The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
More Books by James Dunnigan
Dirty Little Secrets
Will it Work?
by James Dunnigan
November 28, 2002
New weapons, particularly very different new weapons, have a hard time gaining acceptance among the troops until the new gadget has performed well in combat. As a result, every time the U.S. gets involved in some new war, large or small, there is a lot of pressure from the weapons development crew to get some of their new stuff tried out against a real live enemy. One candidate for this treatment in the coming war with Iraq is SABR (or "Selectable Assault Battle Rifle, otherwise known as OICW or the XM29). This is an over and under weapon with a 20mm computer controlled grenade launcher on top, and a 5.56mm assault rifle underneath. In development since 1994. The weapon has proved it can work, and development is now concentrating on getting the weight down to 14 pounds, and reliability improved to the point where it will keep working under battlefield conditions.
The major question to be answered on the battlefield is whether the heavier, awkward weapon is worth the weight and cost (up to $20,000 each) in combat. The key new feature of the SABR is the ability to fire 3.25 ounce 20mm shells up to 1,000 meters and hit targets in trenches, inside buildings or around corners. Each 20mm round costs $25. This particular magic is accomplished with a computer controlled fuze in each 20mm shell. The infantryman firing SABR can select four different firing modes via a selector switch on the weapon. The four modes are;
"Bursting" (airburst). For this to work, the soldier first finds the target via the SABRs sighting system. This 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 20mm shell is optimized to spray incapacitating (wounding or killing) fragments in a roughly six meter radius from the exploding round. Thus if enemy troops are seen moving near trees or buildings at a long distance (over 500 meters), the SABR 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 SABR, you get one accurate shot and the element of surprise.
The second mode is "PD" (point detonation), where the round explodes on contact.
Then there is PDD (point detonation delay), where the round detonates immediately after it has gone through a door, window or thin wall.
The fourth mode is "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.)
The 3X site on SABR also has a thermal imaging mode useful at night. In fact, the SABR has a five pound fire control module with a computer as powerful as those found in some laptop computers. The current version of SABR has a lot of adjustments and features the soldiers can play with, too many according to some combat veterans. Again, only combat testing will decide which adjustment features are needed and which are not.
In theory, and so far successfully in tests, SABR would be a very useful weapon for fighting in urban areas, or even forests. What is difficult to replicate in tests is the wear and tear a weapon will receive in combat, and exactly how many situations will be encountered where the troops will end up saying, "it's a good thing we had SABR along." Indeed, the impact on enemy troops encountering SABR for the first time will be demoralizing. Once word gets around that the Americans have a weapon that can get you when you are taking cover in a trench, or around a corner, panic will set in with some troops and entire units may surrender or flee after getting shot up by SABR armed troops. Eventually, however, more experienced troops will learn to deal with SABR.
There have not been any reports of SABR being used in Afghanistan, and it's unknown if any of the weapon will be brought along for an invasion of Iraq. It's likely that the engineers, or combat officers supervising the project, will veto use of the SABR in action this year because it just isn't ready for field use yet. But the temptation is there. For until SABR gets tagged as "proven in combat," it's future will be in doubt.