There are few precious times in history when a new weapons system has delivered a game changing advantage at a soldier-on-soldier level. Battleships, submarines, air warefare, nuclear weapons; these all work at the strategic layer. Down in the dirt, in the field and the streets, things have been much as they always have.
Of course there have been key moments in history where everything changed, but for all the astounding advances in military technology over the last 100 years or so, it still often came down to small units engaging each other with hand-held weapons of reasonably similar capability. Now that may have changed forever, with the introduction of the XM25.
The weapon of choice for miscreants across the world, has an effective range of around 500 meters - this is pretty typical for an assault weapon. It became one of the most talked about weapons in history due to it's ability to keep firing, day and night no matter what grade of ammo you fed it. It was relatively cheap to construct with durability and usability. Rounds were heavy and hard hitting assuring effectiveness.
But what if there was a weapon that could easily handle ranges of up to 700 meters, whilst retaining it's lethality. With the clever use of advanced technology, the XM25 can take the standard military trained shooter and turn them into an adept marksman. To add to this, it has the ability to accurately deliver explosive rounds to the most effective position, in front, above and even behind the enemy! Couple that with true user friendliness, light weight and combat friendly design and you have the revolutionary new XM25.
While sounding much like fiction and fantasy, the XM25 is already getting a thorough workout in Afghanistan. That's right, we are talking a real piece of functioning hardware. To grasp the true significance of the XM25, it's necessary to understand warefare at the tactical level. The XM25 was originally designated an 'anti difilade' device. In military tactics, the terms 'enfilade' and 'defilade' describe a military formation's exposure to enemy fire.
The unit is said to be 'in enfilade' if their longest axis is exposed to enemy fire. A unit is in 'defilade' if it is using cover to avoid detection or fire. The essential detail is that you do not want to be in enfilade when the bad guys are in defilade!
Throughout history, smaller forces have wrought destruction on larger formations via the use of these tactics. And nowhere has the been executed more effectively and consistently than in Afghanistan. With its mountainous terrain, it presents huge problems for the movement of conventional forces and the prosecution of missions, and equally huge advantages for smaller forces attacking from behind the cover afforded by innumnerable rocky outcrops, caves and so forth.
The Taliban have made good use of Afghanistan's natural features, causing the world's most powerful military and its allies a good deal of grief. 'Irregular warfare', as it is often known, levels the playing field in some respects allowing smaller forces to cause disproportionate havoc on larger formations.
Conventional infantry units that come under attack from the Taliban in 'defilade' usually have to call in 'non-organic' elements such as artillary or air strikes to deal with the problem, or persue the risky undertaking of engaging concealed positions that afford cover to the enemy.
The longer an engagement takes place, the greater the risk of harm, with the attackers enjoying a time honoured tactical advantage. The XM25 changes all of that by allowing a regular infantryman to deliver an explosive shell to any location, including a position just behind where an enemy combatant may be hiding. With a maximum range of 700 metres, he can deal with the enemy beyond the range of their standard weapon. In other words, it will make the battlefield a safer place for US forces by denying the enemy the opportunity to usefully attack from cover.
The XM25 'Individual Semiautomatic Air-Burst System', as it is now termed, fires 25mm air bursting shells and is accurate to 500 metres for individual targets, and 700 metres for delivering a shell to a concealed position, or an area target. It is most closely related to a grenade launcher, and has a range exceeding most assault rifles.
To get an idea of how 'smart' it is, imagine that a bad guy takes a shot from extreme range, then ducks behind a wall for cover. The XM25 operator can use the weapon's laser to accurately define range, then program it to lob a few explosive shots behind the wall, usually killing the enemy. And, best of all, the XM25 allows a soldier to do all of this from behind cover and at a range where regular assault rifles aren't much use. To make things even more user friendly, the weapon is relatively light - around five kilograms - and is ambidextrous in its use.
THE XM25 is being developed by the ATK corporation in the US with inputs from German arms manufacturer Heckler and Koch. Its origins date back to a program for a more generalized weapon that was suspended in 2004, essentially resulting in two different weapons platforms.
A key aspeet of the XM25 is its 'target acquisition/fire control' system, also known as computerised sight, which allows the weapon to be-quickly programmed to hit a target acquired by laser. The 25mm HEAB (High Explosive Air Burst) programmable ammunition has a very strong hit probability due to the range-finding laser sight and ballistic computer, which automatically sets the weapon for the acquired range and programs the grenades to explode where they are required. the round measures the distance it travels by counting its own revolutions after leaving the barrel.
Point detonating warheads for use against armour are also in the mix, as well as canister flechette rounds which are loaded with multiple steel darts for close combat. Beyond that, there are plans for non-lethal and training rounds, the former providing a huge advantage for irregular combat conditions in proximity to non-combatants.
The XM25 is a gas operated, rotating bolt, semi-automatic weapon. The magazine and the bolt are located in the buttstock, and the weapon housing is made from an impact-resistant polymer. Controls are fully ambidextrous. The high tech sighting and target acquisition electronics are battery powered, but it can still be used in a direct fire capacity with the grenades deferring to point-impact detonation. The sighting mechanism is located in the front of the trigger guard and it uses magazines which can hold six rounds each. It is envisaged that its operator will still have to carry an additional personal defence weapon.
So far only five handmade XM25 prototypes have made their way onto the battlefield, each at a cost of over $30,000. The ammunition is also handmade because a full production line has not been established. But the feedback from soldiers who have used the weapon is incredibly positive - they don't want to give them back, and have nicknamed the XM25 'The Punisher'.
Two soldiers from the US Army were tasked with taking the XM25 prototypes into theatre to train requesting units in their use, and manage the Forward Operational Assessment process, which includes gathering feedback from soldiers who used the weapon and collating information about its performance. The five prototype weapons entered theatre in November 2011, and were first used in combat on 3rd December 2011. Although hundreds of rounds have been fired, only 55 have been used as part of actual combat operations, but the results have been impressive.
Two Observation Points were disrupted, two machine gun positions were silenced as well as four ambush positions, and when used against a longer range target, the enemy combatant was sent packing from the battlefield, probably injured.
With the Forward Operational Assessment ending in January, the US Army felt they Had enough data to take the weapons off the battle field, but the soldiers didn't want to give them up. The US is now looking to build an additional 36 XM25s and it is hoped that production will commence in 2013. Before that happens, improvements based upon data gathered in Afghanistan will be incorporated into the weapon.
These may include an improved battery life and a lightening of the weapon, as well as determining if increasing the range even further is possible. There will also be exhaustive engineering trials to ensure it has the requisite durability for ongoing combat operations. Overall though, the feedback from soldiers has been so overwhelmingly positive that any improvements will be the icing on the cake.
Without a doubt the XM25 is a game-changing weapon on a tactical level. For years the Taliban have used the ancient tactic of harassing and attacking US forces from concealed and defensible positions - in defilade. Widespread deployment of the XM25 is going to render this tactic next to useless and possibly create the biggest seismic shift in how warfare is conducted on a tactical level since the advent of the firearm itself.
One of the key features of these new weapons, including the XM25 and the AICW (see panel), is that they incorporate grenade launchers. The ability to fire explosive rounds at enemies under cover is vital for conflicts like Afghanistan. So does this mean the grenade - the old fashioned, pull-the-pin and toss grenade - is obsolete?
Not just yet. Only five XM25 prototypes have made it on to the battlefield. Although it is obviously a huge progression in terms of the damage it can wreak on concealed and protected enemy positions, a complete picture of its performance and battlefield applications is still a way off. The XM25's game changing power lies in its ability to strike at targets at long range. So far it hasn't been used in the kind of close quarters combat where grenades have traditionally come into their own, such as storming buildings. The AICW will allow soldiers to seamlessly move between bullets and grenades, and this capability may put the standalone grenade on notice - but not until 2020 at the earliest.
The intention of these sorts of weapons, rather, is to make soldiers safer by lowering the time taken to switch between different weapons - in the case of the AICW - and to destroy the enemy at the limit of their effective range in the case of the XM25.
If all goes to plan, the XM25 should start appearing on the battlefield in numbers in a year or so, and there is no doubt that it will herald a huge tactical shift. Enemy forces will need to attack at close quarters to have any chance at all, and there is little doubt that urban environments will often provide the best chance of achieving this.