On Pentagon's Wish List: A Gun That Cuts Corners in Pursuit of Bad Guys

In the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun, the handgun in question killed noiselessly with a single bullet.

In Aliens, Sigourney Weaver fended off xenomorphs with the rugged megaguns of the Marines of the future.

And in 2005, real-life U.S. Army soldiers will be battling the enemy not with a regular rifle but with an assault weapon that could have leapt out of the special-effects department of a movie.

"It's the difference between a bow and arrow and a modern rifle," said Hubert Hopkins, president of the Alliant Tech Systems Integrated Defense Company, which has been developing the weapon for the U.S. Army since last August.

Though it has an unwieldy name the Objective Individual Combat Weapon System, or OICW it is being touted by its manufacturers as having the potential to revolutionize the way America fights its wars. Besides shooting bullets, the OICW will actually be able to hit targets completely behind barriers.

"It's the closest thing you'll get to bullets going around corners," said Barbara Muldowney, the OICW assistant product manager for the U.S. Army's Pickatinny Arsenal, in New Jersey.

Along with the standard 5.56-mm projectiles, the OICW will shoot 20-mm explosive rounds containing miniaturized electronics that can detonate the ammunition in midair. That means a soldier shooting the OICW doesn't have to hit his target to hit his target, so to speak. Instead, he can cause an explosion behind the target and behind or above the barrier the target is hiding behind.

So, instead of having to score a bull's-eye to kill a bad guy, a marksman only has to make sure the target's in the blast radius, the exact measurement of which is classified. Unless the target is protected by a strong-enough wraparound shield, the OICW will make many obstacles irrelevant.

Military technology like this could have changed history in infantry-heavy wars like the one the U.S. fought in Vietnam, where one or two enemy soldiers using a well-aimed rifle and the protection of natural vegetation or a heap of rubble could wipe out squads of Americans, Hopkins said.

"Where an enemy sniper can drop behind trees and cover, the soldier lases [uses his laser to target] on a tree, shoots his OICW, and that sniper's gone," he said.

Of course, the OICW's shooting-bullets method of taking down enemies is nothing to sneeze at. It has "basically the same architecture" as the M16 assault rifle, making it "five times as effective at twice the range," Hopkins said.

In simulations, an infantry squad equipped with OICWs was sent into an offensive battle against another squad with standard weapons. Then an infantry squad with standard weapons was sent against a similarly accoutered force. The differences between how the OICW-equipped squad and the regular infantry did were stark, Hopkins said.

In the battle with traditional weapons, both the friendly and the enemy forces had about the same number of dead and wounded. In the OICW scenario, the OICW won the battle with "virtually no casualties," he said.

"You can go after all your targets," Muldowney said. "They can't hide."

And even though it's loaded with the bursting weapon and sophisticated computer-targeting equipment, the OICW actually weighs in at 14 lbs., just under the weight of a standard-issue M4 rifle with optical equipment and a thermal-weapons sight.

The catch, of course, is the price tag. The program overall costs the military about $32 million a year, and at $30,000 apiece, the OICW is an expensive accessory for your average footsoldier's arm. When the weapon is ready for mass production in three years, the Army will buy up to 25,000 of them at first. Out of each standard nine-man infantry squad, four soldiers will have the OICW.

But the cost didn't seem so daunting after Sept. 11, Hopkins said. After the war on Afghanistan's Taliban militia and Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network began, the Army said it needed the new guns as soon as possible. It had originally asked the three companies working together on the project, Heckler and Koch and Brashear LP, of Pittsburgh, all coordinated by Alliant, to yield usable results by 2009. The call for better weapons cut the red tape and four years, Hopkins said.

And it's about time, he said. The OICW ought to apply the technology of America's spectacularly successful air and artillery prowess to protecting the men and women who fight for the U.S. on the ground, he said.

"Before, we were focusing on guided bombs and cruise missiles," Hopkins said. "We're bringing that precision to the infantry. We're bringing air warfare to the ground."