Winning: Smart Shells Not A Sure Thing


August 26, 2018: A frequent source of military defeats, especially in peacetime, are weapons development projects. In the United States, one a project gets to a certain point it is unstoppable until a decade or more of failure and rising costs to fix the problems finally prove fatal. Case in points is the more than 20 years of effort the U.S. Army put into getting its XM25 “smart shell” weapon to work and be accepted by the troops. In 2018 the army finally gave up on this.

The U.S. Army is keeping the XM25 patents and might resurrect the concept later, especially in light of South Korea and China producing similar designs which are still in service. The XM25 is the only one of three to have been tested extensively in combat but because of a misfire during a 2013 demonstration, the XM25 was withdrawn from service for a three year effort to redesign. This was successful and solved the misfire problem and a few more minor ones. But this resulted in an XM25 that cost $93,000 each rather than $41,000. Meanwhile, there were Department of Defense budget cuts and troops finding there were not really that many situations calling for the XM25. Then there was the weight problem. Typically the complete system (XM25 and 36 25mm rounds) weighed 15.9 kg (35 pounds) and some SOCOM troops refused to take it along because of that. Then there was a legal problem with German firearms manufacturer Heckler and Koch, which controlled key patents used in the M25. Heckler and Koch cited one of the laws of war (Hague Conventions) which, technically, made the explosive 25mm shells of the M25 illegal. The U.S. government refused to get involved in expensive and time-consuming litigation over this matter and the XM25 project was canceled in early 2017. A year later the Army lost the will to keep the XM25 in service at all. The U.S. could always buy the similar South Korean K11, but American resistance to purchasing foreign weapons has always been strong, even if the foreign stuff is the best, or only, solution to a problem. It sometimes happens, but like the Heckler and Koch lawsuit, it is often seen as one problem too many. Besides, the South Koreans were not thrilled with their K11 anyway. During its brief combat career, troops nicknamed the XM25 the “Punisher.” That name was apt in other ways, as in how the project was run over more than two decades.

Even if kept in service the XM25 was still a heavy and bulky weapon, with the final version coming in at 5.5 kg (12 pounds). The 25mm shells weigh over half a pound each (270 grams). On the plus side, there is already a 25mm armor piercing round (using a shaped charge capable of penetrating over 50mm of armor) available. This makes the XM-25 (along with many other lightweight weapons) capable of knocking out light armored vehicles. Then there are the proposed types of 25mm ammo, like fuel-air explosive (or "thermobaric"). This shell would cause greater blast effect in an enclosed space, and actually, suck most of the oxygen out of a cave or closed room long enough to make surviving troops at least a bit groggy. This gives the attacking troops an opportunity to rush in and kill the enemy or take prisoners. In combat, every little advantage helps, if you can afford to equip the troops with a weapon that is affordable and works. When facing the XM25, hiding behind rocks, trees, walls or in caves will no longer protect you. The XM-25 also has a 4x thermal sight which made the XM-25 at night useful for just the sight. None of these real or promising features was enough to save the XM25.

The U.S. began working on what became the XM25 back in the 1990s as the XM29 OICW (Objective Individual Combat Weapon) and that mutated into the simpler and lighter XM25 (the “X” in XM25 designates a system that is still in development) as well as inspiring the South Koreans and Chinese to develop similar weapons that were lighters, simpler, cheaper and more useful in combat. The OICW survived as the XM25 when it got rid of the assault rifle element and upped the caliber to 25mm. Thus an XM25, with a four round magazine, weighs 5.5 kg while the loaded South Korean K11 weighed 7.2 kg. The Chinese QTS-11 weighed from 5 to 7 kg (depending on accessories).

The initial spectacular success and popularity of the XM25 in Afghanistan led the army to request that the weapon enter regular service as the M25 in 2014. But Congress, looking for ways to reduce military spending in 2013 cut all money for the M25. The army managed to scrounge enough cash to keep the M25 on the books as the XM25 and hoped to get the money to build 1,100 of them. In 2011 the XM25 cost $35,000 each with the 25mm ammo going for $55 per round. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) had some XM25s but with few American troops in combat, there is not a lot of demand for a weapon like this. Then came the 2013 accident and it was irretrievably downhill from there.

When the first evaluation models of the XM25 arrived in Afghanistan in 2011 the weapon became much sought after by infantry troops. There were never more than a few dozen XM25s in Afghanistan and limited supplies of ammunition. Despite that, the weapon quickly developed a formidable reputation. The Special Forces have priority on the weapon because it is very useful for special operations missions. The army planned to buy enough so that they could issue one per infantry squad. There are 27 squads in an infantry battalion but the army never had enough cash to pay for this and also fix problems that developed with the XM25.

In the beginning the XM25 went through several major design changes and it wasn’t until 2005 that the first XM25s were delivered to the U.S. Army for troop testing. In 2007 a few were sent overseas for testing in combat situations. While the troops have been very enthusiastic about the new weapon, there were a lot of suggestions, mostly about minor items. So the army kept tweaking and refining the weapon. It appeared that the XM25 was a success after only 55 of the 25mm rounds were fired in combat. The users protested having to give them up after the few months of field testing. All this was because the XM25s worked as advertised, firing "smart rounds" that exploded over the heads of Taliban hiding behind rocks or walls, or hiding in a cave or room. Enemy machine-guns have been quickly knocked out of action and ambushes quickly disrupted with a few 25mm shells. Encounters that might go on for 15 minutes or longer, as U.S. troops exchange fire with hidden Taliban, end in minutes after a few 25mm, computer controlled rounds were used. But over time it was found that there were not that many situations in combat calling for an M25 and troops left them behind most of the time if they were going out on a foot patrol and had to carry everything.

The XM25 was originally one of two weapons (the other being a 5.56mm rifle) incorporated in the 8.2 kg (18 pound) XM29 OICW. The OICW was originally developed as a replacement for the 40mm grenade launcher attached to the M16 used by the squad “grenadier” as well as providing a more accurate and capable grenade launcher. Didn't work out as intended. The big problem was effectiveness. The older 40mm, unguided, grenade rounds weigh 540 grams (19 ounces) each while the original 20mm OICW round weighed half that. This was one of the several major problems with the OICW. It was too heavy and ungainly, and the 20mm "smart shell" it fired did not appear capable of effectively putting enemy troops out of action consistently, especially compared to the 40mm shell it was replacing. So, in August 2003, it was decided to take the 5.56mm portion out of the OICW and develop it as a separate weapon (the XM8) while the grenade launcher part that fired the "smart shell" continued development as the XM25. But the XM25 would now use a 25mm shell, which would generate 50 percent more fragments (and heavier ones at that) than the 20mm shell of the OICW. China and South Korea insist that their 20mm grenades inflict sufficient hurt on the enemy to be effective. The U.S., with lots of combat testing, believes that 25mm is the only way to go. China disagrees and insists its 20mm shell is quite lethal in part because they have more compact electronics in the shell and more space for explosives.

The 20mm and 25mm "smart shells" both use a computer controlled fuze. The XM25 operator could choose one of four different firing modes via a selector switch on the weapon. The four modes include "Bursting" (airburst). For this to work, the soldier first finds the target via the weapons sighting system. The sight includes a laser range finder and the ability to select and adjust the range shown in the sight picture. For an air burst, the soldier aims at an enemy position and fires a round. The shell is optimized to spray incapacitating (wounding or killing) fragments in a roughly six meter (19 foot) radius from the exploding round. Thus if enemy troops are seen moving near trees or buildings at a long distance (over 500 meters), the weapon has a good chance of getting them with one shot. M-16s are not very accurate at that range, and the enemy troops will dive for cover as soon as M-16 bullets hit around them. With smart shells, you get one (or a few) accurate shots and the element of surprise. The smart shells can be used out to 700 meters, but not as accurately. At those longer ranges, you can't put a shell through a window, but you can hurt a crowd of gunmen standing outside the building.

The other modes are "PD" (point detonation, where the round explodes on contact), PDD (point detonation delay, where the round detonates immediately after it has gone through a door, window or thin wall) and "Window", which is used for firing at enemy troops in a trench, behind a stone wall or inside a room. The round detonates just beyond the aiming point. For buildings, this would be a window or door frame, cave entrance or the corner of a building (to get enemy troops thought to be around the corner.) All these options were more than the troops needed.

Meanwhile, South Korea developed the K11 had it ready for service in 2010. The K11 was identical in concept of the XM29 OICW. The South Korean version weighed less than the XM29 and still combined a 5.56mm rifle with one firing 20mm computer and laser controlled shells. Then there was China, which in 2015 began arming its troops with the QTS-11, a weapon that combines a 5.8mm assault rifle with a computer controlled, laser rangefinder assisted 20mm grenade launcher (with a max range of 700 meters). In late 2017 the Chinese had over two years’ experience with the QTS-11 and found that the most commonly used 20mm ammo was the air-burst round. That was the American experience with their XM25 in Afghanistan a decade earlier. Another popular feature was the lightweight. Unloaded the QTS-11 weighed 4.27 kg (9.4 pounds). Loaded with a 20 round magazine for the assault rifle and one 20mm round the QTS-11 weighed 5 kg (11 pounds) and with a high-end electronic scope the QTS-11 weighed 7 kg. This simplicity and flexibility proved to be a major factor in the success of the QTS-11 compared to similar weapons from South Korea and the United States.

The South Koreans noted this and are upgrading their similar K11 weapon to reduce weight from 6.1 kg (13 pounds) to about 5.5 kg. Another popular feature of the QTS-11 is that the computerized electronic sight can be easily removed and replaced with a lighter and smaller optical sight. The 20mm grenades can still be used but only those that detonate on impact. Apparently, infantry commanders and troops believe this is a useful option. Another useful option, which has been tested but not yet issued to the troops, is an eyepiece that connects, via a cable, to the computerized sight and enables the soldier to fire around corners.

The QTS-11 was first seen in public during 2015 when Chinese marines assigned to warships working with the international anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. Chinese special operations troops also had the QTS-11 and the army ordered several thousand of them so that each four-man infantry fire-team would have one. That puts China ahead of the United States and South Korea. The Chinese version is lighter, simpler and cheaper and the Chinese feel the QTS-11 is worth buying and issuing to the troops. There’s not been similar enthusiasm with the American and South Korean versions.

One reason for that is the way the Chinese handled the fact that the QTS-11 had three types of 20mm ammo and only one of those types was really essential. The impact detonation shell is useful, especially when not using the computerized sight. The air burst shell is unique and really only available with the QTS-11 when equipped with the computerized sight. The third type of round is a shotgun type shell that uses the computerized sight, which only provides for the user to select at what range the air burst or shotgun round will detonate. Because these 20mm rounds have fewer electronics in them they carry more fragments and the Chinese believe (but don’t know from combat experience) that this supplies adequate wounding capability. Tests show that the airburst round wounds out to seven meters and is apparently as effective as a hand grenade.

China was able to learn from South Korean experience because in 2009 South Korea revealed it had developed (since 2006) the K11, a $14,000 20mm/5.56mm weapon which appeared to be identical in concept to the U.S. Army XM29. The South Korean version weighed 6.1 kg (13.4 pounds) empty and combines a 5.56mm rifle, with one firing 20mm computer and controlled shells. The South Korean weapon operated the same way as the 20mm shell of the XM29. The South Koreans planned to issue the K11 on the basis of two weapons per squad (an infantry unit containing 10-12 men). The K11 was both cheaper and lighter than the XM29 but not as cheap or as light as the QTS-11. Eventually, South Korea issued fewer K11s and treated it as a specialist weapon, not a standard one.

The South Koreans found solutions to the problems American encountered with the XM29 and XM25. South Korea used some K11s in Afghanistan and there were lots of complaints about reliability and effectiveness. This did not result in the K11 being cancelled but the weapon did not have a good reputation among the troops. The South Koreans found that their 20mm smart shell was effective out to about 500 meters. South Korean troops began receiving the K11 in 2010 but in 2011 production was halted for a while because nearly half of those already distributed to the troops had design or manufacturing problems. Some of the problems were encountered during combat in Afghanistan. The K11 problems were fixed and so far over 4,000 have been built. The K11 manufacturer insists that problems are a thing of the past but troops and many commanders are not so confident. By 2017 the K11 was considered reliable but not a particularly spectacular new weapon. That’s why the manufacturer has redesigned it to make the K11 lighter and address a rather long list of suggestions and complaints from users. Even the Chinese and Americans do that and it usually pays off.




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