The U.S. Army Wants to Give Troops a New Super Missile
Weapon would be able to take out armored vehicles and people
In more than a decade of fighting Afghanistan, American troops have become painfully aware of how hard it can be to uproot an enemy hiding behind rocks, in buildings or other cover, especially over long distances.
Mostly armed with M-16 rifles and M-249 machine guns firing small .223-caliber bullets, troops regularly found themselves outgunned by the Taliban and other militants. With few other options, many units turned to the FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile launcher.
Infrared guided and with a range of more than 2,700 yards, the Javelin could get at deeply dug-in opponents and avoid hitting unintended buildings nearby. The missiles can fly in a straight line – and into narrow spaces like windows – or shoot up to a higher altitude and drop down on targets behind obstacles.
But despite these qualities, co-designers Texas Instruments and Martin Marietta had not crafted the missile with these sorts of targets in mind. That’s why the Army announced Nov. 24 that it’s looking for new super missile that can blow up armored vehicles and kill enemy soldiers equally.
Blandly titled the Precision Shoulder Launched Missile, the ground combat branch wants a single weapon that can meet five different “lethality” goals and hit its mark more than 1,000 yards away, according to the official notice.
The missile will be able to kill enemy troops in bunkers, behind brick walls and just out in the open, and knock out light armored vehicles like the Russian BMP-3 … even if they’re moving.
“At the current time, NO FUNDING IS AVAILABLE for contractual efforts,” the document declared. “This is a special notice only and is for planning purposes only.”
While a standard clause for these notices, the Army has already tried out several prototype weapons to replace the Javelin in an anti-infantry role. Despite a fair amount of promise in many cases, none of them have been widely seen as a success.
When U.S. troops first arrived in Afghanistan, most units saw little need for heavy weapons like the Javelin. Developed at the end of the Cold War, the original manufacturers envisioned the missiles blowing up Russian tanks on a European battlefield.
Afghanistan was very different. American commandos and air support destroyed the Taliban’s few tanks at the beginning of the war, and the Taliban shifted to guerrilla tactics. As a result, soldiers and Marines were not inclined to lug the Javelin around on day-to-day patrols.
“No soldiers of Task Force Devil were found to carry the Javelin Missile System into battle due to the absence of an enemy armor threat,” explained one Army report covering operations from April to May 2003. Task Force Devil consisted of elements from the 82nd Airborne Division.
The missile crews became regular riflemen or carried lighter, long-range weapons instead. The replacement weapons included disposable recoilless rifles and dated M-14 rifles able to reach out beyond the range of standard M-16s or blast away at hard targets like cave entrances.
Standard 40-millimeter grenade launchers offered another explosive option.
Even as the need for a heavier weapon became obvious, troops – and their officers – were reluctant to break out the Javelins. Often with little actual experience with the missiles, soldiers and Marines worried about creating havoc in areas where innocent civilians might be caught in the crossfire.
“Immediately people just perceive it as something that is going to cause mass damage,” a 2012 Raytheon Missile Systems briefing quoted an unnamed soldier. “As we use them we realize that it’s obviously very precise, and it doesn’t cause a whole ton of damage.”
Then there was cost. While effective, launching an $80,000 missile to kill a single sniper or even a small group of fighters armed with rifles and machine guns seemed excessive.
And that’s only if everything went perfectly. While pointing the Javelin’s targeting laser at an individual person was “very likely” to result in a kill, Raytheon’s briefing explained that the missile was “unlikely” to inflict serious damage on a group of people and “very unlikely” to do so if the firer couldn’t get the weapon locked on at the best spot.
One of the Army’s first attempts to solve these problems was the XM-25 grenade launcher. A part of the abortive Objective Infantry Combat Weapon program, the futuristic new gun would lob explosive 25-millimeter rounds with the help of a special firing computer. The rounds would explode as it passed over a target, showering down a hail of shrapnel.
After more than five years of work, soldiers in Afghanistan were practically begging for the new weapon. In 2010, the troops from the 101st Airborne Division finally received prototypes and dubbed the guns “The Punisher.” After the evaluation ended, they handed the weapons back to Army engineers and asked for various improvements, including a longer-lasting battery pack and extra range.
Unfortunately, more than two years later, an accident derailed the Army’s plans to buy nearly 1,500 XM-25s. On Feb. 2, 2013, one of the launchers blew up during a practice session, totaling the gun and lightly injuring the shooter. Four months later, Congress gutted the Punisher’s funding, citing “unreliable performance.” The legislators told the Army to go back to the drawing board.
In early 2011, the ground combat branch dug out Vietnam-era M-67 recoilless rifles and rushed them to Afghanistan. In December 2011, the Special Operations Command diverted nearly 60 more modern M-3 Carl Gustafs into the country.
When fired, these huge shoulder-fired cannons let propelling gasses escape out of the back of the weapon. The counteracting force helps reduce recoil, leading to the slightly misleading name.
A civilian contractor instructs members of the 25th Infantry Division in Afghanistan on how to use the Carl Gustaf. Army photo
Defense contractor Saab makes the M-3, which can reach out nearly 800 yards with its 84-millimeter high explosive shells. The Swedish firm also offers a special projectile filled with small, metal darts called flechettes specifically for killing enemy troops. In March 2014, the company announced that the Army was planning to hand out the big guns to units across the board. The experience in Afghanistan surely influenced that decision.
But while better suited to taking out buildings or rock outcroppings and the militants hiding behind them, the M-3 was an imperfect solution. The weapon lacks the Javelin’s range and pinpoint precision.
Based on the basic requirements outlined already, the Army’s new super missile would blend features of Javelin, the XM-25 and the M-3 together. If successful, the weapon might be able to replace other more specialized anti-tank and bunker busting recoilless rifles, like the Marine’s Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon.
Of course, costs and funding problems could hold up any new system. With so many different types of weapons already available, Congress could balk at paying for another one. And a future guided projectile could easily be just as expensive as the Javelin.
What is clear, and the Army certainly recognizes this fact, is that American troops will continue to need an accurate, long-range weapon that can punch through obstacles and armored vehicles no matter what kind of war they find themselves in down the road.