You may find the attached .pdf file interesting. But then, you may find it, as we did, a curious time capsule from the recent past. Fifteen years ago, the Army was going through one of its periodic fantasies of, in that mordant phrase of savvy engineers, “scheduling an invention.” Indeed, driven by the spirit of the then-thriving dotcom bubble, the service was planning to have a whole new weapons family by, say, 2008. This didn’t happen and the so-called Objective Family of Weapons ranges from stone-cold dead to moribund to, in Monty Python parlance, “pining for the fjords.”
Before we go further, a disclaimer: this is a large and complex story, which needs its own coffee-table book. And it continues to play out. So expect the following to be a simplified version, and don’t be shocked if we let a great honking error or two in. It’s that kind of a field of research. So forewarned, onward!
The plan had its strengths. There was a master plan and a single manager, a buzzword beloved in high places, and several promising designs. But today, the grunt uses an M4 (perhaps M16 if he’s a Marine grunt), M240, or M2HB, and perhaps an M203 or Mk19, all weapons the oddly-named Objective Family were going to replace. Now, the mockups and prototypes of these weapons are discarded, or buried in the back rooms of museums, having made little contribution to history, like a single-generation cadet line of some abdicated royal family, one that died without issue and is of interest only to genealogists.
The project was born from the death of another failed project,called Advanced Combat Rifle, that was not terribly specific in what it asked of vendors when it started in 1986. It didn’t care how they got there, but it wanted 100% improvement over the issue M16A2. As a result, about a half-dozen big names in gunmaking and defense contracting submitted radical and novel weapons, including H&K’s caseless G11, flechette weapons, saboted-and-suppressed weapons, and so forth. The Colt version looked rather like a flattop M16, but the full length optic rail sat upon a high riser and it fired an experimental duplex round with two tiny 27-grain tungsten slugs in tandem. Not only did none of these weapons beat the A2 by 100%, none of them worked all that well, some because of technical immaturity, some because of complex design, some because of concepts that were simply not workable, and some, like the G11, because of all three. After a shambolic troop test in 1989-90, the Army quietly put the 1980s ACR program out of its misery.
By then, it had a new idea. The idea that the rifle and its cartridge were at an unimprovable technological peak of perfection had taken hold at the Infantry School, and the extremely tendentious idea that lethality could only be improved over the 5.56 M855 round by replacing it with an individual weapon firing explosive shells (which would have to be much larger caliber) was a logical corollary. Thus was born the Objective Infantry Combat Weapon project, which metastasized into the Objective Family of Weapons.
The word “Objective” probably deserves a share of the blame. However beloved it was by the Chief of Staff, it didn’t really mean anything. If the new gun was an Objective Crew Served Weapon, what was an M2? Subjective? Did it mean “objective” in that sense? Or did it mean “objective” in the sense of a military goal or target? In the end, it was just another empty Pentagon buzzword, and the degree to which True Believers venerated the term was a measure of the degree to which their inner Massengale trumped their inner Damon. (When the next buzzword came down the pike, of course, these trend-suckers pounced on it, dropping “objective” like teenage girls dropping last year’s heartthrob. Winston Smith’s gang in the Ministry of Truth had nothing on Army staff weenies).
But then there was the concept: let’s take eight existing and two emerging weapons and replace them all with three flexible, adaptable weapons systems. There were several problems with this concept. The first is that the services always try to do this, con themselves into thinking that the economic and logistical benefits of simplification of the catalog of end items will somehow justify the economic and logistical drama of replacing the current stuff. And the project that’s couched in those terms never succeeds. The Objective Family of Weapons did not buck this trend.
The 10 weapons for the chop were: M16, M4, Modular M4/M16, M203, M249, M60, M240B, M2, Mk19 and the M24 sniper weapons system. The replacements were going to be the Objective Individual Combat Weapon, the Objective Crew Served Weapon, and the Objective Sniper Weapon. Early on, there was an Objective Personal Defense Weapon or Objective Personal Weapon, meant to replace the pistols then in use (M9/M11/M1911A1) and some rifles, but by 1998 that project had been cancelled. (It did lead to development that in turn produced such weapons as the FN P90 and H&K MP7). In a development that boded ill for the whole OFW project, the end users were happy enough with their handguns and didn’t want to monkey with them, absent a quantum leap.
While the unrealistic idea of replacing many weapons that did many things with a few weapons was largely to blame, it was far from the only reason. The real knife in the OFW’s heart was the simple fact that the OFW weapons did not work as well as the weapons they replaced: they failed more often, shot less accurately, overheated sooner, and had peculiar breakdowns when they passed from the hands of the boffins to the troops.
One factor in the failure of the three weapons systems was the relative inexperience of the designers. When John Browning designed the M2, he was at the peak of his powers after a lifelong career in gun design, a career with a few failures and an increasingly steady record of success. At one time, most of the self-loading weapons in the world were built under, or violated, his patents. When Dieudonné Saïve designed the FN MAG (M240), he was at the peak of his powers at the end of a lifelong career in gun design, which included a long tour as Browning’s protegé. Gene Stoner was a young man when he designed what became the M16, but he was immersed both in gun design and in manufacturing technology and built singlemindedly towards a single conceptual goal: weight reduction for the individual weapon system (including ammunition). The designers of the OFW (and ACR beforehand) competitors were employees of large corporations who were viewed much as the Army viewed riflemen: expendable, interchangeable parts, one mechanical engineer being no better nor worse than the next.
It’s rare that a committee, commission, or bureaucracy has birthed a revolutionary weapons system, and in assigning that mission to itself, the Army weapons procurement bureaucracy and the Joint Service Small Arms Project, however honorable their intentions and diligent their efforts, probably set themselves up for failure.
Objective Individual Combat Weapon
The Objective Individual Combat Weapon was usually called by its almost-as-painful acronym OICW, each letter’s name pronounced: “oh I see double-u”. Whoever named it did not remark the redundancy in its name: what is a weapon for if not for combat?
The OICW was an attempt to graft a semi-automatic grenade launcher on to a selective-fire carbine. This kind of Frankenstein monster was long beloved by Army Ordnance leaders seeking to schedule a revolution, going back to the SPIW of 1962 or so. This time around, the concept died of many wounds, not least the fact that the end product was compromised as a grenade launcher by its need for rifle capability, compromised as a rifle by its massive grenade launcher, bulky and awkward and clearly designed by boffins in lab coats who were unsullied by acquaintance with grunts in muddy boots.
There were a number of early concepts, but the final version was the XM29, which mated a grenade launcher and carbine with an optic that contained an integrated electronic brain for controlling the grenade launcher’s smart projectiles. In paper studies, the XM29 was 500% better than the extant rifles and carbines and infantry grenade launchers. Those paper studies were not done by combat-experienced infantrymen.
In the OICW, the two modules were field-separable and individually-operable, a clever concept but one whose execution further added to the weapon’s impractical bulk, weight and complexity.
The carbine bit was one of H&K’s many abortive entries in US military design competitions, the XM8, that after all the hype, couldn’t match M16 performance. It was a fiddly, flimsy and unreliable weapon. The grenade launcher bit, from longtime grenade-launcher innovator AAI, was more promising, but smart or not, the 20mm grenades fell far short of the lethality promised. Expanding the grenades to 25mm in a new 25 x 40mm casing came closer to the promised capability, but only at such an impractical weight and bulk that even the project’s boosters were discouraged.
At this point, they decided to separate the carbine and “smart” grenade launcher projects, and then to combine them at some mythical future date when all their problems were solved. This day was not long in not coming, and the XM8, undone by reliability issues that included polymer parts melting and setting themselves afire in testing, went off to the “it seems like a good idea at the time” bin.
The OICW’s intelligent-grenade-launcher component, once separated from the albatross of the XM8, did lead to the XM25 stand-alone grenade launcher, a 25mm weapon which made it as far as a combat test in Afghanistan. The test was inconclusive: the troops carrying it liked it well enough, but it didn’t deliver the combat advantages its inventors imagined, and seems to have been used only occasionally, for suppressive fire. The XM25, then, is looking like a dead end at this writing.
The grenade launcher’s strength was to be (and the XM29’s and later XM25’s clearly was) in the electronic sight and smart ammo, allowing, for example, a precisely located airburst over an enemy position in frontal defilade.
The JSSAP and Army planned that the OICW would be aggressively fielded: as of this 1998 presentation, in the hands of troops for testing in 1999 and in general issue on a unit-by-unit basis from 2006. Reality intervened (in, among other things, the shape of testing, which revealed a weapon ready to face neither our enemies nor our grunts).
Low-level RDT&E continued, particularly with the grenade launcher — the XM8, which never could have done any more than match M16 capabilities even if it, too, had decades of iterative development, was retired, and the Army and Marines breathed a sigh of relief. (H&K continued its evolution into the G36, but began hedging with its own AR-15 variant, the 416). And engineers in the industry continue to pull at some of the technological threads that once made up the OICW garment. But the program petered out with none of the flash and drama of its launch.
Objective Crew Served Weapon
The Objective Crew-Served Weapon did not acquire a trendy acronym like the OICW, but did lead to a number of “missed-it-by-that-much” concepts and designs, including the XM307 and XM806. The original idea was to have a single design with a great deal of parts commonality between versions that would replace all tripod-mounted and vehicle-mounted flexible machine guns, from the M60/240 to the M2Hb and Mk19, and with an increase in capability over either. They did this by going to a high-velocity 25mm shell with a unique 25 x 59mm casing. This was a lightly tapered, belted brass case producing considerably higher velocities than the 25 x 40mm casing used in the XM25, but capable of longer range.
With interchangeable barrels and other conversion parts, the weapon could be converted to fire these shells (replacing the medium velocity 40mm of the Mk19) or ordinary machine gun bullets. At least initially, the OCSW ammunition was not going to be “smart,” it was essentially a Mk19 replacement with a flatter trajectory and better range.
It is possible that smart ammo would have been developed for the weapon, had it actually been procured and the gun proven in combat, but these conditions did not occur.
The weapon was also much lighter than some of the guns it replaced, notably the M2. Even in prototype form, the weapon was less than half the weight of the M2 and was shorter and more compact. General Dynamics was able to achieve these light weights through a novel recoil management system that also made the weapon less jarring to fire and increased hit probability.
As this weapon offered some real advantages, it died a more lingering death than the impractical-from-the-start OICW. It evolved into the XM307 25mm MG (the illustration here is actually an XM307) which could be converted with a replacement bolt head, barrel and some feed parts to an XM312 in .50 caliber. When the 25 x 59mm ammo was abandoned, a revised .50 version, still bringing the weight and recoil benefits, was evaluated. This was the XM806.
In the end, the Army stuck with the M2, in the “new” A1 quick-change barrel format. Meanwhile, ATK continues to develop the 25 x 59mm round, in a chain-gun variant.
Objective Sniper Weapon
The Objective Sniper Weapon was a much less “developmental” weapon than the other Objective weapons. It was, in essence, a Barrett M82 sniper rifle with a new upper receiver that fired the 25 x 59mm round used by the OCSW.
Barrett called this weapon the “Payload rifle,” a term which has stuck after the demise of the Objective Family program. This 25mm rifle project was a pre-existing one sponsored by SOCOM to provide a more effective anti-material weapon than the existing M82 (later, M107) .50 caliber rifle. While the demise of the OCSW may make ammo production impractical, the project has continued on as the XM109.
The weapon not only offers advantages against SOF targets like, for instance, SCUD launchers in the enemy rear area, it increases the range and halves the rounds required to disable light armored vehicles. While it is an interesting weapon and a potentially useful capability, the idea that this is a replacement for the M24 — the idea under which this project was incorporated in the Objective Family — is laughable. A 40-lb monster for shooting big equipment is no substitute for an eight pound rifle for shooting people. Sweeping this weapon into the Objective Family was probably the high point of the buzzword, and it’s fortunate that the weapon survived the detour — as we’ve seen, some of the other Objective brainstorms didn’t.
Thus, while the “Objective” family of weapons is no longer an objective of the Joint Services Small Arms Program or of Army ordnance, the 25 x 59mm round (which has performed well in tests, with hundreds of thousands of rounds fired) is extremely likely to rise from the dead.
Why did this project fail?
The first reason is that the designers tried to do too much in one shot. You can’t replace an M2HB, an M240 and a Mk 19 with the same machine, if you truly understand the tactical place wash weapon is in.
The second reason is that war came and when feedback came from the field, what Joe was asking for was not what prewar technicians were preparing to make for him.
A third and possibly dispositive reason is that the new weapons had a hard time offering quantum advantages over the extant ones, not because the new weapons were objectively (no pun intended) bad, but because the old weapons were extremely well sorted-out. Consider that those basic weapons date from the 1950s (M16, M60, m240), 60s (M4, Mk19) or even earlier (M2Hb, 1920s). They are quite well-understood and have been refined by decades of combat and hundreds of millions of rounds downrange, in the hands of millions of soldiers: officers, men, volunteers, draftees, heroes and goats alike. You can’t replace weapons like these with raw potential.
And then, there is our defense procurement system, and the external pressures upon t. It may be impossible to sell a new weapon or system to managers without making unrealistic promises in the conceptual stage, leading to disappointment when the transition from NDIA PowerPoint deck to Private Joe Snuffy’s hands takes place.
And so ends the story of the Objective Family of Weapons, as the Family itself ended, leaving you, dear reader, to adduce your own moral thereto.