Nicknamed "The Punisher" by troops, the XM-25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System is a beast of an infantry weapon. Looking like something out of Starship Troopers, it fires 25mm grenades that are programmed to explode in the air just behind walls, rocks, vehicles -- anything really -- that an enemy is using for cover at effective ranges of nearly 3,000-feet.
But, like other Army small arms before it, such as the M-16, the weapon has run into difficulties -- both on the battlefield and in Congress. On Monday, the Senate Armed Services Committee eliminated all funding for the XM-25 in its revision of the Pentagon's budget. It's another sad chapter in a rather pathetic library in the U.S. military's attempts to upgrade its most commonly-used infantry weapons.
The move came after one of the weapons suffered a premature explosion in Afghanistan. On February 2, a soldier on a training mission there got ready to fire an XM-25 when the primer of a chambered grenade caught fire, rendering the weapon "inoperable" and giving the gunner superficial injuries. Luckily, safety features built into the round kicked in and prevented the grenade from killing anyone. While the Army stood by the weapons' safety, noting that it had been fired 5,900 times between failures like this, it pulled the XM-25 from combat and ordered design changes to the grenade launcher.
Despite this, the Army was on track to buy more than 10,000 of the weapons in the coming years, until now.
"A malfunction during this [weapon's deployment in Afghanistan] has raised very serious questions about the safety and effectiveness of the weapon. The committee further understands that the Army is in the process of opening consideration of other available or developmental grenade launchers that are capable of firing programmable munitions," reads a copy of the committee's report on the 2014 defense-funding bill. "Given the unreliable performance of the XM-25 and the Army's review of alternative air burst weapon systems, the committee recommends a decrease of $69.1 million in [the 2014 budget request] for the XM-25 counter defilade target engagement weapon system."
That "decrease" accounts for the entire cash amount the Army asked for to buy 1,400 of the weapons in its 2014 budget request.
Starting in 2010, the Army sent a handful of the weapons to Afghanistan to undergo field-testing. Over the course of nine gunfights between December 2010 and February 2011, soldiers fired 55 handmade, $1,000 a pop XM-25 rounds. (That insane price was expected to drop to $36 apiece when the weapon entered full production.)
Army Times quoted one soldier describing an engagement where an enemy machine gunner was "so badly wounded or so freaking scared that he dropped [his] weapon" and ran after being shot at by the XM-25.
The Punisher went on to garner pretty rave reviews from the troops using it in combat and it remained in Afghanistan until early 2013, when things went wrong for the futuristic weapon.
It will be interesting to see how the land-service responds to this and what weapons it goes with to give to troops for man hunts against terrorists that will no-doubt continue even as the war in Afghanistan draws down. Maybe they will just have to make do with the M320, a new, "dumb" 40mm grenade launcher.
It should be noted that buying small arms has long been a tricky issue in the U.S. military. Remember, the M-16, the U.S. military's main combat rifle for the last half-century, was pretty awful when it made its debut in the mud and jungles of Vietnam. While the M-16 and its derivatives have been refined into a decent weapon, it was a pretty rough road for the rifle early on, with some blaming early versions of the M-16's tendency to jam for troops' deaths. Decades later, there have been only upgrades to the weapon, not an Army-wide replacement. And now it looks like troops won't get their Starship Troopers grenade launcher, either.