The Army plans to replace many of its M16 rifles and M203 grenade launchers with a single weapon that uses laser range finding and "smart" ammunition.
The Army's standard issue rifle, the M16, is nearly 40 years old. Though it was revolutionary when introduced and used in Vietnam, the rest of the world now arms its soldiers with weapons that have similar firepower and sophistication. To stay ahead of the curve and increase the lethality of its GIs, the U.S., together with a team of defense contractors, is developing the OICW (objective individual combat weapon).
The design team consists of prime contractor Alliant Techsystems, Hopkins, Minn., Heckler and Koch of Germany developing the firing systems, and Brahsear LP, Pittsburgh, building the fire-control system. Current plans are to issue it to four soldiers in every nine-man platoon around 2009.
The OICW fires both 5.6-mm rounds (as used by the M16 and NATO) and 20-mm grenades, and includes high-tech add-ons such as laser range finding, thermal imaging for night vision, optics for daylight targeting, an electronic compass, and computer-controlled fusing and target tracking. At the heart of the OICW is a stand-alone automatic carbine. A removable grenade launcher mounts on top. There is talk of making both rifle and grenade launcher operational when separated. But for now, only the rifle fires when the grenade launcher is removed.
Sitting atop the semiautomatic grenade launcher is the fire-control computer. It shines a laser on targets to determine their range and is accurate to within ±0.5 m out to 500 m, and within ±1.0 m at 1,000 m. For firing grenades, the computer puts an aiming dot on the small screen inside the eyepiece. Aiming the gun at the dot corrects for the round's trajectory and ensures an accurate shot. The computer also uses the laser and IR systems to identify and track moving targets, putting computer-generated symbols on the eyepiece display.
Target information also passes through a fuzing system and is inductively fed into grenades. The explosive rounds contain microcircuitry that counts rotations. It also knows how fast the grenade travels and how many rotations it makes per second — facts still classified. Using these inputs, it explodes at the proper distance and about a meter over the ground. Therefore, if an OICW-equipped soldier sights and lases an attacker who then ducks out of sight into a trench, the soldier can still fire a grenade, confident it will explode above the enemy and shower him with deadly shrapnel.
There are several different modes for firing grenades — airburst, MOUT short arming, point detonation, and point-detonation delay — that can be selected using a switch on the trigger guard. Airburst is used when targets duck out of sight, as previously described. MOUT (military operations in urban terrain) short arming is for close-quarter and houseto-house fighting. The grenades have a safety feature that prevents them from exploding too close to the soldier launching them. But if the situation calls for it, the soldier can override the safety — and put himself in potential danger — by selecting MOUT.
With point detonation, grenades explode on impact. Point-detonation delay, however, programs rounds to explode a second or two after hitting something. It's designed to let grenades break through windows or walls, then explode.
"We're evaluating these modes right now to see if we need them all," says Randy Strobush, product director for the OICW at Alliant. "There's some question as to whether we really need to make soldiers decide between them in the heat of battle."
Meeting the goals
The OICW program has several goals. One of the hardest is getting the weapon's weight, including 30 rounds of 5.6-mm ammo and six 20-mm grenades, under 14 lb. That would be 10 to 30% less than the current M16/M203 systems. OICW currently weighs about 18 lb. To make it lighter, engineers will concentrate on the titanium and composite frame and stock, advances in miniaturizing electronics, and substituting plastic for glass in the optics.
The entire system gets its power from a single lithium battery in the weapon's stock. So another goal is to have that battery provide enough power for an entire mission. To help keep power requirements down, for example, the fire-control system uses uncooled IR imaging.
Engineers are also sensitive about the OICW's price tag, a rumored $24,000 per weapon, and would like to lower it. "But if you look at what the current weapon costs, plus the cost of adding aiming lasers and optics and thermal imaging, it exceeds $35,000," says Strobush. So when you consider the added capabilities and fire power, it's still a good deal at $24,000.
The OICW will fire grenades 1,000 m in a nearly flat aeroballistic trajectory, almost too far for soldiers to spot and identify targets. The rifle portion, like the previous M16, has a range of about 500 m. Recoil from firing 20-mm grenades is only slightly more than that of an M16 firing 5.6-mm rounds.