Since the invention of gunpowder there’s been a disconnect between an infantry soldier’s personal weapons and the heavier stuff he can call in for support fires. It wasn’t always like this though. Medieval English armies were dominated by the famous longbowmen who, to be accepted, had to be able to shatter an oyster shell with an arrow at a hundred paces. They used this skill to pick off heavily armored knights by shooting at the weak points in their protection. At longer ranges, out to 300 yards or more, they used a very different tactic – shooting in groups of a hundred or more on a high trajectory, so enemy forces would be caught in a lethal barrage before they ever got close enough to use their own weapons. High angle mass archery could be deployed against an enemy fortress, turning its courtyards and fighting platforms into a death trap swept by falling projectiles. It’s as if every infantryman could instantly convert his personal weapon into a light mortar, and switch from the contact battle to fire support on a single word of command.
One future goal of the US Army is to bring that capability back, updated with modern technology. The first serious attempt at this was the familiar M203 grenade launcher, which gave rifle squads a high explosive weapon with a limited indirect fire capability, combined with a standard rifle. The 40mm grenades are heavy though, and it’s not a very precise weapon against enemy behind cover. The next attempt was a lot more advanced – the XM29 Objective Individual Combat Weapon. A low velocity shoulder-fired 20mm autocannon with a 5.56mm carbine underslung, this was meant to give every soldier a weapon that could pick off the enemy with aimed rifle fire or detonating airbursting explosive rounds above cover. Unfortunately it was too heavy and the 20mm rounds didn’t have enough of an explosive effect, so the project was cancelled. A heavier caliber 25mm version, without the underslung carbine, lives on as the XM25 and has been field tested in Afghanistan; if the Army can get the funding past Congress, the plan is to buy 1,400 of them in the next few years. Both the OICW and XM25 use a laser rangefinder to set the detonation distance of the projectile so it bursts right above the enemy.
The XM29 failed, but it’s now only a matter of time until an improved version succeeds and gives the future GI a vastly more flexible and capable weapon. But that’s only one way to integrate personal weapons and heavier firepower. After centuries of iron sights, today’s infantryman is used to aiming with an optical sight – usually some kind of ACOG – combined with NVGs and infrared lasers. Inside the next decade we’ll start seeing personal weapons sights that include their own laser rangefinders, designators, and ballistic computers, giving a huge leap in accuracy. What a lot of people overlook is the possibilities of these sights when tied in with GPS and networked communications. With every soldier able to know his own position to the nearest yard, and precisely measure a target’s distance and bearing from himself, there’s no limit to the firepower he can call in. Imagine a battlefield where a soldier can engage infantrymen and light vehicles with his own multi-caliber weapon, but be handed control of indirect fire grenade launchers, artillery or even missiles when he spots a tougher target.
Right now a US Army or USMC rifle squad carries a hard-hitting array of firepower and can call on a lot more. When the possibilities of the latest technology are fully explored, though, they’ll have almost god-like power in their hands. The XM25 is only the start.