaches that number, it explodes.

The fire-control system eliminates "gunner wobble," Bierman said. "Gunner wobble is what happens when–because of exhaustion or emotion–you’re having trouble keeping your weapon on target."

To compensate for gunner wobble, the fire-control system calculates an average of the weapon’s movement during the aiming process, and fires in the direction of that average.

Instead of the adjustable metal sights or telescopic cross hairs familiar to recent generations of shooters, the OICW employs a "simple red dot day/night sighting system," which uses uncooled infrared sensor technology for night vision, said Bierman.

"It’s really simple," he said. "All the soldier has to do is place the aimpoint–a red dot–on the target and activate the rangefinder. The fire-control system computes the range data. The soldier moves the adjusted aimpoint back to the target and pulls the trigger," Bierman said.

"The need to use ‘Kentucky windage’–calculating the impact of wind upon rounds as they fly through the air–is eliminated. A computer in the weapon does that."

One problem with the OICW is the weight of the weapon itself. The OICW prototype currently being tested weighs 18 pounds.

Designers intend to get the OICW down to about 14 pounds, including full magazines of 5.56 mm and 20 mm ammunition, through extensive use of "exotic, lightweight materials" to replace traditional metals, Bierman said. The Army Infantry Center would like to go even lower, to about 10 pounds, but that "is a challenge," he said.

Another concern is the cost of each OICW. The estimated unit price for each OICW has increased, from $10,000 in 1995 to between $15,000 to $18,000 most recently, Bierman acknowledged.

That sounds like a lot when compared to the $586 unit cost of the M16A2, Bierman admitted. But the price of a weapon, he argued, depends largely upon how many are produced. Currently, for example, approximately 800,000 M16s are in service, he said.

Comparing Costs
A more realistic comparison, he said, would be between the OICW and an older weapon with all of the add-ons, Bierman said. An M4 so equipped would cost $39,000, he noted.

Originally, he noted, the Army planned to buy 40,000 to 50,000 OICWs and issue them to every infantryman. "But the Army has decided that it doesn’t need as many as that," Bierman said.

Instead, the Army now plans to buy 20,000 OICWs and issue them to four out of the nine members of each infantry squad, Bierman said. Eventually, the Alliant team hopes to interest other U.S. services–particularly the Marines–and foreign military organizations in the OICW, Bierman said.

The Army also is making progress on the XM107–the new, .50 caliber, long-range sniper rifle. This weapon, designed by Barrett Firearms Manufacturing Inc., of Murfreesburo, Tenn., is 10 pounds lighter and a foot shorter than the two-decade-old, .50 caliber sniper rifle currently used by the armed services, the M82A3, also made by Barrett.

With a weight of 23 pounds and an overall length of nearly four feet, however, the XM107 is still a hefty weapon, admitted Bob Galeazzi, product manager for the rifle at Picatinny. "It’s a monster of a weapon," he said. "It’s got some kick to it, but it’s a good weapon."

The XM107 has a dual-chamber muzzle brake and recoil pad to reduce recoil, and its lighter weight makes it easier to carry and shoot, according to George Kontis, executive director of marketing and business development for Barrett.

An adjustable bipod–used to support the barrel while firing–can be detached easily by removing a single quick-release pin, Kontis said. A variety of day and night optics, thermal and other sighting devices can be mounted on the rifle, he noted.

The Army and Marines use .50 caliber sniper rifles to reach targets as far away as 1,800 yards–more than a mile, well beyond the range of the M16 or even the M24 sniper rifle. Also, a .50 caliber packs a wallop. Unlike the M24, which fires a 7.62 mm round, a .50 caliber rifle can penetrate distant soldiers’ helmets, fortified bunkers, lightly armored trucks, parked airplanes and even radar dishes, Kontis explained.

"In Kosovo," he said, "U.S. forces were taking fire from snipers in buildings full of noncombatants. Small arms were ineffective against the snipers, and you couldn’t use a tank, without taking out the whole building. A Barrett rifle will enable you to pinpoint the sniper and take him out without hurting anybody else in the building."

Being able to fire at targets "from such extreme ranges provides the sniper with increased protection from counter fire," said Galeazzi. The result, he noted, is reduced casualties among U.S. snipers.

Another important use for the .50 caliber rifle is explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) in and around the battlefield, said Kontis. During and after combat, U.S. troops and civilians are threatened by unexploded land mines, artillery shells, bombs and grenades. The simplest, most cost-effective way to dispose of such ordnance is by small arms fire, Kontis said.

The Army plans to order more than 2,900 of the XM107s, issuing one to every sniper team, according to Galeazzi. He declined to provide cost estimates. Fielding is planned for the second quarter of fiscal year 2002, he said.

First, however, "some issues" uncovered during recent tests at Aberdeen "have to be sorted out," he noted. During the tests, "we fired a few thousand rounds. The testers who fired the weapons said they were great, but they found a few things, and Barrett’s going to fix them."

Barrett officials don’t foresee any problems. "It’s all really minor stuff," said Kontis. "For example, they wanted backup iron sights–the M82A3 never had those. It’ll all be fixed by January."

Galeazzi seemed to agree. "What we’re experiencing with the XM107 is normal," he said. "We have an excellent chance of sticking to the schedule."

The team producing the M1014 joint services combat shotgun, H&K and Benelli Armi, S.p.A., of Urbino, Italy, hopes to sell as many as 15,000 to 25,000 of the weapons to U.S. military services and federal law enforcement agencies, said Schatz.

The first-year production contract–for the 3,977 copies ordered by the Marines–is for $2.8 million. Beyond that, exact numbers "haven’t firmed up yet," said Marine Maj. Tracy Tafolla, project officer for individual weapons, at the Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va.

The Marines are managing development of the weapon for all of the services, including the Special Operations Command and the Coast Guard. Best estimates, officials said, are that the Army will buy more than 6,000; the Coast Guard, 3,000, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, between 4,800 and 6,800. The Air Force, Navy, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service also have voiced interest.

The M1014 will be used primarily for guard duty, crowd control and–when necessary–close combat, said Schatz. This, he said, will make it particularly useful for urban warfare, peacekeeping and special operations.

Logistical Nightmare
The M1014 will replace an array of aging military shotguns, Tafolla said. "We’ve got four different shotguns," he said. "Logistically, that’s a nightmare for us. Nothing is interchangeable. Some of those weapons are more than 40 years old."

Unlike existing military shotguns–which are pump action–the M1014 is semi-automatic, meaning that it can be fired repeatedly simply by pulling the trigger each time. "The rate of fire is obviously faster than current shotguns," Tafolla said. The weapon has a magazine that holds five 12-gauge rounds and can accommodate both 2.75-inch and 3.0 magnum cartridges.

The new shotgun also can fire manually fed non-lethal rounds, such as bean bags, "delivering enough force to hit and hurt somebody without penetration," Tafolla said.

With a maximum length of 39.8 inches and an unloaded weight of 8.4 pounds, the M1014 is roughly the same size as the M16 rifle.

"It has a collapsible buttstock and a pistol grip, enabling you to fight in close quarters," he said. "It has a maximum effective range of 40 to 50 meters."

It will take time–years, in some cases–to get these new weapons into the hands of combat soldiers, military officials and contractors agreed. There are no plans, officials said, to replace the M16 and M4 entirely. What the new weapons will do, they emphasized, is offer U.S. infantry greater lethality and better protection.

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