News from the military world, including the new "smart" bullets and ingenious bomb detection technology.
Precision has become a priority for western forces, with the high number of civilian casualties when an allied assault goes wrong dogging the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. A potential hi-tech solution to improve accuracy has been delivered to US soldiers in the Afghan theatre: the XM25 grenade launcher (pictured), a weapon that has been designed to target insurgents hunkered down behind the country’s ubiquitous mud walls. The traditional approach was to lob a grenade and hope for the best, but the XM25 is designed to fire smart shells that communicate with the launcher’s sensors to detonate directly over the target, which is then destroyed by an airburst of shrapnel.
The US military claims that the XM25 is three times as likely to hit its target as an old-fashioned launcher. The US is also developing “smart” bullets for use by snipers as part of an advanced ammunition programme known as Exacto. The Department of Defense expects prototypes of the “manoeuvrable” bullets, which will be able to compensate for gusts of wind and a moving target, to arrive in 2012.
The US also recently began production of a new guidance system that transforms the unguided rockets fired by the military’s attack helicopters into precision munitions. The Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System provides the previously “dumb” rockets with laser guidance, making them accurate to within 75cm.
Just how precise will these new weapons be? As accurate as the smart bombs used in the first Gulf War? As pinpoint as the drones used in Afghanistan? While technology is undeniably capable of improving the accuracy of weapons, armed forces around the world still appear to have an unfortunate habit of hitting the wrong target.
The international treaty banning cluster munitions only came into force six months ago but seven nations have already eradicated their stocks and others are poised to join them. Austria will scrap the weapons soon, joining Belgium, Colombia, Moldova, Montenegro, Norway, Portugal and Spain. But the major stockpilers – China, South Korea, Russia and the US – refuse to sign.
A US company has developed a system to help take back the initiative from suicide bombers by detecting their bombs with a novel system combining radar and thermal video sensors.
SET Corporation is reticent to discuss exactly how its CounterBomber system works, but the system was recently shown off at the Association of the US Army’s annual symposium in Washington. Using low-power radar is a breakthrough because up to this point it was impossible to get sufficient resolution to detect items that might be strapped to a bomber’s body. Devices could only be found by a physical search – clearly lethal.
The company says the system is “non-imaging” to preserve the modesty of travellers, thereby avoiding the controversy that has surrounded X-ray “strip-scanners” at airports.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is on a military spending spree courtesy of a $4bn credit note from Moscow. It reinforces Venezuela’s status as one of Russia’s biggest arms customers. Rich with oil money and keen to demonstrate the futility of a US arms embargo, Caracas has been investing in helicopters, tanks and Sukhoi fighter jets, and may be in the market for Russia’s advanced anti-aircraft batteries.
Relations between Venezuela and its neighbour Colombia remain rocky. They severed diplomatic ties briefly last year and Bogotá is unlikely to be comfortable with Chávez’s latest arms deal.
Across the world, defence departments are struggling to cut budgets, under pressure from austerity-obsessed politicians. In Australia, where military spending has seen a big boost over the past decade, officials seem to be finding the business of making cuts easy. The Department of Defence has sliced €750m from its budget – one third more than the government asked for.
The name of China’s youngest general has a familiar ring to it. Mao Xinyu – who was born in 1970 – is the grandson of the former leader Mao Zedong. Mao the younger doesn’t have a Little Red Book but he does have his own blog.