October 30, 2020:
Two former U.S. Navy SEALs started a business (Matbock) to develop and sell equipment they wish they had while SEALs but could not find. One of their first products was the ARDS (Acquire Read Deploy Sight) for use on assault rifles equipped with an M203 or M320 under the barrel 40mm grenade launcher. The M320 already had available a detachable DNS electronic sight. While the DNS was an improvement over the original iron sight, there were several obvious (to users) features missing. ARDS provided what DNS lacked and users wanted. ARDS sight enables the user to select model of grenade launcher as well as ammo type (illumination, smoke or explosive). ARDS contains a microprocessor and sensors similar to those found in smartphones or smartwatches. This enables ARDS to sense the grenade launcher's positioning and calculate how far the grenade will go and where it will land. A small LCD tells you how far away the shell will land based on how you are holding the rifle mounting the M203 or M320. A handheld laser range finder is used to get the range to target. ARDS can be demonstrated on a firing range to first time users, who are convinced once they see their first ARDS directed grenade land on the target. ARDS was introduced in 2019 and within a year SOCOM (Special Operations Command) had ordered a thousand.
SOCOM Special Forces and SEAL operators are a smart and innovative bunch. They are also decisive, often going to army or air force organizations responsible for developing or improving equipment and presenting a detailed plan for a modification or new item. This was how Rover came to be in 2002, when a Special Forces soldier, just back from Afghanistan, walked into the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and asked the technical people why his guys could not have a device that would allow them to watch the video being generated by a Predator, AC-130, or other aircraft overhead. In particular, the soldiers wanted the capability of the AC-130 getting video from a Predator that had spotted something the AC-130 was being sent to destroy. Since it was the Special Forces troops on the ground who were running, and fighting, the ground battle, it would help them a lot if they could see the real time video from Predators and combat aircraft. At that time the video was being viewed by people in the aircraft or the UAV operators back in the United States, running things via a satellite link. The ground troops had to ask the air force what could be seen on the video and there was usually a delay in getting that information. It was much better for all concerned for the ground troops to see that video in real time. The air force geeks went to work and in two weeks had a ROVER prototype that Special Forces personnel could take back to Afghanistan. Rover 1 made a big difference and over the next decade smaller, lighter, more capable and cheaper Rover models appeared. The air force had their own people on the ground in the air controller teams and they found Rover extremely useful, as did the fighter-bomber pilots overhead. The pilots could, via Rover, have a better idea of what was where and doing what down there. Smart bombs and missiles could use used more quickly and accurately.
There was a similar pattern at work in the development of the under barrel 40mm grenade launchers. The original M203 model was so effective it was four decades before a better replacement appeared. In 2008 the U.S. Army began replacing the 1960s M203 with the M320. The M203 fits under the barrel of the M16 rifle (and similar weapons). The army bought 71,000 M320s (for about $3,500 each) to replace the 50,000 M203s it still had. The M320 is similar to the M203, but is easier to use, has its own pistol grip, is more accurate and can be used separately from an M16 with the addition of a stock.
The biggest improvement with the M320 is its sighting system, the DNS. This features a laser range finder. At night, an infrared range finder enables a soldier wearing night vision goggles to see the light beam. In over a year of testing, the M320s sighting system was seen to make the weapon much more accurate than the older M203. This was particularly the case with new users. With the M203, you got better after you had fired a hundred or so rounds. That took time, and was expensive as the 40mm grenades cost about $28 each. The 40mm grenades weigh 19 ounces each and have a range of about 400 meters. The grenade explosion can kill within five meters, and wound up to ten meters or more. The 40mm grenade was developed as a more usable and effective replacement for earlier rifle grenade designs.
The problem with the DNS sight was that it did not do what ARDS did, let the user know how he was holding the rifle/grenade launcher would influence where the 40mm shell would land. There were ARDS-like fire control capabilities available for the heavier automatic grenade launchers like the Mk19. This weapon was developed by the U.S. Navy in the 1970s for use on river and coastal patrol boats. The Mk19 didn’t see much combat until the 1991 Gulf War when the army and marines recognized it as a very effective weapon in open land areas, not just open water. From the beginning, the Mk19 was quite effective with the usual “iron sights” found on rifles for over a century. But users noted the electronic sights becoming available for rifles and machine-guns in the late 1990s. Eventually, in 2011, an electronic sight was developed that worked with the Mk 19, producing a very accurate long-barrel 40mm automatic grenade launcher. This electronic sight, combining a GPS, laser rangefinder and computer, was called the Mk19 FCS (Fire Control System). The FCS enabled gunners to put the first round on the target, at extreme ranges; over 2,000 meters. The FCS also enabled firing an accurate pattern of 40mm grenades at those same ranges. Moreover, the GPS enables an FCS equipped Mk19 to accurately fire on a target the gunner can't see. The FCS also has a camera, which can mark targets, out to 5,000 meters, on a photo, which can be then transmitted to other troops or headquarters. The FCS is also very easy to use for anyone with Mk19 experience. You lase the target to obtain range, and then use the aiming dot in the sight to mark where the rounds will go.
Getting the first rounds on the target is very important because once those 40mm rounds start going off, the enemy will dive for cover. With the older sights, the first round was a guess by the gunner, and usually close, but not on the target. Subsequent rounds were on target, but by then many of the enemy troops were behind cover.
The FCS was but one of many improvements. Mk19 gunners loved the new sight and the word has quickly gotten around. This created so much demand that the army had problems getting FCS, which were still technically in development in 2011, to all the troops who were demanding it. Meanwhile M203/M320 users could only look on with envy and wonder why a similar sight was not available for them.