ABOVE: PD-100T Black Hornet PRS (Personal Reconnaissance System) is about the size of a dragonfly.
The focus of the annual AUSA (Association of the United States Army) show at the Washington, DC Convention Center is always on the newest war fighting technologies. This ranges from aircraft, armored vehicles and logistics support equipment to munitions, firearms and optics. Because of the exorbitant costs associated with research and development, along with the extensive time and resources it requires, most hardware on display is not new technology. Rather, it’s either the refinement of existing technology or the result of off-the-shelf items where adaptive engineering has created a marriage of existing technologies to provide a new capability, or more often, the illusion of something new and revolutionary.
When walking the floor, one can only cringe at all the “new” AR assault rifle variants being promoted as a better mousetrap. This author confesses to being unimpressed by much of the AR variations; it’s overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. Most all launch the same 5.56, 6.8 or 7.62 round. They employ a variety of floating barrels, conventional barrels, conventional and mono-uppers and lowers, hundreds of different fore ends, and exotic metallurgy and composites. Their operating systems are either clones, or close variants, of Gene Stoner’s traditional AR gas operating system, or Mikhail Kalashnikov’s short stroke gas piston operating system. Their ergonomics may vary slightly, but most all are adorned with quad Picatinny rails so the “operators” can hang all their “Gucci” lights, lasers and aiming devices on the gun, making it look cool with marginal increase in combat effectiveness and increased dependence on battery power.
Largely because of the cost of R&D and an abundance of competing DoD priorities (translate that to funding), it seems there are few new small arms that reflect invention; or as PEO Soldier says, “game changing technology.” Real game changing technology is always hard to develop and it’s always expensive. That’s because pushing the limits of engineering and science is always involved. We have, therefore, turned our attention away from the AR variants in search of invention with other types of potential.
FLIR Systems, Inc. really knocked it out of the ballpark this year with their new HISS-XLR rail clip-on thermal weapon sight. This sight allows target classification and engagement at ranges up to 2,000 meters (environment permitting). The XLR uses a cryogenically cooled infrared detector housed in a closed circuit cryogenic micro-cooler that has no moving parts. Unlike other cryogenically cooled infrared detectors, the XLR’s Dewar doesn’t require recharging. The advantage of a cryogenically-cooled detector is its high sensitivity and resolution over the uncooled variety. Those attributes, coupled with a high definition organic LED (OLED) display screen, provides a remarkably tighter and cleaner presentation to the user. The XLR is weatherproof and will reliably operate in all environmental extremes ranging from arctic to desert.
FLIR also showcased their first mobile phone-based consumer product. FLIR ONE is the world’s first personal thermal camera for iPhone 5 and 5S that
incorporates FLIR’s groundbreaking Lepton-Camera Core. Lepton is the smallest IR camera available today and FLIR developed it at their expense. It contains an uncooled, long wave, 80×60 pixel low-resolution sensor. FLIR ONE is about the same dimensions as the iPhone 5. The iPhone 5 simply slides into the FLIR ONE sleeve, an operating app is downloaded into the iPhone, and you’re in business with your own powerful infrared imager that operates as if it’s an integral part of your iPhone. FLIR ONE is powered by its own rechargeable battery and draws no power from the iPhone. The iPhone powers the app and itself. The thermal image is viewed on the iPhone’s screen like any other image, except FLIR ONE has 7 different colored screens that can be selected by the swipe of your finger. This selection aids in finding the best viewing color unique to a particular target and its surroundings. It also has a “thermies” capability that accurately measures the temperature of the target within +/-1 degree C up to a range of 15 feet. FLIR ONE is an affordable, user friendly, serious IR imaging capability that anyone can purchase with uses only limited by the imagination.
Prox Dynamics (PD), a Norwegian world leading Nano UAV manufacturing firm, located right outside Oslo, Norway, debuted their PD-100T Black Hornet PRS (Personal Reconnaissance System). This is the night capability version of the PD-100 that has been in operational service in Afghanistan for over two years. The PD-100T has integrated a thermal and daylight camera with fused imagery that will provide warfighters with a low or no light tactical ISR capability and it provides full night/low-light thermal real-time video and high definition snapshots that are relayed back to the base station. The complete PD-100 system consists of three parts; a base station with a seven inch view screen (although there is an option for a head-mounted monitor), a pocket transport package containing two nano-helicopters, and a multi-voltage charging and transport unit. Interestingly, the T camera carried in the PD-100T helicopter is the miniature FLIR Lepton camera described above. The self-stabilizing nano-helicopter only weighs 18 grams (less than an ounce). It has a range of about a mile with a 25 minute flight endurance between charges. It flies at a speed of about 10 knots and can negotiate wind gusts up to 20 knots with a service ceiling of 8,500 feet ASL (above sea level), though the operational altitude will normally be in the range of 10-300 feet AGL (above ground level). The helicopter can be manually directed using the control unit, or programmed to fly a given route based upon GPS waypoints. When the helicopter gets low on power it automatically sends the user a low battery message and will return to the control unit automatically (a hands off homing feature) for easy recovery. These nano-helicopters are slightly larger than a common dragonfly (insect) making them virtually invisible and inaudible beyond short distances. Like the FLIR ONE, uses for this affordable and powerful capability are only limited by the imagination.
An elegantly simple, yet inventive design manufactured by Lewis Machine and Tool Company (LMT) in Milan, Illinois, is an anodized aluminum adapter stock that allows a standard M203, 40mm grenade launcher to be mounted to it without any modification or special tools and used as a dedicated grenade launcher much like the M79. The stock comes in two variants: the L2H1PG has a full-length six position SOPMOD stock and AR-style pistol grip, and the L2J1PG comes as a short AR-style pistol grip mount, minus the shoulder stock. This means any agency with M203s can now employ them as a lightweight, rucksack or sling-carry stand-alone, without having to dedicate their ARs to the additional bulk and weight of a permanently mounted M203. Better, the M203 can be quickly removed from the Lewis stock and returned to the AR if desired. No modifications are required of the M203. Available to Federal agencies and law enforcement, this simple, low cost, interoperability solution affords them M203 new mission versatility.
A firearms attention getter this year (and exception to the AR boredom the author was experiencing) was a tactical submachine gun built by the Turkish arms manufacturer, Sarsilmaz: the SAR 109 T submachine gun chambered in 9mm NATO. Its blowback operating system fires from the closed bolt at a rate of 900-1,000 rounds per minute. Its hammer forged 6 polygonal rifled barrel has a right hand twist that offers a spin length of 1/10 inches. The upper and lower are milled from 7075 aluminum. The gun has a telescopic stock, a quad rail, and offers the same ergonomics in stock, grip and safety/fire that the familiar AR-style rifles have. Sarsilmaz offers both 20- and 30-round steel and 30-round polymer magazines, along with sturdy folding front and rear detachable sights. This deadly little sub-gun will reliably and accurately spoil your opponents’ day at ranges out to 100 yards. Put a sound suppresser on the muzzle and its special purpose mission application for close quarter battle, e.g., ship boarding, building clearance, or as an aircrew PDW, is obvious.
Those reading this who think the M60 machine gun is no longer a viable battlefield 7.62 machine gun – raise your hands. No matter what you think you should visit U.S. Ordnance and take a close look at their new M60E6. With an advertised 100,000 round life expectancy and comparable performance to the M240, the M60E6 is a refined and lethally thoughtful weapon work of art. Being a vintage Vietnam warrior myself, I cut my combat teeth with the M60. We shortened the barrels, took the butt stocks off and removed the bipod and carrying handle. These crude measures cut a bunch of weight off the otherwise truculent M60 and improved its handling in the dense jungles. The new M60E6 has it all. In addition to its 30% better feed pull, it has extended feed paws that protrude above the feed tray to prevent the linked ammo belts from falling out of the tray while the top cover is open when reloading. The carrying handle has been lightened and moved from the receiver to the Stellite-lined barrel, allowing the quick change of a hot barrel without the use of gloves. A Picatinny rail is located on the top cover and 3, 6 and 9 o’clock rails adorn the lightweight fore grip, providing plenty of space for accessory attachment. Most subtle (and brilliant), the gun’s gas piston is now reversible (it can’t be put in the wrong way). That, in itself, is worth a high five from every M60 gunner who ever carried one.
Overall, the M60E6 is lighter, more compact, more ergonomic, more ambidextrous, and easier to handle than ever before. Will the U.S. military ever give up on the M240 and return to the M60 as its main 7.62 machinegun? Probably not for a variety of reasons, but that isn’t stopping other armies like the Danish Army, who have recently selected this fine machine gun as the replacement for its aging MG-3s.
Last, a discussion about General Atomics’ railgun technology is in order. Unlike a coilgun, which employs a series electromagnetic coils triggered sequentially at precise times, a railgun uses two bus bars (rails) to conduct the current lineally along the barrel (not bore) through a cross-connector (armature) that turns the current from one rail and back down the other. The force generated is analogous to that of the hydraulic force that straightens a curved fire hose. Railgun-fired projectiles ride the inside of the launch barrel in a sabot – the projectile itself is not in contact with the barrel. As the projectile exits the barrel, the sabot is stripped away from the projectile by aerodynamic lift, and the high velocity projectile is on its way to the target. A typical target can be a missile, a floating platform or something land based. Current railguns are large systems that require large power generators and capacitor storage banks. Using current technology, (Navy funded for shipboard application), a land based system would require two mammoth M1070 tractor-trailer units that each carry generators, thermal management apparatus, a battery unit and pulse power unit. These two trailers plug into a third tractor-trailer unit that carries the railgun, ammunition magazine and fire control system. This railgun system is based on shipboard installation requirements, where volume is less precious. General Atomics is working to reduce the size of land-based mobile systems, but for now, it’s big, but it’s also “bad!” The Railgun can shoot a multipurpose projectile over a hundred miles with pinpoint accuracy several times a minute. Future versions can even shoot ballistic missiles out of their in-bound trajectory prior to reentry. The railgun’s long-range projectiles have a guided capability that gives them their pinpoint accuracy and allows them to adjust their path in flight. There are even special projectiles used for space targets that contain small maneuver-thrusters for steering/course correction in a
The importance of this emerging railgun technology to the future battle-space is that it provides a single weapon with a multi-role capability. Its elimination of propellant, high capacity (deep magazine), and low engagement cost, along with its minimum requirement for kinetic kill energetics, significantly reduces it logistics tail. Its precision accuracy in air and missile defense, counterbattery fire and surgical strike additionally offer a low potential for collateral damage. As this technology is perfected, we will undoubtedly see it shrink in size, but will it ever become man-portable? The scientific answer is that this technology will be refined and, at some point, it will become smaller, lighter and modular. That said, it will reach a point where the laws of physics will limit the reduction of its size and it can go no smaller. Man portability may never be attained, but robot modular portability potentially could if such a capability was seen as operationally justifiable and cost effective. More exciting however, is the likely refinement in its accuracy and capability through the use of super sophisticated fire control computers that are interoperable with other powerful target detection and direction systems. While General Atomics flatly refuses to discuss the potential (and understandably so), there is no reason why this gun couldn’t be used to shoot hostile satellites out of space orbit (with little to no attack signature). There is also probably no reason why, if fired from a sea based, or friendly country’s mobile platforms, it couldn’t be used to shoot down hostile ICBMs during the boost stage, or the orbital phase, or take out the launch facility all together. Again, the imagination is the limit for this technology.
So closes this year’s AUSA adventure, but stay tuned, there are many other exciting technologies and applications to discuss in future articles.