Guns That A 'Grunt' Would Love
For years, the United States has maintained its military superiority by harnessing new weapons technologies to tanks, ships, aircraft, and other major military hardware.Skip to next paragraph
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Now it's the grunt's turn to strap on this high-tech weaponry.
The Army this year is to begin equipping in a major way infantry units with miniature versions of devices that tankers, sailors, and pilots have long enjoyed. These night-vision scopes, day/night laser sights, and thermal imagers that detect humans by their heat will mount on the M-4 rifle. The new rifle is smaller but just as deadly as the Vietnam-era M-16, which is being retired. New machine guns are also to be deployed.
But this is just the first phase of a multibillion-dollar effort. By 2006, when the Army fields a new generation of rifle capable of killing foes hiding around corners, officers say US ground troops will have undergone the most profound transformation in the way infantry forces fight since the introduction of the blitzkrieg in World War II.
"We are going to see a quantum leap," predicts Lt. Col. Paul Buckhout, the Army's coordinator of light infantry systems. "We will see significant increases in the lethality of our forces, pound for pound."
As the Army begins to integrate the technologies into training and tactics, officials expect to see a vital benefit - much lower casualties for US troops.
While testing is still under way, confidence is high is that the new weaponry will not only boost the infantry's firepower, but also allow it to engage enemies at longer distances and with more precision, day or night.
The Army's plans are moving forward amid an ongoing debate over the technology-driven revolution in military affairs and how it would affect the way the armed forces operate. Some defense officials have been arguing that with vast improvements in precision bombing, the Air Force could assume some of the traditional tasks of ground units, reducing the importance of the infantry.
But other experts reject that argument, saying advanced technologies will never compensate for the war-winning need of armies to capture and hold territory.
"The soldier is the one who has to take the ground and hold it, and nothing is going to change that," says Terry Gander, editor of Janes Infantry Weapons, a British military-affairs publication.
Other experts warn that the revolutionary potential of the new infantry technologies may not be realized unless the Army replaces its traditional operating doctrine. It would have to rely less on fielding huge mechanized formations, shifting instead to concepts that deal with a new range of post-cold-war challenges.
"The Army is doing the right kinds of things in terms of individual technologies," says Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon planner who now heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, a Washington think tank. "But a critical question will be what kinds of operational challenges will they be seeing that they need to address."
For instance, he explains, as geopolitical alignments shift and overseas bases shut down in the wake of the cold war, the US may have trouble finding friendly territories where it can assemble huge mechanized forces, as it did in Saudi Arabia for the 1991 Gulf War.
The Army might cope with such contingencies by coupling the new infantry technologies with new operational concepts, such as lighter, smaller, and more mobile ground forces, says Mr. Krepinevich, a former Army lieutenant colonel.