If you didn’t know better, you’d get all excited reading about the Army’s new shoulder-fired cannon, the XM-25. It’s being hyped as a “game-changing” weapon that will literally blow the Taliban out of their hiding places and turn the tide in Afghanistan.
The XM25 is the kind of weapon a kid likes to dream about. It’s basically a “smart,” user-friendly shoulder-fired grenade launcher. It shoots 25mm fragmentation grenades that explode at a pre-set distance. And you don’t need to be a math prof to calculate the distance; the weapon talks to itself, the laser sight basically telling the round when it has to explode.
So suppose I’m a soldier trying to deal with a sniper firing from behind a window in an Iraqi city, or popping up from behind some adobe wall, irrigation ditch or boulder in Afghanistan. In that situation you could blast away all day with a pure line-of-sight weapon like a typical automatic rifle, and you’d just make a lot of dust without hitting anybody.
What you need in a situation like that—and it’s a very common situation in war, especially urban or mountain war, and we’re fighting both at the moment—is a weapon that can kill an enemy who’s behind cover. If we were fighting in a wood-frame battlefield, like say an American suburb, you wouldn’t need to worry about this so much, because American walls and doors are very thin and most modern rifle rounds will go right through them. But Iraqi and Afghan houses are built of thick mud or concrete. They make pretty good cover for a sniper.
So instead of trying to shoot through the wall, you want to get an air burst of some kind through the window, or over the boulder or whatever it is the enemy’s behind. There are all kinds of ways to do that, and most of them involve lobbing an explosive round over the wall. Armies have been doing this for centuries. A catapult is designed to handle an enemy behind a wall, by lobbing its load over the wall into the enemy town. A siege mortar is designed to lob a shell over a fort’s walls into the enemy’s ranks. A hand grenade can be lobbed the same way at short range, and for longer range you could use the U.S. Army’s standard grenade launcher, the M203.
You’ll notice all these are small arms, very “light” weapons in military terms. When a first-world army wants to wipe out an enemy city without taking casualties themselves, they just call in the artillery, like the Russians did in Grozny in Chechnya, or air strikes like we did in Fallujah. If these first-world armies really wanted to use their full firepower, they could just nuke whole Afghan mountains or Iraqi cities.
But they don’t. That’s not what this generation of warfare is usually like. These are colonial wars, like the ones the British fought on the same territories, Iraq and Southern Afghanistan, and like the Brits we’re fighting them at a low level, basically small arms. So what you want is a small arm (a weapon that can be carried and fired by one or two soldiers) with the firepower of artillery. That’s what the XM25 is supposed to provide. It looks like a stubby shotgun, which it is, basically. What separates it from your home-defense 12-gauge is the rounds it fires and the aiming system. The standard round is an explosive 25mm shell. When it explodes, it sprays deadly metal strips in a room-sized sphere pattern. If you’re in a room where one detonates, you’re dead.
Of course that wouldn’t mean much if those shells just hit the adobe wall or boulder where the sniper’s hiding, it wouldn’t have much effect. That’s where the laser sight and computer ranging come into play. The XM25’s laser sight measures the distance to the target and lets the soldier set his rounds to explode before, on, or (most likely) behind the target. So, if you’re trying to kill a sniper in an Iraqi house, you set the shells to explode one meter inside the window. The sniper (and anybody else in the room) gets riddled with white-hot metal fragments. If you’re dealing with a half-dozen Taliban firing from behind an irrigation ditch at a patrol that’s just left their village, you set the 25 mm rounds to burst above and behind them. Even if they’re well-shielded from direct fire, they’re dead.
That’s the hype, anyway, the story being peddled by media whores like Rick Sanchez, who did a gee-whiz story on the XM25 a while back.
My basic rule is that if Rick Sanchez said that water is wet, I’d start to doubt it, so I’ve got a couple of doubts about this story. First, it’s very hard to tell if the XM25 works as well as we’re hearing, because U.S. armed forces procurement is a big, sleazy business and involves more lies and propaganda than Stalin’s show trials ever generated. There are proven cases of Army officers working with contractors from the big weapons companies to rig tests to make new weapons systems look good. If you take a look at this recent video of the XM25 putting on a show for the tame media, you’ll see what I mean.
Most people have no idea how to read a video like this, so here are a few pointers to make you a smarter shopper next time you need to buy a weapons system. First, you’ll notice that the reporters are told what’s going to happen by Col. Tamilio, the Army’s public-relations honcho for the new weapon. And he tells them, “You’re not going to see anything” because the XM25 is firing dummy rounds, training rounds, non-explosive. After the soldier handling the weapon fires two rounds, Tamilio tells them the test went “two-for-two,” but they’re taking his word for it. All they actually saw was a guy shooting the thing twice.
Next, notice that after the first round is fired, a civilian in a baseball cap comes up, tinkers with the XM25, and whispers something in the shooter’s ear. I’d bet my lunch that’s a consultant from the companies that produced the XM25, telling the shooter how to baby the weapon to make it look good. You have to realize that in a lot of American high-tech businesses, everything from hip-replacement surgery to weapons testing, a lot of the the hands-on work is done not by doctors or soldiers but by industry guys who never get mentioned in the official reports. So this is not a combat-style firing by an ordinary GI; not only does the shooter have industry help right over his shoulder, but the shooter is identified as a major, and you can bet he was hand-picked for this demonstration.
It’s a matter of money—big money. Defense contracts are the sweetest you can imagine, which is why defense contractors bribe the hell out of everybody from congressmen to foreign dictator’s nephews to get them to buy. If you want a classic example of what defense procurement sleaze looks like, take a look at the career of former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, now better known as “Federal Inmate Cunningham.” There are thousands of lobbyists and “consultants” who spend their whole lives greasing the Federal procurement process. Naturally the weapons nuts who follow news like the XM25 don’t have a clue about this stuff, but the real grownups in DC pay very close attention to it.
The XM25 has a typical history for a big-money American weapons system. By the time suckers like Rick Sanchez get brought to the proving range to see it shown off, this weapons system has been through a career as sleazy as Duke Cunningham’s. It all starts when one or more of the Armed Services comes up with a “need” for a new weapon. In this case, Plan A was a fantasy weapon called OICW, “Objective Individual Combat Weapon,” that would combine the power of an automatic rifle and a grenade launcher. That program failed, and was split into two parts: one for a new rifle to replace the M4, and another for a rapid-firing grenade launcher, Program XM29, which ended up with the XM25. Along the way, the program ran into more corporate and political interference than you can imagine, especially because some of the competitors were foreign companies. Colt Industries, the company that makes the current M203 grenade launcher, actually called in a rule that the Defense Department had to use American corporations in certain cases, so they could get a piece of the procurement pie.
That’s pretty standard Defense contractor behavior: if you’re losing out to a foreign competitor, and you can’t just bribe some tool like Rep. Cunningham to step in on your side, then play the “Buy American!” card.
Sometimes good weapons come out of all this sleaze, sometimes not. And even when the results are good, you can count on the fact that some contractor who loves to wave the flag made some obscene profits by gold-plating the winning weapons system, loading it up with expensive options. It’s not hard when the armed-services officers in charge of signing off on the money know they can go right to work for the contractor as soon as they retire.
So maybe, just maybe, the XM25 will do what it’s supposed to do. But even if it does, it won’t be a “game-changer” in either of our wars, because irregular wars like Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t decided by superior weaponry. If they were, we’d already have won both those wars about a million times over. The Taliban use old Soviet AK rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and get to battle on foot or bouncing along in the back of Toyota pickups. But in spite of this humongous gap between our tech and theirs, the senior British commander in Afghanistan went on record in 2008 saying the Taliban will not be defeated militarily–and he should know, because the Brits have been fighting the Pashtun irregulars for two centuries now.
Let’s take the best-case scenario and say that this new weapon, the XM25, makes every American infantry squad so lethal that the Taliban and the Iraqi insurgents lose a huge number of men and can’t afford stand-up fights any more. What that would do is force an accelerated evolution in the same direction guerrilla war’s been evolving for more than 100 years: away from trying to fight the invading army on its own terms and toward assassination, bombs, betrayal—all the ways insurgents love to fight and conventional armies hate. In practical terms, that means more Taliban enlist in the Afghan Army and wait for the chance to mow down the Western soldiers who are supposedly their buddies. Or more Taliban go home and wait until we lose interest and go home, then dig up their buried guns and go stomp their less-militant neighbors. Or, worst and most likely of all these scenarios, more Taliban forget about chancing a firefight and stick to IEDs.
According to the U.S. Army’s own newspaper, the Army Times, IEDs now account for 75 percent of American casualties in Afghanistan.
Most of our GIs are not dying or being wounded in the kind of firefight the XM25 is designed to win. They’re dying in a much nastier way: getting blown up by remote control while they patrol rural Afghan dirt roads.
And unfortunately, the only effect a gee-whiz weapon like the XM25 is likely to have is raising that figure closer to 100 percent.
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