To be clear, I am open to criticizing papers or journalists I would normally agree with. It’s just you won’t see me doing that with The Economist often. Call it Anglophile loyalty, if you like. But a recent article in the paper concerned me. It boldly suggested that a new technology – a gun – could make one Clausewitzian wisdom redundant.
The gun is the XM25. A futuristic weapon. It can fire and detonate a 25mm projectile at pre-programmed and variable distances. The questioned wisdom is that an “outgunned force that maneuvers to shoot from behind cover” can save itself.
Clausewitz certainly penned this, but I would be hard-pressed to assign this basic battle principle solely to him. After all On War is a collection of astute observations translated into military theory. Using natural or man-made obstacles for self-preservation or to gain tactical advantage is as old as combat itself.
Not all weapons become available to enemy forces. For example, the Taliban won’t exactly be operating frigates or fighters anytime soon. But when it comes to small arms, the advantages provided by the XM25 may be short lived.
Already other countries such as South Korea are developing similar rifles. Sure these efforts haven’t been successful, but that won’t be true forever. Even crude imitations could be devastating in the wrong hands. One lost XM25 on Afghanistan’s frontier could eventually be reverse engineered by all the usual suspects. There would be plenty of buyers on that market.
The XM25 is undeniably amazing. And if reports from initial trial runs are true, then many more of them are destined for the battlefield. The vision (as the above video demonstrates) is to reach the enemy behind barriers, “protected from oncoming weapons fire.” And it will.
But Clausewitz – or at least the wisdom he observed – is not dead. Taking cover won’t exactly go out of style, it will just improve. If anything it seems that today’s enemies have consistently demonstrated a knack for innovation on the battlefield. And other risks abound. How would coalition troops adopt tactics if faced with a similar weapon? Of course, a war between Israel and Hezbollah would look different as well.
The buck won’t stop with the guns that can detonate at a set distance. After all, they are not making hard right turns yet. However, since accuracy can be compromised, stability is less needed. And thus, such weapons could be mounted on various unmanned systems.
(Three side comments to consider: 1) Will proper training be provided? 2) Will those carrying the XM also carry their standard issue rifle? If so, weight (from the gun and ammunition supply) will need to be addressed. 3) How will the gun stand-up to battlefield conditions and natural elements?)