Nine years into the war in Afghanistan, a handful of U.S. soldiers have a new weapon in hand, a lethal combination of technology and explosives that the Army has called a "game changer."
Looking like it came straight out of a sci-fi movie, the XM-25 fires highly specialized rounds that can be programmed to explode at the precise location where the enemy is hiding behind cover.
Consider it a beefed up take on the old adage "boys and their toys."
Five of the high-tech, semi-automatic weapons arrived in the war-torn country this month and soon will be tested in combat.
"This weapon makes our forces more lethal, it makes them more effective and it keeps them safer," said Lt. Col. Christopher Lehner, the project manager for individual weapons at Program Executive Office Soldier, which developed the XM-25. "This is the first time that we've put smart technology in the weapons system for the individual soldier."
Though the XM-25 has tested well in the United States, military brass will be watching the weapon's performance in real-life combat to assess not only how well it performs, but also what weapons it might end up replacing.
Soldiers currently up against insurgents ducking for cover behind fortified walls have little choice but either to fire highly explosive 40mm grenades or mortar rounds, which are effective, but often inaccurate, or to leave their own cover and maneuver to fire direct shots, which puts American lives at risk.
Enter the XM-25.
"We're talking about seconds to neutralize the enemy, versus minutes," Lehner said.
Crouching behind his own cover, a U.S. soldier armed with the XM-25 can point his weapon at the wall behind which the enemy is hiding to get the precise distance. The rounds, which come four to a magazine plus one in the chamber, can then be programmed to travel just a short distance behind that to explode precisely where the insurgent is believed to be hiding.
With the scope aimed at the top of the wall, the round will fire and explode before impact, at the precise location programmed by the soldier, raining a hail of explosives and fragments on to the enemy.
It all takes mere seconds -- five to program and fire, two for travel.
The rounds also take into account air pressure and temperature to accurately hit their marks.
"Our soldiers can stay behind cover and shoot this weapon at the enemy who's behind cover and we can take him out," Lehner said. "But they can't take us out because we're behind cover and they don't have this weapon."
Analyst Praises XM-25, but Questions Whether It's Enough
The precision also has the potential to go a long way to soothe politics between the military and the Afghanistan government, which has come down on U.S. forces for what it says is a high number of unnecessary civilian casualties.
"With all the latest political pressures with the Afghanistan government placing on our soldiers and our tactics we use ... this helps them to eliminate the problems we're seeing down range," Lehner said, citing airstrikes with a lot of collateral damage as a sore spot for the Afghans.
The first five XM-25s arrived in Afghanistan earlier this month and have been tested on a range there. The rounds arrived on Tuesday.
Lehner said the weapons will be in combat within days, before the end of the month, though he declined to reveal exactly where they would be used.
The U.S. military plans to order 12,500 XM-25s at a cost of $25,000 to $35,000 each. The rounds, about the size of a roll of quarters, cost between $25 and $35 each. Though the initial plan is to put an XM-25 with each squad and Special Forces team, the combat assessment, he said, will help gauge whether the military needs to order more, which will drive the price down.
Dan Goure, vice president of the Arlington, Va.- based think tank, the Lexington Institute, said the XM-25 goes a long way toward correcting what he sees as major deficiencies in military operations. But, he said, the Army needs to reach a bit farther.
While the Department of Defense has sunk large sums of money into tanks and vehicle-mounted weaponry, the "dismounted warrior" was left largely exposed, a "huge" problem in a place like Afghanistan where soldiers are charged with hiking into dense hillsides where no vehicle could ever travel.
"What we had not spent a lot of time working on was the equipment, personal equipment, guns and weapons for the dismounted soldiers," he said.
The XM-25, he said, is a good upgrade, though he stopped short of agreeing with Lehner's "game changer" assessment.
Goure, who served on the 2001 Department of Defense transition team, praised the ability of the weapon to be useful both in urban settings and caves.
"The nice thing about it is I don't have to carry two or three different weapons or two or three different shells," Goure said. "It's certainly an important step forward because it provides much heavier firepower to the dismounted squad and that's hugely important."
But he questioned whether the rounds were high-powered enough, opining that the small rounds may have limited explosive capacity.
"Is it going to be enough or do you need still a heavier duty" weapon? he asked. "You'd like something that might be a bit longer-range, a bit heavier in explosive power."
"Short of that," he said, "it is pretty good."
U.S. Army: Other Countries 'Years Behind' With Similar Technology
Development of the XM-25 has been about 10 years in the making. It first was fired on a test range on Aug. 11, 2009.
The guns also have made an appearance in video simulators to train soldiers and even online games for civilians, including "America's Army."
Lehner, who penned an article on the weapon titled, "Nowhere to Hide," said he's confident it's the only weapon of its kind.
Through a lot of "war gaming," he said, the United States knows other militaries are working on high explosive airburst technology, but are "years behind."
"We have to stay ahead of the technology curve," he said. "If we don't, someone's going to get ahead of us."
But eventually, they will catch up, Lehner acknowledged. And then the Army will start all over again.
"You cannot prevent enemy forces from developing whatever they're going to develop," he said. "Sooner or later, they're going to get it, so maybe you should have it first."