Key Point: America's previous automatic grenade launchers fell flat when it came to cover. This new one may solve that problem.
Automatic grenade launchers (AGLs) are some of the most deadly weapons available to an infantry unit on a modern battlefield. Their ability to rapidly blanket an area with high explosive projectiles makes them incredibly deadly against infantry in most environments.
In American service, the most common AGL is the Mark 19 Mod 3, a weapon that dates back to the 1970s. While it can be emplaced in an infantry mount, it is more commonly seen on pintle mounts on vehicles.
But one area where the AGL falls flat is its ability to engage targets obscured by cover or terrain. While the low velocity of an AGL may allow a skillful operator to arc grenades over low cover, this is highly situational. It’s estimated that 75 percent of targets on a battlefield will be using some form of cover.
But the newest American AGL, the Mark 47 Mod 0 solves this problem. Designed with a laser rangefinder and programmable airburst grenades, the Mk 47 is designed to use airbursting ammunition to engage targets behind cover and achieve greater lethality against targets in the open. It also is lighter and features advanced sighting systems relative to the standard Mk 19.
(This first appeared in January 2019.)
The “brains” of the Mk 47 is the Raytheon AN/PVG-1 Lightweight Video Sight. The sight is a screen linked to a day/night camera, which is mounted to the right of the launcher on the mount. The sight provides 9x zoom, but more critically is used to display the current range to the target and programmed airburst range. A backup ladder sight is provided on the dust cover in case the LVS is rendered inoperational.
But the heart of the system is Nammo’s programmable 40mm HE projectiles, which are programmed in the breech of the weapon via three electrical contact points. The round can be programmed for fuze mode (point detonating or airburst), timing, and “other parameters.” The Mk 47 launcher is also compatible with standard 40mm AGL ammunition as used in the Mk 19.
Due to the need to program the round in the breech before firing, the Mk 47 fires from a closed bolt as opposed to the open bolt used by the Mk 19. This increases the accuracy but decreases the practical rate of fire. The increased accuracy gives the Mk 47 the ability to engage single targets with precision at a distance, in demonstration, a SADJ writer was able to put grenades through single windows at 250m after minimal training on the system.
In addition to the airburst capability, the Mk 47 is far lighter than the Mk 19. The launcher itself weighs forty pounds, almost half the weight of the seventy-seven pound Mk 19. The reduced weight allows the entire system to be carried in three backpacks with the weight relatively evenly distributed.
Despite its advanced features, adoption of the Mk 47 has been relatively slow. After an initial contract in 2006 to equip the U.S. Special Operations Command, General Dynamics has continued to provide the system in a slow trickle with continued small orders. Various foreign customers like Israel and Australia have also adopted the Mk 47. But why hasn’t the Mk 47 seen additional success?
A controversial video of combat footage in Afghanistan may provide some answers. In the video, the Mk 47 is largely seen mounted to vehicles, where its weight advantage is less relevant. In some shots, the Mk 47 is being fired with backup ladder sight used to aim, with the LVS pushed to the side. Other shots show the Mk 47 being used to engage target through the LVS.
While that shot may have been taken in the heat of the moment, it may suggest that the advantages the Mk 47 brings, while useful, are largely situational and not worth the additional cost of the launcher.
This is further supported by the announcement in 2016 that the Army was embarking on a program to upgrade the standard Mk 19 grenade launcher. Of the various upgrades, it’s notable that the program only includes an “updated mechanical sight” as a sighting system, eschewing the advanced fire control systems of the Mk 47 and other proposed upgrades for the Mk 19 and its foreign competitors.
Charlie Gao studied Political and Computer Science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national security issues.
This article first appeared in January 2019.
Image: A soldier assigned to U.S. Army Special Operations Command demonstrates firing positions on the Mk 47 Strike 40mm grenade launcher to a member of the Saudi Arabian Naval Special Forces during joint forces weapons training in a tactical training area in Amman, Jordan, Aug. 28, 2019. Sgt. Devon Bistarkey (U.S. Army National Guard)