According to Swedish defense contractor Saab, the U.S. Army is planning to issue recoilless rifles broadly to regular units for the first time in more than 30 years. The decision reflects the service’s combat experience in Afghanistan.
The ground combat branch had previously made a small purchase of recoilless rifles in 2012, but just for units in Afghanistan. All light infantry units may now receive them.
Recoilless weapons get their name from the fact that they let some of the propelling force escape out of the rear of the weapon as it fires. These counteracting forces reduce recoil normally associated with bigger guns.
These weapons were originally meant to take out tanks. The Army got rid of the vast majority of its recoilless rifles in favor of new anti-tank missiles in the late 1970s.
Fighting in Afghanistan inspired new interest in the weapons. The recoilless rifles give infantry more firepower over longer ranges than they previously had.
Troops had complained that insurgents knew their limits and were using the country’s terrain to their advantage. Militants routinely took up positions behind rocks, trees and buildings, often at ranges of 1,000 meters or more.
At those distances, enemy fighters were well beyond the effective ranges of standard carbines and machine guns, as well as some lighter anti-tank weapons. The Javelin missile could get at them—but at $80,000 a pop.
Air strikes and artillery are effective, but slow to arrive. Seconds can mean the difference between life and death in a firefight.
Troops requested a new weapon that had the range, power and accuracy to hit hidden fighters. The weapon also needed to be cheap enough that commanders would actually let their soldiers use it.
In early 2011, the Army responded to these demands and sent some Vietnam-era recoilless rifles to Afghanistan. The troops were thrilled with the variety of ammunition available for these weapons, including a shell that scatters thousands of little metal darts called flechettes.
In December 2011, Special Operations Command diverted some of its Carl Gustaf rifles and ammunition to the regular Army. American commandos have used the Swedish guns since the 1990s.
Troops in Afghanistan got 58 rifles and 1,500 rounds of ammunition to try out. This included air-bursting high explosive rounds that are designed to hit enemies behind cover.
This February, the ground combat branch launched a formal effort to buy its own rifles, rather than rely on SOCOM’s generosity. This means the Pentagon will set aside money in advance for the Army to buy the guns, ammo and spare parts.
It’s important to note that the Army is adding this new weapon as it withdraws from Afghanistan and the defense budget shrinks. The land branch must believe that the weapon truly is useful and cost-effective—otherwise budgeters would never let the purchase continue.