The Army's Futuristic 'Punisher' Grenade Launcher Is Officially Dead, But It Could Rise Again

The service canceled the project, but not before securing the design rights and buying all of the existing prototypes and ammunition.

US Army

After more than two decades, the U.S. Army says it had finally killed a program to develop a futuristic 25mm grenade launcher capable of firing computerized, programmable ammunition known as the XM25 and nicknamed “The Punisher.” However, as part of a legal settlement with the lead contractor, Orbital ATK, now part of Northrop Grumman, the service now owns the weapon's technical design package and could hire a different company to reboot the project in the future.

The Army first revealed the project had come to an end in a statement to Stars and Stripes earlier in August 2018. The service explained it had formally ended work on the XM25, also known as the Individual Semi-Automatic Airburst System (ISAAS) or Counter-Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE) System on July 24, 2018, after reaching the deal with Orbital ATK. 

“After cancelling the program last year, the Army has since received rights to the program’s research and development,” U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Taylor, a service spokesperson, told Stars and Stripes on Aug. 9, 2018. “This is in addition to the 20 existing XM25 systems — to include high explosive air-burst and target practice rounds — that the Army garnered as part of the negotiated settlement.”

Taylor misspoke in saying that the Army had previously canceled the program. In 2017, the service did cancel a contract with Orbital ATK, but had not made a final decision on the Punisher's future.

US Army

A mockup of the XM25 "Punisher" grenade launcher.

“On April 5, 2017, the Army terminated the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE) contract with the prime contractor (Orbital-ATK) after it failed to deliver the 20 weapons as specified by the terms of the contract,” another Army spokesperson told Military.com in May 2017. “Despite extensive negotiation efforts, the contractor failed to provide an acceptable alternate resolution to the Government.”

Orbital ATK blamed subcontractor Heckler and Koch for the schedule slip and, in turn, sued the German gun maker. The two companies settled that lawsuit in July 2018. Clearly, the Army continued negotiating a complete and final resolution to its dispute with primary contractor afterward.

As of 2016, the program, which had already been going on for more than a decade at that point, had cost the Army $185 million. The service planned to spend more than $835 million to buy the launchers and specialized ammunition.

Orbital ATK

The planned family of ammunition for the XM25.

The Army had long presented the XM25 as a “leap-ahead” weapon system. Unlike the existing single-shot 40mm grenade launchers that its soldiers still use today, the 25mm launcher held ammunition in five-round magazines and handled like an oversized rifle.

Instead of having to arc grenades in a ballistic trajectory to have a chance of hitting enemy forces behind cover, operators could fire advanced air-bursting ammunition straight above the target area, where it would detonate, raining down a hail of deadly fragments on the personnel or light vehicles below. A computerized fire control system used a laser range finder to determine the distance to the target. It then sent that data to the grenade so it would explode at exactly the right moment.

In development since 2005, the XM25 was the latest in what has been a long, meandering, expensive, and largely fruitless search for this type of capability for decades. The weapon was a direct outgrowth of the Objective Infantry Combat Weapon (OICW) program, which the Army had started in the 1990s and sought to develop a combination system that included both the 25mm launcher and a small 5.56mm carbine.

In principle, the new grenade launcher, even by itself, could have significantly improved the capabilities and flexibility of grenadiers in an Army infantry squad to engage various targets at longer ranges, behind hard cover or inside buildings. Unfortunately, experiments and field tests with prototype weapons exposed serious drawbacks with the concept.

For one, as with infantry grenade launchers historically, the Army found that the XM25 had little capability to engage targets at close range. Dedicated rounds for short-range targets were a possibility, but it could have been hard for troops to quickly swap between them in combat. This was an immediate problem since the service had intended for troops to use them as their primary weapon and not carry a backup, such as an M4 carbine.

US Army

A US Army soldier carries an XM25 during a field trial in Afghanistan circa 2011.

The 14-pound system – almost twice the weight of a standard M4 – was too bulky to allow soldiers to realistically lug around a secondary weapon, anyway, and also limited how much ammunition they could take with them. It was also expensive, complex, and potentially too sensitive to the rigors of combat.

In February 2013, an Army special operator in Afghanistan suffered minor injuries when their Punisher malfunctioned. This was the third potentially serious incident involving the weapon since June 2011. Thankfully safety features built into the grenade itself prevented it from exploding.  

The complicated nature of the launcher and its ammunition had already led to significant delays at Orbital ATK and Heckler and Koch. In August 2016, the Pentagon’s own Inspector General Office released a review of the program, describing examples of possible mismanagement and confusing and conflicting priorities within the Army itself.

DOD

A timeline of the XM25 program as of 2016.

“Specifically, Army officials removed procurement funding from the XM25 budget, which extended the engineering and manufacturing development phase by 2 years,” the Inspector General report explained. “Additionally, Army officials contributed to the initial production decision delay by placing a hold on the XM25 capability production document.”

The review recommended the Army consider canceling the project if it did not see a way to get the launcher on the path to production by the end of 2016. The service disagreed and deferred that decision, apparently until July 2018. The U.S. military’s main Inspector General also included its comments about the XM25 in a compendium of still-unresolved recommendations that it released on Aug. 1, 2018.

But it’s not clear if the Army is entirely finished the XM25, or its underlying concept, despite terminating this specific program. Now that it has the rights to the launcher, as well as all of the prototypes and ammunition, it can do whatever it might want with them.

The Army is already working on air-bursting cartridges for its existing 40mm grenade launchers and it clearly remains interested in giving soldiers the ability to quickly and effectively engage opponents sheltered behind walls, rock outcroppings, or other substantive barriers. Still, multi-shot 40mm grenade launchers also exist, and the U.S. Marine Corps has already adopted one, which would be another alternative to the XM25.

US Army

A US Army briefing slide from 2017 providing information about the XM1166 air-bursting 40mm cartridge.

The existing prototypes could serve as test bed for future grenade ammunition developments in much the same way as the AAI Corporation’s experimental light machine guns and carbines that can fire cased-telescoped or caseless ammunition. The Army also now has the rights to continue to refine or revise the design on its own or hire another contractor to do so on its behalf. The service's engineers could explore using 3D printing or other advanced production methods, composite materials, or other concepts to try to reduce weight, bulk, and cost.

This kind of experimentation could eventually lead to an actual procurement program, a well. The Army is now seriously considering a squad automatic rifle based on AAI’s designs as one possible replacement for its existing M249 Squad Automatic Weapons.

Of course, the Army could choose not to do anything at all with the XM25 or its ammunition and instead leave them in storage somewhere on the off chance they might need them for testing in the future. At the same time, the service has recently begun issuing large numbers of the Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle to infantry units to improve their overall firepower, which might reduce the demand for the advanced 25mm grenade launcher in general.

Depending on what happens, you may soon see Punishers turn up on display in official museums. But there is also the possibility that, some time from now, the Army might unveil a very similar looking system with a new designation and new name as part of an entirely new initiative.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com