The Complex

The Senate Wants to Kill the Army's 'Punisher'

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.

Wikimedia Commons

National Security

China's J-20 Stealth Fighter Is Getting the Hollywood Treatment

It looks like China is getting its J-20 stealth fighter ready for some serious publicity. These photos show the jet getting up close and personal treatment by a professional camera crew at Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group's airfield where the small fleet of J-20 test planes is based.

The J-20 is China's first stealthy fighter plane, the grainy amateur photos that leaked of the jet in late 2010 were a signal to the world that China was ready to start challenging, at least a little, American dominance of the skies.

The Chinese government has a habit of allowing plane-spotters to hang out on the perimeter fences of airfields belonging to two of its major military aircraft builders, Chengdu and Shenyang, when the government is ready for images of a new project to leak out. In the two and a half years since the J-20 emerged we've seen another stealth jet, the J-31, and a stealthy drone, the Li Jian, unveiled in similar fashion.

This new crew? They're no amateurs. Maybe this means the plane will merely star in the next Chinese version of Top Gun. It may also be a harbinger of big news for the plane. We do know that there are at least two J-20 test jets, labeled 2001 and 2002. The first plane, 2001, is likely used to prove that the airframe's basic design is airworthy while engineers are using 2002 to test how well the plane's mission systems like avionics, radars and missiles work. (2002 is the star of this movie, notice how the plane has its weapons bay doors open in one of the photos below.)

Chinese officials have said they expect to have a stealth fighter in service as early as 2017. If so, that means that Chengdu is likely rushing through the development of the jet in order to get the production line established.

Remember, we've seen plenty of evidence to suggest that the Chinese government is using its military hacking units to acquire the designs of U.S. weapons -- like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Chinese spies are also trying to steal the secrets of the West's advanced manufacturing procedures in an attempt to leapfrog past the decades of research and development work needed to produce modern weapons. It's entirely possible that these attempts at development shortcuts will pay off and China will field its first squadron of stealth fighters in as little as four years. (Whether the PLAAF can master the use of such jets is another question.)

At the very least, it looks like we can expect to see some relatively high-quality imagery of the jet coming out sometime soon.

Chinese Internet, China Defense Blog