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#34 - China's “Sniper Grenade Launcher”
榴弹 - liu2dan4 - grenade
There is an uptick in PLA weapon systems posts on Chinese social media and we will begin to shift our focus in that direction.
One of the more interesting systems in recent days is the QLU-131 “sniper grenade launcher” that was fielded to PLA special forces in 2020 and is now being rolled out to the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and regular People’s Liberation Army Army (PLAA) units.
Typical Grenade Launching vs Precision Grenades
Before delving into specifications and functionality, we need to touch on the terminology surrounding this weapon. The Chinese name for the QLU-131 is the 131型狙击榴弹发射器, which translates to the Type 131 sniper grenade launcher.
This notion of a “grenade launcher” is different from that of the US. The primary grenade launchers used by the US include the M203, M320, M32 MLG, Mk19, and Mk47. All of these systems launch grenades in an arcing trajectory to hit their targets. Counter defilade capabilities are achieved by lobbing 40mm grenades behind cover.
In the photo below, US Marines operate a Mk19 at a high angle of fire. This angle of fire allows US forces to either hit targets at long distances or counter nearby defilade.
The QLU-131 is more accurately described as a very high caliber anti-materiel rifle. The QLU-131 does not fire in an arcing trajectory and the increased amount of propellant in the Type 11 cartridge along with public training videos showing the QLU-131 in operation indicate that the QLU-131 is almost certainly used as a direct fire system. According to a number of sources, the QLU-131 and its predecessor, the QLU-11, were inspired by both the Barrett XM109 “Anti-Materiel Payload Rifle” and the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System.
This is significant because the QLU-131 fulfills a very niche role. It is an anti-materiel rifle that also has counter defilade capabilities by utilizing programmable air burst munitions. The question is how well does it perform either of these functions? According to Chinese sources, the QLU-131’s max effective range (point) is 600m and (area) 1000m, putting its effective range significantly behind that of US anti-materiel rifles like the M107. In regards to programmable air bust systems, all analogous US projects like the XM25 were canceled years ago or sent to weapons development purgatory.
The Type 11 is an update to the DF-87 series cartridge that will have roughly double the muzzle velocity of the unmodified grenade. The higher velocity allows for longer range accuracy with a flatter trajectory and less drop. According to Chinese sources, the QLU-131’s max effective range (point) is 600m and (area) 1000m.
Development and Possible Employment Scenarios
One theory behind the development of the QLU-131 and predecessors is that the PRC does not have the technical knowhow to produce true precision rifle barrels. This is substantiated by nationally funded efforts to study sniper rifle barrel vibrations, noted accuracy issues with the CS/LR4 7.62 Millimeter High-Precision Sniper System, and similar problems with the QBU-10 Anti-Materiel Rifle. The accuracy of these systems is rated at roughly 3 minutes of angle (MOA) whereas US sniper systems are <1 MOA, meaning that US snipers will be significantly more accurate at longer ranges. This link (CN) is a translated article that touches on the Chinese precision rifle capability gap.
The QLU-131 is the perfect workaround for the PLA because shooters no longer need to be dead accurate. If one hits within a few meters of their target, the cartridge will make up for the difference.
Regardless, the QLU-131 can be employed in counter-sniper operations, counter-insurgent operations (indicated in its employment by the PAP), and in combat environments when infantry units need additional support. The only recorded use of a QLU system was when People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) Marines used the QLU-11 to kill Somali pirates in the Gulf Of Aden, highlighting the system’s anti-materiel capabilities.
It’s heavy, really heavy. The QLU-131 weighs in at almost 30 lbs and this does not include any ammunition or the tripod. Each round for the QLU-131 also weighs roughly .5 lbs, meaning that the ability to carry ammunition is also a significant hurdle. Additionally, the QLU-131 operator does not carry the QBZ-95, meaning that when QLU-131 is out of ammunition, the operator is effectively defenseless and has to lug an unwieldy piece of metal around.
On top of weight issues, the recoil from firing the QLU-131 puts a huge amount of physical strain on the shooter. The QLU-131 features a recoiling barrel, a rubber buttstock pad, and a dual buffer spring stock to help reduce shock, but this is still a limiting factor.
Consequences for Strategic Competition
The high likelihood that the PLA is unable to create precision rifles will limit the effectiveness of their sniper role. Snipers are one component of a system purpose built to attack C2 nodes and if the PLA lacks the ability to target this at a tactical level, they will be unable to effectively outmaneuver the US in the C2 space. This issue is compounded by the fact that US C2 and battle networks are robust, redundant, and survivable.
Additionally if China has a massive industrial base, but lacks the basic ability to produce a true precision rifle, what does this mean in the context of PLA weapons manufacturing and development capability? Are there more holes and capability gaps in the monolithic PLA arms industry? Maybe China’s top down system means that user input into these systems is being ignored. On the flip side, maybe the QLU-131 is a highly effective system that the US just hasn’t figured out. With that said, no US allies felt the need to produce a system similar to the QLU-131. It seems like the inability to produce a true precision rifle is a huge capability gap that is overlooked.