No Place to Hide: The OICW Goes To War

By Charles Sweda

The year is 2,005. Concern over new threats by Saddam Hussein to use weapons of mass destruction on his neighbors continues to plague the world alliance. U.S. lead ground forces once again are placed in harms way in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to protect the region, but this time things are different. The coalition forces are now committed to ending this threat in the world and eliminating Iraq’s military once and for all. As in operation “Desert Shield” in 1991, the Rapid Reaction forces of the U.S. military are first deployed to the region by the National Command Authority, starting with the Americas Guard of Honor, the famed 82nd Airborne Division.

In the early morning hours, the message is received at Fort Bragg to deploy the DRC (Division Ready Company) to Kuwait once again as the “trip wire in the sand”. The 82nd’s Company B, 2nd Battalion of the 325th Parachute Infantry Regiment is on one hour recall and will be the first unit on the ground to provide an immediate presence until reinforcements from the division, the Marines and heavy armored forces can arrive some days or even weeks later.

However, unbeknownst to Saddam and most Americans, the one hundred or so troopers of B Company are not armed with standard issue M4 carbines and 40mm M203 grenade launchers like all other units in the Division. As the First Unit Equipped (FUE) for the past four months they have been training hard with the brand new Objective Individual Compact Weapon (OICW), a weapon the troops call “thumper”, a name signifying the weapons hard hitting capabilities on the target.

Only into their second full day deployed in fighting positions along the Iraq/Saudi Arabian border, the Iraqis stage a bold and foolish attack on this unique reinforced airborne infantry company, which has now grown to battalion strength. The motorized Iraqi brigade advances on the American forces that they easily outnumber by more than five to one. However, the bad luck of the day has been issued to the Iraqi commander and will cost the aggressors dearly as they have picked B company’s lines to attempt their breach.

The OICW, with its maximum effective range of 1,000 meters and thermal weapon sight, provides the American troops the ability to see, identify and engage with deadly effect the attacking force at more than twice the range of conventional small arms like the M4’s they recently traded for the new “Star Wars” gun. At 950 meters B company’s commander issues the command to open fire and now the carnage begins.

With a flip of a selector switch on the weapon the troopers select the high explosive (HE) module (i.e. grenade launcher) and the PDD (Point Detonating Delay) mode offered by the Target Acquisition/Fire Control System (TA/FCS) of their OICW’s. The 20mm semi-automatic grenade launcher is loaded with six rounds of the newly developed high explosive, dual purpose (HEDP) ammunition, the latest addition to the OICW family of ammunition. Below the 20mm is the small KE (kinetic energy) module (i.e. rifle) for close in use loaded with 30 rounds of 5.56mm M855 “penetrator” rifle ammunition.

The gunners, fully confident in this new weapon system and it’s immense capabilities, place the simple red aiming dot within the TA/FCS on the lead lightly armored Iraqi vehicle in their sector of fire and depress the “lase” button situated along the curved portion of the trigger guard. The night’s sky is of no use in masking the Iraqi force as they had foolishly hoped. The selectable thermal or passive night vision modes of the TA/FCS pierce the darkness turning night into day for the defenders. The erbium glass laser, with pinpoint accuracy of 1 meter at 1,000 meters, flashes against the vehicle and 1/10 of a second later informs the TA/FCS that the target is now at 900 meters, well within the gunners effective range.

The effects of the first OICW HEDP round fired in combat are astounding. The shaped charge of the dual purpose warhead burns it’s way through the thin armor of the Russian-built BTR-90 drivers compartment and explodes within scattering it’s deadly steel and tungsten shrapnel throughout the vehicle. Six of the nine occupants are severely wounded two are killed outright.

The other airborne gunners along the defensive line have similar results against the Iraqi vehicles. The Iraqi commander issues the command to dismount wrongly assuming the vehicles are being attacked with anti-tank weapons and that his infantry would fair better dismounted. The second mistake of the Iraqi force, besides attacking the American paratroopers armed with this new “wonder weapon”, has just been made. The Iraqi infantry, now protected by only their steel helmets and Russian-made body armor, comprised of Kevlar material and titanium plates, become the first order of business for the American defenders.

The Iraqis rush forward firing wildly at the American lines with their AKM’s. B Company’s gunners now switch from 3X to 6X magnification to pick out the choice targets amongst the Iraqi infantry. Inserting a fresh magazine of six high explosive fragmentation (HE frag) rounds, one gunner picks out a light machine gunner armed with a Russian RPK, selects the “AB” mode on the OICW Fire Control System and lases the unfortunate recipient. The digital readout within the TA/FCS, seen above the adjusted red aiming dot, reads 827 meters. Our hero places the red aiming dot on the target and depresses twice the “-” button near by the laser control switch. An instantaneous electronic signal is transmitted to the fuse in the grenade by the fire control system warhead through a coil in the 20mm barrel providing the necessary internal and external ballistic and atmospheric data the round will need to accurately attack the target downrange. When the digital read out within the sight reads 825 meters a simple squeeze of the OICW’s single trigger launches the 20mm grenade at the target. By reducing the range by two meters the gunner has accounted for the forward movement of the enemy squad to insure that the 6 meter air bursting radius of the grenade, twice what was specified in the OICW ORD (Operational Requirements Document), can take full effect on the advancing troops.

In the instance before launch the TA/FCS signaled the warhead that once it has traveled 825 meters it is to air burst three meters above the aiming point. After launch the 1,200-grain, 2.75-ounce grenade counts it’s own rotations as it “flys” to the target at nearly 800 feet per second. Some five seconds later it arrives like a lethal bird over the unsuspecting Iraqi machine gunner and detonates.

The results, like that against the BTR-90, are impressive and deadly for the unfortunate Iraqi troops within its lethal umbrella. The shrapnel from the bimodal (dual fragment) warhead of the OICW 20mm HE Frag round easily perforates the steel helmets and the Russian flak vests. Those not hit drop to the ground to reduce their exposure to the unknown incoming American fire only to provide a larger target for the lethal fragments from the air bursting grenades of the OICW. Within seconds a second round arrives and, for this squad at least, the fight is over.

Iraqi troops scurrying to hide behind their dead or the disabled vehicles are not even safe. For the first time in the history of combat the individual infantryman with the OICW can now engage and defeat targets behind cover, in the defilade. Gunners “add range” to the grenades and fly them around the side or over the vehicle hulks, what with direct fire rifles and grenade launchers used to be the cover, and engage the hidden enemy regardless. Incapacitated, dead or dying, during this battle the Iraqi forces never advanced to a range where their rifles could be used with any real effect on the American defenders.

With the entire enemy force either dead or dying and no sign of reinforcements, Company B is sent to collect the prisoners and help with the Iraqi wounded. With cover from the fourth platoon and their OICW’s in overwatch position, the remainder of the company separates the lower 5.56mm KE modules from the 20mm grenade launchers portion. They attach a simple lightweight buttstock stored in their rucksacks to the 4 pound 5.56mm weapon and advance to survey the carnage they have created against their opponent. All the while they are protected by the OICW’s to their rear and it’s capability to accurate and precisely place a 20mm HE grenade over their heads and in the lap of any enemy solider with bad intentions.

The U.S. force defeats the numerically superior Iraqi motorized infantry brigade after only one hour and without firing a single shot from a rifle. The enemy attack stalled at 700 meters and never advanced within the range of the Iraqi’s individual weapons. Because of this the members of B Company, 2/325 were never in any real danger from the Iraqi infantry. There are no American casualties. The Iraqi’s lose 500 men that lie dead or dying in the fine Arabian sand, not one killed by a bullet. The OICW gunners fired some two hundred 20 mm OICW rounds total for the 100 man parachute company against the attacking enemy infantry at a range twice that of the maximum effective range of their long gone M16A2 rifles and more recently replaced M4 carbines and 40mm M203 grenade launchers.

The future is just around the corner Obviously the above scenario is a hypothetical situation, but one that could be realized as soon as the year 2005 if the current OICW program remains on schedule. In it’s fourth of five phases of development, a small quantity of complete OICW “systems” are currently being fabricated for the conduct of safety and field testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Benning starting in mid to late 1999.

The OICW program is a Joint Service Advanced Technology Demonstration (ATD) begun in 1994 and managed by the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) located on the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. The OICW is expected to replace some or all of the M16/M203’s and M4 Carbines within select units in all branches of the U.S. military. Performance of the first complete prototype OICW in 1998 from the successful Alliant Techsystems team was so successful that the military hopes to advance the fielding of the weapon in the year 2005 by a full 12 months. (Editor’s Note: Watch for a live fire SAR test as soon as we get the opportunity)

The development team remaining includes the prime contractor, Alliant Techsystems from Hopkins, MN, responsible for system integration and the futuristic HE bursting ammunition. Heckler & Koch, the famed weapons builder from Oberndorf, Germany is developing both HE and KE modules of the OICW, the actual “bullet launchers”. Contraves-Brashear of Pittsburgh, PA is responsible for the design of the Target Acquisition/Fire Control System for the OICW and the integration of a unique target tracker system from a British firm known as Optec. The fourth member of the team, Dynamit Nobel from Troisdorf Germany, of the HK G11/ACR caseless ammunition development program, is involved with developing product improved 5.56mm KE ammunition for the OICW. It is interesting to note that to win the critical fourth phase of development in this program, the “down select”, the Alliant Tech team had to beat out a larger and very capable team lead by AAI with FN Herstal responsible for the weapon.

To describe the OICW it pays to compare it to current fielded weapons, in particular the issue U.S. M16/M203 combined weapons system. Comprised of a 5.56mm select-fire rifle and add-on single shot 40mm grenade launcher fitted with simple iron sights, this weapon system weighs 14.5 pounds loaded with one 40mm grenade and 30-rounds of rifle ammunition. The maximum effective range of this weapon is generally considered to be 460 meters in competent hands. The rifle is the primary weapon in this combo; the grenade launcher being used for area personnel targets and for delivering high explosive grenades to selected point targets. With a thermal weapon sight for use at night the M16/M203 weighs 16.5 pounds and costs an estimated $29,000. A similarly equipped M4A1 Carbine with modular rail system and various targeting accessories with a slightly reduced maximum effective range weighs in at 19.5 pounds reportedly costs the tax payer $35,000.

The OICW is a dual weapons system consisting of a separable 20mm High Explosive (HE) module and 5.56X45mm NATO Kinetic Energy (KE) miniature select-fire “carbine”. In contrast to the M16/M203 the 20mm HE module of the OICW weapon system is considered the primary weapon leaving the KE module for close-in protection or assault roles or for targets where rifle fire is more appropriate, and cost effective. Each component of the OICW can be separated from the other by the operator and used by itself as determined by the mission. For MOUT operations in urban environments, for artillery crews or vehicle drivers the small, lightweight, fast handling KE module with its 8-10 inch steel sleeved titanium barrel would serve well in offensive or defensive roles at ranges out to and including 300 meters. Targets beyond 300 meters become the focus of the OICW’s 20mm grenade launcher.

The OICW 20mm grenade launcher fitted with a detachable pistol grip/trigger mechanism could be used solely as a smaller and more lightweight (@ 8 pound) semi-automatic grenade launcher where the KE module is not required. Firing less-than-lethal munitions the 20mm launchers could also serve well in crowd control operations.

The advantages of the OICW system compared to those of conventional weapons are far reaching. No longer limited to engaging the enemy with direct fire munitions (bullets) the air bursting 20mm grenades offer a leap forward in combat capability not realized before in the history of the infantry. In comparison, the advent of the long bow, self-contained cartridge, rifled bore and the machine gun are small arms developments that certainly changed the nature of battle. However, as revolutionary as these inventions were none had the potential for changing the planning for, the actual conduct of and the outcome of land battle as that promised by the OICW.

The air bursting munitions alone, with their maximum effective range of 2 1/2 times that of the current 40mm low velocity cartridge fired from the M203 for example, will extend the range that infantry can effectively and decisively engage and destroy enemy targets to a range of 1,000 meters, more than one half mile. The precision provided by the laser range finder, ballistic computer and turns-counting fuse in the air bursting 20mm grenade will allow the infantryman to incapacitate or kill outright enemy soldiers without the need to actually hit the target. Like all fragmenting projectiles the probability of hitting the target with shrapnel from the air bursting grenade increases the gunners ability to inflict injury on the enemy without the need to score a direct hit. Anything within a circle greater than 19 feet (6 meter bursting radius) will most likely take at least one hit from the deadly high speed fragments, most of which are sufficient to inflict serious injury, even through most types of protective equipment. Unlike the conventional point detonating grenade, like that fired from the M203 or MK19, the air-bursting grenade does not drive the vast majority of its fragments into the ground upon detonation.

Moving targets, multiple targets, targets obscured by smoke or fog, targets sensitive to damage such as electronic or optical equipment can be easily and effectively engaged without the need for a direct hit. Even slow moving helicopters are potential targets for the OICW. Aiming errors induced by the effects of combat stress that cause misses with conventional rifles will influence to a far lesser degree the high probability of hitting and incapacitating with shrapnel short and long range targets because of the air bursting function of the OICW’s 20mm grenade.

At no other time in our history has the individual warrior had the capability to engage his opponent hiding behind cover or in a foxhole. The air-bursting mode provided in the OICW’s TA/FCS provides for this ability by the man carrying an individual weapon. In the past only indirect fire crew-served weapons like mortars and artillery provided this capability. This ability to hit the enemy nearly anywhere he may hide is very close to becoming reality for the American fighting man. The ability to add distance to the round prior to launch but after lasing the target will allow the OICW user to hit targets around corners, behind berms, inside fighting positions, in vehicle commander copulas, inside buildings either through open or closed windows or even targets hidden behind light building materials. Simply select the fuse mode of operation in the TA/FCS for the grenade and the system does the rest.

In addition to the Air-Bursting (AB) mode the OICW offers a Point Detonating (PD), Point Detonating Delay (PPD) mode, Window Mode for shooting through glass and a short arm MOUT arming mode for use in Close Quarters Combat (normal arming range is > 14 meters). All grenades have a built-in timed self-destruct feature that will detonate the warhead to reduce or eliminate dud rounds in training areas and on the battlefield. The electronic package in the TA/FCS also allows for various modes of operation to include day, night and television for capturing the view of the gunner for direct feed to the helmet display of the future Land Warrior integrated combat ensemble and/or to unit commanders in real time.

A single rechargeable battery housed within the buttplate of the HE module powers the entire fire control system. Should the battery fail, a rudimentary aiming point is provided within the fire control systems field of view which allows effective though degraded target engagements for both KE and HE weapons. Modern portable power sources “batteries” on today’s battlefield are common and generally very reliable. Back up “iron” sights are also molded into the synthetic housing of each weapon module for aiming without the use of the TA/FCS.

The OICW has fully ambidextrous operating controls and is arranged in an over/under configuration. One trigger is used to fire both weapons. A barrel selector switch determines which weapon is fired with a squeeze of the sole trigger. The mode of fire is selected by the left and right sided safety/selector lever and offers semi-automatic fire for the 20mm and semi-automatic and 2-round burst for the 5.56mm module. The KE module attaches to the HE weapon in seconds using operator removable pushpins and an integral locking rail. The KE weapon uses standard M16/M4 magazines inserted forward of the pistol grip. The 6-round 20mm magazine is produced from polymer material and protrudes from the base of the weapon behind the pistol grip making the HE module of the bull pup design. This design allows for a weapon of relatively short overall length.

The KE weapon is gas-operated using a highly modified HK G36 rifle dual gas system with rotating locking bolt and fixed barrel. The 20mm grenade launcher is recoil operated with rotary locking bolt. The barrel and bolt remain locked together during initial rearward movement. The design of the HE module with it’s advanced recoil mitigation system reduces the felt recoil to the shooters shoulder to just slightly more than that of an M16 rifle. The goal was for felt recoil shooting the 20mm grenades of 90% of that from an M14 rifle, a goal that was achieved by the designers on the very first prototype tested by the U.S. government. This low recoil allows for a sustained rate of accurate fire with the HE module of 10-18 rounds per minute, to include the process of lasing the target.

Materials used in the design of the OICW are as advanced as the performance of the weapon system. The barrels of both weapons are produced from lightweight titanium with a steel liner for durability and resistance to bore erosion. During first prototype testing it was determined that both barrels will withstand the firing of more than 10,000 rounds without degradation of accuracy. The weapons exteriors are produced from light weight yet tough fiber reinforced polymer material that resists exposure to temperature extremes, thermal shock, chemical compatibility and decontamination, rough handling and the normal abuse weapons take in the hands of combat Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and special operations personnel. The entire OICW can be field stripped in minutes without tools and is cleaned using a slightly modified 12 gauge shotgun cleaning kit.

Lethality - Will technology pay off?

All of this highly touted technology and advanced materials is nothing more than fancy window dressing, science fiction as opposed to science fact if you will, if in the end the weapon system cannot perform as intended where the rubber hits the road. The entire purpose of the OICW is to increase the combat capability of the current and future infantryman by dramatically increasing his probability of hit and incapacitation. Under the stress of actual combat, errors are induced in accurate aiming and those marksmanship skills otherwise easily mastered making target engagement extremely difficult even by the accomplished marksman. The fact that in combat the enemy often does shoot back, targets are moving, obscured by smoke, concealment or cover or are presented to the shooter at long ranges all reduce the hit probability of the infantryman with individual weapons that fire kinetic energy ammunition (i.e. bullets, buckshot, flechetts, etc.). There is simply little or no room for aiming errors with a rifle regardless of its rate of fire or the type of projectiles it launches.

In the past this elusive goal was not attained through the use of weapons firing multiple projectiles from one case or bursts of projectiles fired at very high rates of fire. The 1960 era SPIW (Special Purpose Individual Weapon) program reversed the roles of the current OICW making the “bullet launcher” the primary weapon and the grenade launcher the area fragmenting weapon, similar to what we have today in the M16/M203 weapon system. Like the Advanced Combat Rifle (ACR) program that came along some twenty years after the demise of SPIW, advanced bullet launching technology, to include caseless, duplex and flechette ammunition could not provide the 100% increase in hit probability required to advance that technology to the point of production and fielding.

The air bursting munitions of the OICW program, and it’s sister program the Objective Crew Served Weapon (OCSW), make up for aiming errors which result in clean misses with kinetic energy weapons by showering the target with lethal fragments detonating in the air anywhere within 6 meters from the target. As is the case with hand grenades and horseshoes, close is good enough. However, the OICW throws that horseshoe 1,000 meters with accuracy well within the lethal footprint of the grenade.

A second and more revolutionary advantage of the air bursting munitions of the OICW is the ability for the first time in the history of ground combatants for the warrior to engage the enemy behind cover or in the defilade. Never before has the infantryman been able to engage targets behind corners or inside fighting positions or behind a berm with his individual weapon. These were targets that only crew served weapons such as mortars or artillery could effectively engage. Rifle grenades, 40mm grenades fired from the M203, mortar rounds that detonate upon impact with the ground drive much of their lethal payload into the earth. Air bursting munitions provide a far greater potential for hits on target and thus incapacitation of the intended recipient than point detonating munitions.

Cost Effectiveness

What is the cost of state-of-the-art small arms technology? Is the payoff worth the price? If the results of the very first full OICW system tests in January 1998 are any indication, the future potential of the OICW looks extremely promising. The OICW will change the way in which the American military fights battles just as the long bow did and the machine gun and tank centuries later. America’s unfortunate enemies will be at a great disadvantage when faced with the awesome combat capabilities of the OICW and the overmatch performance it will provide to its users.

The current forecasted unit price of one OICW complete with its TA/FCS is approximately $10,000 compared to the $620 cost of one M16A2. However, one must be careful to compare apples to apples. The $10,000 unit price of the OICW includes its thermal module, built-in laser range finder, sensors and ballistic computer, passive night vision and video capability not to mention separable weapon modules. This cost can be directly compared to the M16A2/M203 with thermal and passive night vision sights which is reported to cost Uncle Sam @ $29,000, or @ $35,000 for the M4A1 carbine similarly equipped.

Projected 20mm ammunition costs are @ $30 per round versus that of the current M433 40mm round. However one is wise to keep in mind the 1,000 meter range, air bursting lethality and the critically important pounds per kill weight ratio in which the 20mm OICW grenade clearly has the advantage. The charts below graphically depict the cost versus weight versus effectiveness arguments in favor of the OICW 20mm air bursting munitions over the current M203 40mm low velocity, point-detonating M433 grenade.

The future is here

The Alliant Techsystems candidate OICW system performed superbly in the Phase 3 down-select tests that eliminated the formidable AAI team from further consideration. The Alliant Techsystems weapon met all seven of the mandatory exit criteria and exceeded four of the seven. With years of additional R&D time to perfect, lighten and toughen up the OICW one can expect the OICW prototype of today to become even leaner and meaner beyond it’s already advanced capabilities.

Short of carrying a thick Kevlar, titanium or steel umbrella, if the OICW progresses as expected enemy troops opposing U.S. forces will quickly learn the hard way that with OICW, there is no place to hide.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V2N9 (June 1999)
and was posted online on April 1, 2016


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