Back To The Future: The Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) Program

The MPF's historical antecedent: the German Army's 7.5 cm leichtes Infanteriegeschütz.

The MPF’s historical antecedent: the German Army’s 7.5 cm leichtes Infanteriegeschütz.

Historically, one of the challenges of modern combat has been in providing responsive, on-call, direct fire support for infantry. The U.S. armed forces have traditionally excelled in providing fire support for their ground combat maneuver elements, but recent changes have apparently caused concern that this will continue to be the case in the future.

Case in point is the U.S. Army’s Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) program. The MPF seems to reflect concern by the U.S. Army that future combat environments will inhibit the capabilities of heavy artillery and air support systems tasked with providing fire support for infantry units. As Breaking Defense describes it,

“Our near-peers have sought to catch up with us,” said Fort Benning commander Maj. Gen. Eric Wesley, using Pentagon code for China and Russia. These sophisticated nation-states — and countries buying their hardware, like Iran — are developing so-called Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD): layered defenses of long-range sensors and missiles to keep US airpower and ships at a distance (anti-access), plus anti-tank weapons, mines, and roadside bombs to decimate ground troops who get close (area denial).

The Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Ft. Benning, Georgia is the proponent for development of a new lightly-armored, tracked vehicle mounting a 105mm or 120mm gun. According to the National Interest, the goal of the MPF program is

… to provide a company of vehicles—which the Army adamantly does not want to refer to as light tanks—to brigades from the 82nd Airborne Division or 10th Mountain Division that can provide heavy fire support to those infantry units. The new vehicle, which is scheduled to enter into full-scale engineering and manufacturing development in 2019—with fielding tentatively scheduled for around 2022—would be similar in concept to the M551 Sheridan light tank. The Sheridan used to be operated the Army’s airborne units unit until 1996, but was retired without replacement. (Emphasis added)

As Chris recently pointed out, General Dynamics Land Systems has developed a prototype it calls the Griffin. BAE Systems has also pitched its XM8 Armored Gun System, developed in the 1990s.

The development of a dedicated, direct fire support weapon for line infantry can be seen as something of an anachronism. During World War I, German infantrymen sought alternatives to relying on heavy artillery support that was under the control of higher headquarters and often slow or unresponsive to tactical situations on the battlefield. They developed an expedient called the “infantry gun” (Infanteriegeschütz) by stripping down captured Russian 76.2mm field guns for direct use against enemy infantry, fortifications, and machine guns. Other armies imitated the Germans, but between the wars, the German Army was only one to develop 75mm and 150mm wheeled guns of its own dedicated specifically to infantry combat support.

The Germans were also the first to develop versions mounted on tracked, armored chassis, called “assault guns” (Sturmgeschütz). During World War II, the Germans often pressed their lightly armored assault guns into duty as ersatz tanks to compensate for insufficient numbers of actual tanks. (The apparently irresistible lure to use anything that looks like a tank as a tank also afflicted the World War II U.S. tank destroyer as well, yielding results that dissatisfied all concerned.)

Other armies again copied the Germans during the war, but the assault gun concept was largely abandoned afterward. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union developed vehicles intended to provide gunfire support for airborne infantry, but these were more aptly described as light tanks. The U.S. Army’s last light tank, the M551 Sheridan, was retired in 1996 and not replaced.

It appears that the development of new technology is leading the U.S. Army back to old ideas. Just don’t call them light tanks.

XM-25 “Punisher”: Not Dead Yet

"Bring out your dead!"  Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

“Bring out your dead!” Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

As I mentioned recently, the U.S. Army is in the process of deciding whether or not to proceed with the XM-25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System, a precision targeted, shoulder-fired 25mm grenade launcher. The Defense Department’s Inspector General’s office released a pointedly critical evaluation of the weapon nicknamed “the Punisher” in August. Among the negative reviews the report cited was one from the Army Capabilities and Integration Center, directed by Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. McMaster’s office has had a change of heart about the XM-25 since that evaluation, however.

“My initial assessment from 2013 did not reflect 30 additional months of testing and improvements to the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System,” McMaster told in an email.

“The Army has worked closely with the system’s prime contractor to address the safety issues on the XM25 through engineering design changes and improvements to the system. Prototypes employed during two Forward Operational Assessments allowed the Army to learn from and correct system shortcomings, and feedback has been positive.”

The XM25 is not a simple grenade launcher, McMaster maintains. The sight has an integrated day/thermal sight, a laser range finder, and a ballistic computer working in unison to allow the shooter to effectively engage enemy targets under cover.

The weapon is semi-automatic with a five-round magazine that ensures effective fires and rapid re-engagement, as necessary, in all operational environments — jungle, urban, day/night, woodland, subterranean and desert, McMaster said.

“Worldwide urbanization, coupled with the extensive proliferation of rocket propelled grenades and machine guns, allowed our enemies to exploit our desire to end engagements with minimal collateral damage,” McMaster said.

“The XM25 provides an innovative capability that mitigates this vulnerability and minimizes operational risks facing our soldiers, limiting collateral damage in the surrounding area while allowing our dismounted squads to decisively end firefights.”

The Army has indicated that it will make a determination on the XM-25’s future by the end of September.

Will This Weapon Change Infantry Warfare Forever? [UPDATE]

XM-25 Counter-Defilade Engagement SystemIt appears that the Army’s XM-25 Counter-Defilade Target Engagement System, a shoulder-fired 25mm grenade launcher, may not get the opportunity to fulfill its destiny as the Weapon That Will Change Infantry Warfare Forever after all. reports that the Department of Defense’s Inspector General’s Office has recommended that the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, Katrina McFarland, “determine whether to proceed with or cancel the XM25 program after reviewing the results of the 2016 Governmental testing,” which will be completed this fall. The Army has indicated that it concurs with the recommendation.

The Army delayed acquisition funding and extended the XM-25’s development phase in 2014 in response to problems encountered during field testing and critiques of the weapon by the 75th Ranger Regiment and the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence. During a live-fire exercise in 2013, an XM-25 “experienced a double feed and an unintentional primer ignition of one of the 25mm high explosive rounds,” which fortunately, caused only minor injuries to the soldier testing it, but potentially could have been much worse.

More consequentially for the XM-25 program, the Rangers found that infantry squad soldiers assigned to wield it could not also carry a rifle due to the extra weight. This limited the ability of the XM-25 bearer to perform battle drills and deprived the squad of a rifle in close range combat. The XM-25 also quickly depleted all of its 36 rounds in action. As a result, the Rangers declined to use an XM-25 in an assault on a fortified compound in Afghanistan in 2013, on the grounds that the weapon’s limited utility did not justify leaving out an M4A1 carbine.

The DOD IG criticized the Army for not specifying the exact costs of the extended development and for declining to state how many XM-25s it is considering initially procuring. Stay tuned…

Will This Weapon Change Infantry Warfare Forever? Maybe, But Probably Not

XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE) System

The weapon pictured above is the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE) precision-guided grenade launcher. According to its manufacturer, Orbital ATK,

The XM25 is a next-generation, semi-automatic weapon designed for effectiveness against enemies protected by walls, dug into foxholes or hidden in hard-to-reach places.

The XM25 provides the soldier with a 300 percent to 500 percent increase in hit probability to defeat point, area and defilade targets out to 500 meters. The weapon features revolutionary high-explosive, airburst ammunition programmed by the weapon’s target acquisition/fire control system.

Following field testing in Afghanistan that reportedly produced mixed results, the U.S. Army is seeking funding the Fiscal Year 2017 defense budget to acquire 105 of the weapons for issue to specifically-trained personnel at the tactical unit level.

The purported capabilities of the weapon have certainly raised expectations for its utility. A program manager in the Army’s Program Executive Office declared “The introduction of the XM25 is akin to other revolutionary systems such as the machine gun, the airplane and the tank, all of which changed battlefield tactics.” An industry observer concurred, claiming that “The weapon’s potential revolutionary impact on infantry tactics is undeniable.”

Well…maybe. There is little doubt that the availability of precision-guided standoff weapons at the squad or platoon level will afford significant tactical advantages. Whatever technical problems that currently exist will be addressed and there will surely be improvements and upgrades.

It seems unlikely, however, that the XM25 will bring revolutionary change to the battlefield. In his 1980 study The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Trevor N. Dupuy explored the ongoing historical relationship between technological change and adaptation on the battlefield. The introduction of increasingly lethal weapons has led to corresponding changes in the ways armies fight.

Assimilation of a significant increase in [weapon] lethality has generally been marked (a) by dispersion, thus reducing the number of people exposed to the new weapon in the enemy’s hands; (b) by giving greater freedom of maneuver; and (c) by improving cooperation among the different arms and services. [p. 337]

As the chart below illustrates (click for a larger version), as weapons have become more lethal over time, combat forces have adjusted by dispersing in greater frontage and depth on the battlefield (as reflected by the red line).

[pp. 288-289]

Dupuy noted that there is a lag between the introduction of a new weapon and its full integration into an army’s tactics and force structure.

In modern times — and to some extent in earlier eras — there has been an interval of approximately twenty years between introduction and assimilation of new weapons…it is significant that, despite the rising tempo of invention, this time lag remained relatively constant. [p. 338]

Moreover, Dupuy observed that true military revolutions are historically rare, and require more than technological change to occur.

Save for the recent significant exception of strategic nuclear weapons, there have been no historical instances in which new and more lethal weapons have, of themselves, altered the conduct of war or the balance of power until they have been incorporated into a new tactical system exploiting their lethality and permitting their coordination with other weapons. [p. 340]

Looking at the trends over time suggests that any resulting changes will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The ways armies historically have adapted to new weapons — dispersion, tactical flexibility, and combined arms —- are hallmarks of the fire and movement concept that is at the heart of modern combat tactics, which evolved in the early years of the 20th century, particularly during the First World War. However effective the XM25 may prove to be, it’s impact is unlikely to alter the basic elements of fire and movement tactics. Enemy combatants will likely adapt through even greater dispersion (the modern “empty battlefield“), tactical innovation, and combinations of countering weapons. It is also likely that it will take time, trial and error, and effective organizational leadership in order to take full advantage of the XM25’s capabilities.