Arming the Starship Trooper: 2000 NDIA Small Arms Conference

By Robert Bruce

“Smart projectiles will provide the next quantum leap in small caliber armament technology and will continue to provide soldiers with overwhelming lethality for battlefield dominance.” TACOM/ARDEC Briefing

In countless science-fiction movies future fighters are armed with the best individual weapons that Hollywood can dream up, limited only by the capabilities of computer-generated imagery. In the recent Starship Troopers, for example, bug-blasters of the Mobile Infantry carry the astonishingly effective Morita MK1 Smart Rifle with a seemingly inexhaustible ammo supply of high explosive and kinetic-energy rounds.

In the real world, however, guns and ammo have to obey not only the laws of physics, they must also be cost-effective to build and sufficiently hardy to survive in a combat environment.

While California special effects wizards can show us the way to what might be, there are a lot of other equally talented people around America and other countries involved in the process of turning what are now only cinematic small arms into realities for the near term and future battlefield. These visionary engineers, manufacturers and soldiers are charged with the daunting task of combining existing technologies with emerging possibilities and putting them to work. Their mission is to ensure that military and law enforcement personnel have the best and most technologically advanced weaponry that science can produce and stingy governments will fund.

This process is made far more efficient when everybody with useful ideas and promising hardware can get together and compare notes. With this in mind, American and friendly foreign armaments professionals from military and industry meet once a year for a little known but vitally important three day show and tell put on by the Small Arms Systems Division of the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA). It has been my privilege to attend this for many years and report on the latest in guns, ammo, sights, and other aspects of weaponry for surface warfare. What follows are some highlights of the 2000 meeting, hosted by the Naval Surface Warfare Center and held in the all-American city of Indianapolis, Indiana.

Don’t Bother to Run

One of the most remarkable avenues of recent exploration is that of steerable munitions — miniature guided missiles — launched from manportable weapons. That’s right; smart ammo that recognizes its target and then homes in for the kill even if the bad guys start to run!

This startling possibility was previewed by a pair of engineers from ARDEC, the Armaments Research, Development & Engineering Center, in a briefing titled “Light Fighter Lethality Technology.” Right now, they say, the Army is actually working on a program to field a “dual munition pod, firing micro-sized, course correcting seeker projectiles.” Translated from tech-speak, this means an individual weapon capable of firing at least two types of ammo, one being a tiny cruise missile. The goal is to design, build and field by the year 2015 a 5 pound pod-weapon to launch a 1/4 pound 25mm diameter robotic rocket round. Flying out to 500 meters or more, it will have a better than 50% probability of incapacitation against a human target.

Computer-generated visuals accompanied their briefing, providing a realistic simulation of a “Seeker Projectile” with on-board tracking sensors that changes course in flight to knockout a moving target with a close airburst. If it can be made to work this will give additional truth to an unofficial motto of many snipers: “Don’t bother to run; you’ll only die winded.”

Now, for those in the audience who remained somewhat skeptical (myself included), the Army Research Laboratory’s David Lyon followed immediately with an illustrated lecture dryly entitled “Notional Concept and Performance Estimates for a Small Caliber Guided Projectile.” Lyon explained the science behind some current artillery shells that are already doing this and how giant leaps are being made in miniaturization of sensors, fuzes, and micro-explosive charges used as “steering squibs.” As a result, he predicted, smart and steerable warheads of 40mm diameter, “are doable in five years.”

Ray Guns and Rap

Dr. Steven Small, also with ARDEC, has long been at the forefront of future force thinkers and his presentation this year included some real Star Wars stuff. The good doctor is no mere armchair intellectual, having once been an airborne Ranger. Gazing into his crystal ball, Small foresees the battlefields of the year 2020 including not only the usual stuff like bullets, bombs and biohazard, but also increased threat from:

He also briefly mentioned some cutting-edge experimentation that is vigorously underway in various Department of Defense labs under the title of “Directed Energy Small Arms.” Some of these include high power microwaves (literally popping bad people and their electronic equipment), particle beams (ray guns for melting body armor and other stuff), lasers and optical technologies (blinding sensors both electronic and organic), and high volume acoustics.

Now, this last weapon concept has been around since bible hero Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and is said to have brought down its stone walls with trumpet blasts. It has also been combat proven by Janet Reno’s now defunct Injustice Department against women and children at Waco. Her black-garbed boys of the HRT used loudspeakers playing the sounds of rabbits being tortured and similarly hideous things like contemporary Gangsta Rap “music.”

But, government scientists are taking this to lofty levels and are said to be working in earnest on generators of various types and intensities of sound waves. These can yield specific and tailorable effects on the enemy, depending on the level of threat and the operative rules of engagement. This could eventually mean that knob-twisting sound snipers can produce anything from ringing ears and nausea to exploding heads. (Maybe these guys have rented a copy of Scanners, the Kronenberg cult classic movie). Anyway, the next time you’re picketing outside a World Trade Organization cabal and your nose starts bleeding for no apparent reason, get the hell out of there fast!

Bill’s Friends the Chinese

On a related note in another presentation on international efforts to curb illegal weapons proliferation that he updates each year for NDIA, Hayes Parks of the Office of the Judge Advocate General revealed that the Butchers of Beijing have developed a very light, compact and efficient blinding laser and are expected to begin selling it to anybody with the yen for ultimate eye-poking. Since Clinton/Gore’s other good friends the Russians have already used one of their own against a Canadian-American helicopter crew doing aerial surveillance of a spy ship, we can expect a lot more blindings worldwide. Oh, by the way, your cool cat Ray-Bans won’t protect you from permanent darkness....

Pulsed Impulsive Kill Laser

Ray gun research has been seriously pursued by the Department of Defense for decades now, and TACOM’s Harry Moore showed some pictures of what the working prototype Pulsed Impulsive Kill Laser (PIKL) actually did to a kevlar vest in an experimental shot. Moore foresees this being further refined in downsizing, power-efficiency and increased target effects to become the primary armament on the conceptual Future Fighting Ground Vehicle Program.


Two very exciting weapons of more conventional effect but unconventional design are well along in the Joint Services Small Arms Program (JSSAP) pipeline. Fully functioning prototypes of the Objective Individual Combat Weapon (OICW) have been very thoroughly wrung out over the past year; not only on test stands, but also in the hands of real soldiers on the range. Resulting data, says Robert Dellicker, a JSSAP engineer, have conclusively demonstrated that the combination of a computerized fire control interacting with “smart fuzed” high explosive ammunition should be further developed.

The OICW is a shoulder fired weapon with both 5.56mm assault rifle and 20mm grenade launcher modules. Its “leap ahead” technological advantage comes from a microcomputer-aided fire control system that precisely determines range to target and instantly communicates this to a “smart fuze” in the chambered high explosive round. Knowing how many rotations it must count upon firing, the warhead then flies out to the correct distance before exploding right above the target.

Dellicker and others from JSSAP outlined a series of improvements that are programmed to be made on the OICW including more sophisticated and versatile fire control plus downward-directed fragmentation for greater burst effect. Along the way, he assured, the weapon system would get lighter and more rugged, with the goal of equipping the first troops in 2010.

Crew Cutter

The Objective Crew Served Weapon (OCSW), is the second of JSSAP’s major near-term initiatives, intended to replace the very old but highly respected .50 caliber M2 Heavy Machine Gun as well as the 40mm Mark 19 grenade chunker, which has been in the inventory since Vietnam. While actual hardware has been made and undergone preliminary live fire testing, JSSAP brought a streamlined full-scale mockup of the latest conceptual configuration to this year’s NDIA display. The OCSW, like its little brother the OICW, is on a long developmental track and is not expected to be fielded until 2010.


In addition to having the opportunity to sit in on some mind-boggling technical papers, attendees at NDIA Small Arms can wander among numerous exhibits showcasing existing hardware and previewing some of the developmental or even theoretical weapons, ammunition, sights and other surface warfare stuff. This is invaluable to those who wish to buttonhole recognized authorities on various aspects of their areas of interest and even to poke things or pick them up.

The biggest names in government and industry are usually on hand, including JSSAP, of course, as well as Beretta, Colt, FN, H&K, IMI and VT Kinetics. Perhaps less well known but very important specialty suppliers like Knight’s Armament, Barrett, GEMTECH, SSK and others had an equal chance to show their wares to some of the most influential movers and shakers in the small arms world.

Range Day

The shoot hits the fan on the last day of the event each year with live fire demonstrations by many of the presenters and exhibitors. Apparently because the municipal authorities of Indianapolis weren’t comfortable with the idea of shooting 40mm high explosive ammo inside the city limits, this part took place some 50 miles away. The Indiana National Guard’s Camp Atterbury Range Complex hosted this vitally important component, providing a secure, spacious and well maintained venue for launching even the biggest and most far reaching stuff.

FNMI’s Sal Fanelli (this year’s George M. Chinn Award recipient) coordinated the live fire activities as usual with patience and good humor despite the best and worst efforts of some pretty big egos. Eighteen commercial firms and government/military organizations participated on a beautiful late summer day, shooting nearly everything imaginable from Simunition paint rounds at twenty feet to a hip-fired 40mm grenade machine gun (more about that in a minute).

H&K Leading the Way

One of the most notable demos included the great-as-usual show from H&K Federal Operations, headed by John Meloy who provided narration over the PA system. Departing from their usual “save the best for last” position in the lineup, team leader Jim Schatz and his guys were at the head of the line, putting on a fast-paced show with nearly a dozen weapons and their variants ranging from the little 4.6mm Personal Defense Weapon, to the new short-barrel 5.56mm G36 Commando, to the formidable 40mm HK GMG (Grenade Machine Gun).

To the amazement and amusement of the crowd, Robert Hirt capped a multiple target, long range combat engagement simulation of the tripod mounted GMG by unclamping it and flipping a carrying sling over one shoulder. Standing up and crouching slightly forward with the 64 lb/29 kg gun at hip level, Hirt began to tap out short bursts of 40mm ammo, “walking” the impact point right up to a derelict vehicle target some 300 meters away. Don’t try this at home.

This type of showmanship is the hallmark of any HK demo and they get the maximum benefit from any such opportunity by clever use of special tracer ammo and special targets that let the audience know without a doubt that they are being consistently hit. It is particularly effective to see the bright golden streak of Hornady VECTOR Illuminated Trace ammo slamming into steel silhouettes, loudly ringing with each impact. The individual firing of pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, shotguns and grenades builds to an exciting climax featuring a “mad minute” with three different guns on line taking out strings of balloons and ending with the roar and smoke of exploding targets. Vunderbar!

Assault Rifle Rollup

Two new 5.56mm assault rifles made their NDIA debut in the form of the SAR-21 from Singapore and the TAVOR-21 from Israel. Both are bullpups that seem inspired by the Austrian AUG, but offer advantages in mechanical simplicity and are said to cost less. The VT Kinetics team from Singapore included Hon Nam Lai, the weapon’s chief designer who seemed to be greatly enjoying himself shooting not only his own gun, but later went down the line for a chance to meet some of his fellow designers and shoot their stuff as well.

The Israeli demonstration duo created quite a stir with some very unconventional moves with the stubby and efficient TAVOR-21. Both men were said to have come from the IDF’s elite special operations community which apparently and necessarily puts primary emphasis on effective combat shooting but less on American military range etiquette. Although it was probably highly unlikely that either of the shooters would have inadvertently sent a round anywhere but straight downrange, they did get a lot of attention when Noam Segal did a running commando roll instantly followed by a multi target sweeping, full 30 round magazine burst. This was done so fast that it was over before most spectators could duck and before the Range Safety Officer could hit the emergency CEASE FIRE siren button.

Machine Gun Magic

Belt fed blasters were well represented by an unusual government-industry collaboration, bringing together gun gurus of the Naval Surface Warfare Center with “Blue Press” reloading hardware magnate Mike Dillon. The Navy guys from Crane are the small arms support team for the legendary SEALs and other Special Operations Command units. Among the most effective of the weapons used by and for these elite warriors is the GE Minigun, an electrically-driven 7.62mm version of the Civil War period Gatling.

Specifically for this gun, Dillon Aero has come up with a highly effective feeder-delinker modification that allows the gunner to instantly clear some of the inevitable stoppages that occur in the 3,000 round-per-minute Minigun. Now in official government issue, the Dillon delinker serves Gatlings in helicopters, Humm-Vees, SEAL support speedboats and dune buggies.

Probably ten thousand rounds were live fired at NDIA this year through three Miniguns featuring Mike’s modifications. In addition to one of Dillon’s own personal slug hoses set up on a flatbed trailer, the Navy brought two more for demonstration firing from an armored Humm-Vee and a Desert Patrol Vehicle.

This last was the most remarkable, roaring out front in a cloud of dust then spinning around to rip up the range with long bursts. Anyone who has the opportunity to see and hear a Minigun in action will not soon forget its loud, distinctive, deep throated “burrrrrrrrrrr” sound and the cloud of tracers zipping downrange like a stream of enraged wasps from Hell.

Silence for the Sinister

After the earplug-packing sound of heavy machinegunning, it is a relief to pop out the hearing protection and enjoy demonstrations of suppressed weapons and specialty ammo. GEMTECH in particular did their usual impressive job with a number of gun/can combos including the new 9mm TALON-SD on a Colt smg upper.

Newcomer Jeff Mullins cleverly showed the terminal effects of his Mullins Ammunition ESM pistol and rifle caliber loads. Standing just a few meters away from a big container of clay, Jeff used SIPOPTS-suppressed guns to place different rounds side-by-side. Afterward, the clay box with its gruesome cavities was set up near the lunch break area so that spectators could have a good look at what each round can do. Bon appetite!

If you need to shoot rhinos or other very large varmints in your back yard without disturbing the neighbors, SSK Handcannons has a number of solutions. Owner J.D. Jones fired his .510 Whisper, a remarkable wildcat .50 caliber round for use with suppressed weapons, giving subsonic flight and awesome terminal effect. The .510 joins a large lineup of SSK’s highly unusual cartridges and radical launch platforms for just about any shooting challenge imaginable.


Military, industry, law enforcement and government professionals who need to keep up with the latest in weapons technology are encouraged to join the National Defense Industrial Association and attend the 2001 Joint Small Arms Conference and Exhibition. Complete information for attendees, exhibitors and presenters is available at www.ndia.org or write to NDIA, 2111 Wilson Blvd., Dept. SAR, Suite 400, Arlington, VA 22201.

Briefing slides with data and graphics from many of the technical papers presented at the event are available for examination at www.dtic.mil/ndia/smallarms/smallarms.html


This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N9 (June 2001)
and was posted online on May 9, 2014


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