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Business Week April 25, 2005

Evening The Odds In A Guerrilla War

Helped by feedback from Iraq, companies are speeding up weapons design

By Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles and Stan Crock in Washington

It was fall 2003, and engineers at the U.S. Army's Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey were still working the kinks out of a sighting and guidance mechanism that would allow soldiers inside an armored Humvee to remotely fire a machine gun mounted on the roof. The system had been under development for five years, but with the insurgency in Iraq heating up, the military suddenly put the project on a fast track. Last month the first of what could ultimately be hundreds of the devices began arriving in Iraq. "For the military, that's lightning speed," says Mike Lobb, vice-president of business development at Recon/Optical Inc., the privately held company that is manufacturing the systems.

Far from the "shock and awe" of the remote-controlled missiles that helped bring down Saddam Hussein, the battle for Iraq has become a guerrilla war where the enemy is proving as hard to identify as he is to conquer. Caught unprepared for the insurgency, the Pentagon is now showering money on devices designed to give soldiers an edge in such fighting. In the process, the military's normally snail-paced design and production process is getting a boot-camp workout. "You've got a lot of rapid prototyping going on," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank based in Alexandria, Va. "Iraq will completely reinvent the Army."

In the past the military tested weapons until it was certain they met all of their requirements. Now designers are starting to rely on troops in the field for critical input. In the case of the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Stations (CROWS) system developed at Picatinny, the Pentagon sent four test rigs to Iraq in late 2003. Based on feedback from the troops, designers added armor plating, made the systems shorter by turning the ammunition canister on its side, and swapped in a more powerful gun sight. "We're getting real data in the field, when the sun's beating down," says Lieutenant Colonel Kevin P. Stoddard, the Army's product manager for the system.

This hurry-up revision process extends to bullets and guns as well as more complex systems. Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK ), the nation's largest ammunition maker, is developing a gun that can help troops kill foes hiding behind a wall or building. The XM25 uses a laser to figure the target's distance. The gun's exploding round can then be programmed to go off a foot or two beyond that position, spreading shrapnel inside a room or around a corner.

Defense contractors are also looking to retool weapons. Raytheon Co. (RTN ), for example, is tweaking software on its Phalanx antimissile system, a radar-controlled Gatling gun used on ships, to protect soldiers on land. Mounted on a trailer and parked near U.S. troops, the device will automatically spew a rapid stream of rounds at incoming mortar shells and rockets. Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC ) is developing smaller versions of its aircraft radar that can be mounted on Humvees to warn of incoming fire.

Even the M-16 rifle, a mainstay since the 1960s, may be replaced based on feedback from Iraq. General Dynamics Corp. (GD ) and Heckler & Koch Inc. are pitching the Army on a gun -- made of high-tech polymers -- whose collapsible butt and multipurpose scope make it shorter and lighter, responding to complaints that the 41-inch M-16 is unwieldy for street combat.

Guerrilla warfare may not spur equipment orders on the same scale as traditional warfarepi, with its outsize demand for aircraft carriers or fighter jets. But revenues still add up. ITT Industries Inc. (ITT ) says it sold 40,000 night vision goggles last year at $3,000 a pair and up. It's working on an update that detects body heat, so troops can see not only at night but also through dust and smoke. Such equipment won't deliver shock and awe, but it may help cut through the fog of war.


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