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Local company developing smart weapon

Monday, December 24, 2001

By Dan Gigler, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It is a pitch black night. A soldier in combat is faced with an enemy opening fire from behind a barricade a half-mile away. The soldier must take out the enemy to secure an important tactical position -- and to keep from getting killed.

No sweat.

In the not-too-distant future, United States Army soldiers will use a rifle to help them smoke out enemies they can't even see. Thermal imaging, laser guidance, and "smart" bullets allow this rifle to blast targets behind physical barriers and at night with pinpoint accuracy.

The rifle is called the Objective Individual Combat Weapon, or OICW, and is being developed with help from a local company. The brains behind the booms come from Brashear LP, an O'Hara-based outfit that specializes in optical technology.

The 180,000-square-foot campus in the RIDC park in O'Hara is home to the highest of high-tech in the field of optics. Lining the halls are photographs of Brashear products used in defense systems and observatories around the world.

Brashear has designed the sighting technology, or the "fire control system," for the weapon, which enables it to fire its "smart" ammunition. The rifle also can fire conventional ammunition.

The fire control system uses lasers to gauge the exact distance to the target. A computer chip in the gun relays that distance to the "smart" ammunition (a 20-mm high-explosive bursting round like a compact grenade), communicating to it exactly when to detonate. It can fire 10 of these rounds in a minute to a range of up to 1,000 meters. The rifle component of the gun fires 5.56-mm NATO standard Kinetic Energy bullets at a rate of 850 rounds per minute.

"From nearly a mile away, you could fire a 20-mm round overhead of an enemy or into a room," said Dawn Rucker, chief operating officer of Brashear.

"Or a cave," in a situation like that facing troops searching for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, added project manager Pete Plocki. The OICW would be very effective in a hostage situation as well, Plocki said.

The weapon will use thermal imaging to locate targets, sort of like the beast in the movie "Predator," which could detect heat even through a camouflaged surface. If an enemy soldier is hidden among foliage, for instance, the thermal sights will easily pick the person out from the plants.

"In tests we've done, when a person put their hand on a colder surface like a rock and then removed it, the outline of the hand print remained glowing in the range finder," Rucker said.

Brashear has been working in conjunction with Heckler & Koch, a German firearms manufacturer, which is developing the rifle mechanisms of the gun. Alliant Techsystems of Edina, Minn., is the prime contractor.

Brashear was awarded a $30 million contract in September 2000 to develop the fire control system and optics of the weapon.

Each unit will carry a $30,000 price tag.

The weapon is in the prototype stage and is being tested at the Picatinny Military Arsenal in Dover, N.J. It was not slated to go into service until 2009, but Barbara Muldowney, the acting product manager at Picatinny, said that the Army decided that it needed the weapon sooner, and is shooting for a 2005 introduction date.

"It will undergo major tests in '03 and '04 and will be phased in," Muldowney said. A number has not been finalized, but 500 to 2,000 will be issued first to elite Army Rangers, with a total production number near 25,000. It will be called the XM-309 when it goes into combat use.

"The OICW basically gives soldiers a tremendous new capability that they never had before," Muldowney said.

Since the Vietnam War era, the standard rifle for soldiers in the field has been the M-16. Thuy Le, a spokesperson for Brashear, stressed that the new weapon is not a replacement for the M-16. However, its firepower and accuracy are far superior to it. It is five times more lethal than its predecessor at more than twice the range.

The weapon was recently featured on ABC Nightly News and during a segment of a Discovery Channel documentary entitled "Guns of the Future."

In the labs of Brashear, the future is now. The company is also involved in optics for elements of the missile defense shield, the effort to create a defense system capable of taking down ballistic missiles.

Rucker, a West Point graduate, has been with Brashear since 1989, and Plocki is an Army veteran who has worked there since the mid-1970s. They have seen the company grow and change names several times.

Brashear LP traces its lineage back more than 110 years to two companies: The John Brashear Co. established in 1881 by Pittsburgh native John Brashear, a former steelworker who made fortunes designing and cutting telescope lenses; and the Goerz Optical Co., established in 1905. The descendant companies of these two pioneers were purchased in 1974 by a Swiss corporation, Contraves A.G.

The Brashear division nearly closed in the mid-1990s, before it was purchased by William E. Conway, founder of the Washington, D.C.,-based global investment firm, The Carlyle Group and renamed Brashear LP.

With a relatively small staff of only 160 scientists, engineers and opticians, Brashear has been able to find a niche and exploit it in a defense contracting industry dominated by billion dollar behemoths such as Raytheon and General Dynamics.

"Oftentimes we might compete with a division of those companies, so you have to be selective and decide where you want to fight them," Rucker said.

However, with its concentration in such a specialized field as optics, Brashear often finds that the big boys come calling. "They look at the big picture view most of the time," Rucker said.

When they need details, "They come to us."

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