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SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Much of today’s U.S. military technology would boggle the mind of an American soldier plucked from the battlefields of World War I, from night-vision goggles and body armor to Stealth jets and laser-guided smart bombs.

One item still used today would look pretty familiar: the fragmentation hand grenade.

Since 1915, the changes have been subtle, moving away from the “pineapple” to a baseball-like shape. But the pull-pin design, with a lever and delayed fuse, remains largely unchanged.

Troops can soon look forward to small improvements, even a possible complete redesign, thanks in part to soldiers making their own safety modifications and developing their own deployment techniques, such as lefties holding grenades upside down to pull the pin.

Lethal fragmentation grenades were developed to supplement small arms in close combat, including the Mills Bomb No. 5, named for Britain’s William Mills, who supplied the British and allies in World War I. Since then, a variety of grenades have been developed — some stun, some send smoke billowing for cover and others release tear gas.

Richard Lauch, a retired Marine helicopter mechanic who now works as a mechanical engineer in the Army’s Close Combat Systems’ Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, recalls servicemembers being asked to tape in their grenades’ pins in before getting on his chopper in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

“It’s been going on for decades, from air crewmen using a C-Ration can to aid the belt feed on the door-mounted M60s to this,” Lauch said. “Instead of telling a warfighter, ‘Don’t do that,’ we need to make it so they don’t want to make any modifications.”

Thousands of grenades of various types are used every month in Afghanistan, according to Army Col. Steven Cummings, project manager for Close Combat Systems in Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.

Close Combat Systems oversees a family of hand grenades, used across the Department of Defense, ranging from the lethal M67 fragmentation grenade to a variety of specialized grenades, Cummings said. The Armaments Research Development and Engineering Center provides technical support expertise.

Lauch joined the Center’s Fuse Division in 2008. He said his practical experience in the Marines and his tendency to tinker and invent drove his desire to improve the classic design in a number of ways.

For one, the current crop of lethal fragmentation grenades is always armed. Basically, the pin is the only thing that keeps them from exploding.

Lauch wanted the soldier in the field to be able to arm the grenade without compromising effectiveness.

He also wanted the grenade to be essentially ambidextrous after hearing about a left-handed master sergeant who was blinded for three weeks after trying to deploy a M69 practice grenade in the inverted position. She was wearing protective eyewear but was struck in the face by vented debris.

Special Forces troops desired a quieter grenade. They didn’t want the pins clinking and clanking around when they needed stealth.

It takes 30 pounds of pull to get the pin from a M67 fragmentation grenade, the current gold standard. Some pins don’t come out easily, so both hands might be required in the middle of battle.

“The last thing a grunt wants to do is put their rifle down,” Lauch said.

Pins sometimes bend and are not that easy to put back in, either, he said. And he was told the Army would not buy new pouches for a redesigned grenade. So a $2 pouch was dictating his design parameters.

The Defense Department also has its own criteria for hand-emplaced ordnance design. For example, any new one must have at least two independent safety features that have to be disengaged in a specific sequence. Each must prevent unintentional arming.

The grenade must have a fail-safe design, where it is incapable of attaining or maintaining an armed state if it fails, is assembled incorrectly or is operated out of sequence. The design must be simple and reversible, with an indicator that tells the user if it is armed or not.

So Lauch got to work devising a solution that would satisfy everyone. With his design, the user holds a lever to the grenade body, then rotates a thumb switch up, arming the grenade. It shows red for armed, green for safe, and is easily de-armed.

“The one I’ve designed can almost be used one-handed,” Lauch said. “No one has said they don’t like it. They always want to keep it. It’s just a matter of getting it in their hands and them getting used to it.”

A second Army effort, also from Close Combat Systems, is slightly less ambitious than a near-complete redesign. This second team kept largely the same design, focusing on what is called a “confidence clip” for M67 fragmentation grenades, amongst other small improvements.

The clips are designed to prevent inadvertent removal, Cummings said. Soldiers must rotate the pin 90 degrees before it can be pulled. This feature also makes taping the grenade unnecessary, a practice banned by the Army in recent years due to the potential for removing the pin with the tape.

Production on M67 grenades with this new feature has already begun and the grenades are already in the Army ammunition supply system, Cummings said. Soldiers should see them very soon.

“This simple improvement gives the soldier the confidence of knowing that the grenade will work when he wants it to, and not before,” Cummings said. “Other improvements are ongoing and might be unnoticed by the war fighter.”

These changes include the use of less sensitive materials that make them less likely to go off if struck with fragments, or in case of fire, Cummings said.

The Israeli Defense Forces made similar changes to their fragmentation grenades after two of its soldiers were killed in 2010 when a grenade one of them was wearing was struck by a bullet, according to IDF Capt. Ziv Berger.

Righty throwers from India Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment out of Forward Operating Base Hanson in Afghanistan’s Helmand province said they have no issues with the current grenades except they are hard to remove from their carrying pouches, which is another issue altogether.

“I like simple,” said Navy Corpsman Christopher Coughlin. “When you try and make something too complex or fancy, there’s always a problem with it.”

Others were resistant to change.

“I don’t see any reason to change it,” said Lance Cpl. Austin Eplett.

Lauch said his design is still a ways off. In about two years or so, the Army will decide whether to pursue it, drop it or merge it with the other team’s design. He’s optimistic despite the resistance to change. His final report and sample manufacturing is due sometime in 2014.

Cummings said the final verdict on Lauch’s design will ultimately come from troops in the field.

“We would have to ensure that it would not change the effectiveness of the grenade and garner support from our users,” Cummings said. “We would like to assure our warfighters that we will do everything in our power to keep supplying them with superior capabilities.”

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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