Army’s new high-tech ammo could help hide U.S. soldiers in combat

August 1, 2014

Army Sgt. Carl Hawthorne of the 273rd Military Police Company fires tracer rounds from an M249 machine gun during crew-served weapon training at Fort A.P. Hill, Va., on May 5, 2012. (U.S. Army photo)

Now you see ‘em. Now you don’t.

If engineers at the U.S. Army’s Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey have their way, soldiers firing tracer rounds from their weapons will soon be a lot more difficult to find while in a war zone. Existing rounds carry pyrotechnic chemicals that light up when fired, helping soldiers guide their gunfire on target. But they also allow enemy fighters to figure out where the soldiers using the tracer rounds are firing from, since the gunfire lights up the sky.

Tracer rounds have been in use by years, both by enemy fighters and U.S. troops. Here’s a good example of tracer fire in action. It features U.S. soldiers in a firefight with Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan:

Every fifth round in a belt of machine gun rounds is typically a tracer, giving soldiers a sense for where their gunfire is going. That’s key given the long ranges that larger weapons can reach. A .50-caliber machine gun, for example, has an effective range of more than 1,800 meters when mounted on a tripod.

Army officials signaled this week that they are making headway on a tracer round that can be seen only by those who fire it, rather than those on the receiving end. The One-Way Luminescence, or OWL, tracer round will make it more difficult to effectively return fire on U.S. troops in that regard.

Army officials with Picatinny indicated they were looking for the new ammunition nearly two years ago in an advertisement to industry. At the time, they said they were interested in improving 7.62mm and 5.56mm trace capability, in particular.

ARDEC engineers said in a news release this week that one of the new OWL concepts calls for putting a thin layer of material on the back of a conventional “ball” round. It would create something akin to a glow-in-the-dark sticker once fired.

“The ultimate goal is to replace the tracer rounds with the OWL rounds and, potentially, put OWL on the back of every ball round,” said Chris Seitel, the quality assurance lead with the OWL program.

Army officials want to select a final OWL design by fiscal 2017. From there, the project would shift to manufacturing.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · July 31, 2014